On November 8, 2016 the United States did the unthinkable. On that day the US political system elected as the next president a billionaire real-estate mogul, and former reality TV star, whose major television claim-to-fame was a series dedicated to firing “disappointing” workers.
How did this happen?
No doubt this very question will preoccupy political historians for the remainder of time the US is a subject of study. Countless interpretations, analytical lenses, and pieces have already emerged crediting, or blaming, certain aspects of politics, economics, and culture for the rise of Trump.
Not all of these interpretations are of equal worth, however.
One explanation, particularly popular with moderate to liberal thinkers, is the idea that Trump’s rise can be credited to a “Post-Truth” culture. Yet, this interpretation, besides being false and ahistorical, does nothing to actually explain the rise of Trump, and in many ways obscures the real problems of our current political situation.
“Post-Truth” is a concept in political culture that describes a supposed lack of interest in facts and policies, and instead relies on emotional thought to inform political positions. Debate surrounds the “true” meaning of the term and its exact origins, but many attribute the term to the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich. In a 1992 essay for The Nation, Tesich decried the state of American political culture by arguing that the country had given up on finding out what was true, and was instead content with accepting false narratives that conveniently fit within preconceived notions. Tracing a line of development from Watergate to the Iran-Contra Scandal, Tesich wrote—
We are rapidly becoming prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool about in their dreams. All the dictators up to now have had to work hard at suppressing the truth. We, by our actions, are saying that this is no longer necessary, that we have acquired a spiritual mechanism that can denude truth of any significance. In a very fundamental way we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.
The allusion Tesich made was not hard to understand. In George Orwell’s famous novel 1984, readers were shown a world where government officials worked hard to rearrange reality daily. Yet, instead of doing it willingly, people had to be prodded, and then threatened by the state to rewrite what they knew to be the truth so that they were not challenging governmental power.
As Orwell writes in one scene—
“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
Orwell explained further by calling this mind washing “doublethink.”
“Doublethink,” he explained, “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
In this way, war was peace, freedom was slavery, and ignorance strength.
In this way, Donald Trump is both sadistic billionaire boss, firing people for entertainment, as well as a champion of the working class. He is the defender of American Christian values, as well as a rich playboy who doesn’t play by the rules of polite society. He is a man who can stand in front of the world, brag that he has enough power to walk out onto the street, shoot someone in cold blood and get away with it, and still be described as caring about democracy, truth, and making a nation-state great (again).
This disconnect, this ability of his supporters and media outlets to jump wildly between diametrically opposed positions, makes it seem as if Tesich was correct. We are living in a post truth blighted hellscape. A barren place where facts are bombed out shells of buildings. Something appeared to live here at one time, we think, but no more. All that is left is a crumbling sense of the familiar.
As appealing as this argument is, it is a dangerous analytical lens to take for several different reasons.
First, it feeds into a false idea that Trump won the majority of Americans. In other words, by saying that Trump’s parade of lies won the day by convincing people to commit a societal mass lobotomy, we are giving the false impression that most American voters chose him.
That is simply not the case. Less than 25% of the electorate chose Trump. Also, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received close to 3 million more votes than Mr. Trump.
Democracy did not give us President-elect Trump. An outdated electoral system from early American history did. We need to remember this and repeat it often, because “the people” are going to be increasingly blamed for whatever nightmare awaits us post January 20th.
So, if we are going to blame the rise of Trump on anything, and we accept these basic facts, then we cannot blame his ascendancy on a failure of the masses ability to think.
Yet, to be fair, there was a significant number of people who did vote for Trump, and that number is telling in and of itself. So why? Why did so many people vote for Trump? And more specifically, why do so many people continue to vote based on seemingly irrational criteria like homophobia, climate change denial, and blatant racism?
By now the charges are well known. False consciousness! Obviously, that is it. There are “real” factors in politics, like economics, and then there are the “false” ones, like culture, religion, and social identities. Furthermore, the great intelligentsia of the internet says, if we just jettisoned this identity and post truth nonsense, and focused on “the basics” then we would be alright. After all, these wishy-washy feelings driving politics today just divides people.
This line of reasoning continues by arguing that for a left/liberal alliance to move forward we need to jettison this focus on identity, subjective opinion, and instead focus on the “facts” of our material existence.
Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, has recently argued as much in a New York Times piece saying, “the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life…When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — ‘diversity issues.’”
Lilla received no shortage of criticism for his arguments, and rightfully so. This disparaging of identity politics speaks to a larger issue the American progressive movement, and liberalism in general contain. The idea that politics focusing on “economics” (that is the shape of social democratic programs and the level of benefits worker’s receive from capital) automatically leads to a total liberation of people is bunk.
Again, we can see this in actual historical analysis. Despite a post- World War II boom in the US economy, that did in fact grow a “middle class,” the US did not see an automatic expansion of liberties for marginalized people. That is why there was a Civil Rights Movement, the feminist movement, Gay Liberation, and Black Power. These would be today decried by economic progressives as useless “identity politics.” And that is the great lie that many “economic focused” liberals don’t want people to realize. Identity politics, at least those practiced by the left, are the continuation of civil rights, and it is often these movements that have made the most headway in the past decades in liberating people from various oppressive systems.
“But wait!” Critics could charge. “Why this collapsing of criticism of identity politics and post truth thought? Surely, there is a difference between acknowledging the need of continued civil rights movements and denouncing outright reactionary propaganda?”
To this question the answer is simple: no. The connection between decrying identity politics and the criticism of post truth politics is much closer than we naturally assume.
At the heart of the criticism of post truth politics is the idea that there is a singular reality which we must all agree upon, and that deviation from that singular truth produces demagogue monsters. Only when we have a singular sphere of communicative exchange, a wholly integrated and standardized public sphere, will democracy work. Or so the denouncers of “post truth” argue. As such, any view which radically challenges the way in which we see the world, in which we question the way political knowledge is gained, is suspect.
Avenues of communication that feed into this fracturing of the public sphere are therefore not just distracting, but are in fact dangerous to democracy.
Granted, there is a difference between a diverse media landscape, and just outright lies propagated to purposefully mislead people. But that is hardly new. Several of the pamphleteers in the Colonial Period, Yellow Journalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, networks like FOX all traded in purposefully manipulating information for political purposes. In other words, there is no “post truth” period to American politics because there was never a time when emotions, lies, and propaganda did not factor heavily into popular ideas.
This realization directly challenges communication and media scholars like Neil Postman who argued in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death that a decline in the public sphere happened at the time of mass media’s rise. Postman’s reasoning was that TV was an inherently irrational mode of communication due to its reliance on entertainment. “Americans no longer talk to each other,” Postman wrote, “they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
Printed word Postman argued contained an almost inalienable nature that forced people to be rational. However, this argument completely breaks down when we realize the internet, in large part, relies heavily on print.
Therefore, the argument contained against the internet in “post truth” outlooks is strikingly similar to that found in Postman and other critics of television. Democracy is impossible, they tell us, because we have created a technology that appeals to human emotion, instead of human intellect.
All of this, Postman, Post Truth, etc. is exactly what it purports to be against— baseless arguments that are poorly researched, sloppily reasoned, and reluctant to study politics as a historic process of human endeavor.
The primary issue with the post truth thesis is the belief politics is primarily an arena where truth is generated, that is it is a sphere of exchange where mass agreement is reached. This is typical in liberal thought, because it completely ignores the way in which ideology informs political action.
Politics is less about truth, and is much more a reflection of ideology. It is not so much an arena for agreement, and is instead a venue where ideals are expressed and action to change society taken.
Therefore, when Trump and his surrogates argue that “millions of people voted illegally” they are less concerned about the actual validity of that claim, and are instead expressing a political ideology of voter suppression. Instead of debating the validity of this issue, treating it as a position worthy of respect, we should instead oppose it outright. In much the same way that the Nazi Party of Germany argued that Jewish people secretly controlled the world economy, and had orchestrated Germany’s defeat, this outlook was unconcerned with “truth” and was instead a rallying point for a particular political ideal, namely a nation-state based on ethnic nationalism.
But that begs the question— Couldn’t a simple engagement, strong and continued, with these ideologies defeat them?
This is the plea of liberalism. It is based on a belief that a certain form of rationality is universal, and that through debate and education any person’s mind can be changed. But this outlook, in fact the very promise of modern American liberalism, is flawed. Instead of taking fascism, racism, and authoritarianism as serious challenges to democratic society, liberalism in the American state hopes to bury it via a complex system of checks and balances, and in civil society change it through an assimilation process that debates and modifies it.
But the only way this is possible is if we assume the ideologies of fascism and racism are not serious positions, but just confused potential liberals. The fascists just need patience, and eventually they will be convinced.
This is political arrogance, and it assumes democracy exists in a perpetual state that will never, can never, be overturned.
Trump is dangerous. His political movement, his allies, and those who enable him are a threat to not only present diversity, but the very future of free people. Democracy, as a way of life which embraces diversity, cannot tolerate ideologies that see diversity as perversions. Frustrated and decentralized by liberal democratic republics, like the one in the US, eventually fall prey to these forces through sheer chance. We saw this with Trump in 2016.
Whether or not this is merely a temporary setback to the left in America, or is the harbinger for a longer more repressive period remains to be seen. Yet, what can be said with certainty is that only through treating fascism of the “Alt-Right,” and the racism of Trump as an ideology which challenges democracy will we be able have any chance for success.
It is time we acknowledge this fractured nature of political ideology, and in doing so consciously choose ideologies that are dedicated to human liberation, instead of social oppression.