How can a person lie as frequently and as brazenly as Donald Trump and still receive as much popular support as he has? For the pundits, the answer is clear: we have finally reached "post-truth politics," where facts matter not and emotions reign supreme.
To which writer and philosopher Sam Kriss says, "Same as it ever was." Bob talks to Kriss about the long history of elites fretting over the loss of "truth" in politics and why, ultimately, we might not want politics to be purely factual.
Trance Dance By John Zorn
BOB GARFIELD: Hillary Clinton and her supporters have been fighting the dishonest narrative for most of the last 25 years, but it’s got to be particularly galling this year, when the person she's running against lies with such frequency and brio that only his favorites, the most repeated, even make it into the news.
DONALD TRUMP: I saw people getting together and, in fairly large numbers, celebrating as the World Trade Center was coming down…
DONALD TRUMP: When you hear 4.9 and 5% unemployment, the number’s probably 28, 29. I even heard recently 42%.
DONALD TRUMP: His grandmother in Kenya said he was born in Kenya and she was there and witnessed the birth, okay?
BOB GARFIELD: He’s only just backed off that one. But Trump’s flagrant disregard for the truth, coupled with the fact that his supporters don't seem to care, has led pundits to declare that we have entered a new political era, that is –
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We are now living in a sort of a post-truth campaign.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: It seems to be the post-truth election in a lot of…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Post-truth political world, Donald Trump is supposed the poster child for it.
BOB GARFIELD: You could put my voice in there too, because when have we ever seen its like? To which freelance journalist Sam Kriss says – um, forever?
SAM KRISS: If you go back to Plato’s Republic, he complains that the citizens of his time are swayed by theater and by their emotions and they’re not interested in this kind of universal standards of objective truth. And he’s very worried about that. He thinks that all political power should be invested in philosophers because they are people whose only job it is to find out what is truth.
BOB GARFIELD: Men sitting around a circle in togas three millennia ago may deal with similar subjects, they weren’t in a similar environment. There were no mass media and organized politics was an extremely elite endeavor. Can you look closer to our place in history where similar kinds of arguments were taking place?
SAM KRISS: I think the closest analogs would be the time around the French Revolution, where you had a great deal of worry in a lot of places that you had demagogues who were kind of stirring up a restive population, essentially with lies. Edmund Burke, for instance, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, condemns many of the radical preachers of his day who were, quote, “using their pulpits not for the diffusion of truth but for the spreading of contradiction.”
BOB GARFIELD: You also cite John Stuart Mill.
SAM KRISS: I do, yeah. I mean, John Stuart Mill, obviously, as a liberal, believed that people should be able to say and believe what they want. However, he did draw some boundaries. He and Alexis de Tocqueville, for instance, were very worried about the great 19th century terror of the Mob, with a capital “M,” the mindless masses of the people. One of his great examples is that it is one thing to say that all property is theft but not when you’re leading a mob at the gates of a rich man’s house.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm. You wrote in your piece that, quote, “Whenever political processes start to involve large numbers of people, there is a worry that truth is being abandoned. This ought to say something.” What should it say?
SAM KRISS: I guess it would say that from the perspective of a ruling class, people who are trying to disrupt or overthrow that are always going to be figured as agents of some kind of untruth. There's always been this kind of worry amongst us in these democracies. We’re always resolving to kind of mob rule. In the ancient worlds, there was this schema of political orientations. You had autocracy which was good and then tyranny which was bad. You had aristocracy which was good and oligarchy which was bad. And then you had the Republic which was good but democracy which was absolutely considered to be an evil.
BOB GARFIELD: The fact is we are facing an Election Day where 40 plus percent of the electorate seems to be embracing a guy who has engaged in constant hate speech, who has pronounced policies that, in the most generous terms I can say possible, are extraconstitutional. Is there nothing remarkable about this historical moment?
SAM KRISS: Yeah, believe that there is. I mean, I think we’re in a moment of a great intensification of processes that were already latent in the democratic Constitution of the United States. We’re in a time of very significant turmoil. But I wouldn’t say it's necessarily historically exceptional. There’s always a kind of violence and a demagoguery and, and a hatred that can express itself through democratic politics.
You know, well into the 20th century you had massive aggregation in the South. Trump is displaying this kind of politics at a time when it can reproduce itself instantly and endlessly through new forms of media. The kind of politics he espouses, I don't think they’re necessarily an entirely different creature.
BOB GARFIELD: And one of your complaints is that by obsessing over the constant assertions that are demonstrably wrong, those who would fight a demagogue are missing the point and doomed to fail.
SAM KRISS: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: If not fact checking and truth squatting, then what?
SAM KRISS: If you’re confronted with a political evil, the best response is not to kind of grumble or quibble that it’s getting its statistics wrong, but to fight it with something actually good. And if people who oppose Trump want to not just prevent him from getting into the White House but to actually build a better world for us to live in, then we need to start thinking about that kind of thing, rather than obsessing over facts and data and statistics.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, you’ve just told me why litigating political speech strictly through the prism of actual truth and falsity is kind of a pointless exercise, but are you also actually advocating some degree of untruth?
SAM KRISS: I mean, I’m not advocating the practice of lying to people, but the power that politics offers is to think of something that doesn't exist, something that under any kind of very strict definition would be considered untrue and, and decide that you would like it to become true. You, you can – you can dream of universal suffrage, you can dream of a, a national health service, you can dream of a Communist utopia. So I think the question is what kind of untruth we want.
BOB GARFIELD: Mint Twizzlers.
SAM KRISS: Sorry?
BOB GARFIELD: I'm j – I’m sorry, I'm just dreaming out loud.
Okay, Sam, many thanks.
SAM KRISS: Yeah, it’s been great being here.
BOB GARFIELD: Sam Kriss is a freelance writer. You can read his article, “The Biggest Political Lie of 2016” at slate.com.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, what ails Fox News. The wolf is gone, leaving chaos behind.
BOB GARFIELD: What ails, Roger Ailes, I get it. This is On the Media.