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Trump and the Post-Factual
by Sebastian Schindler
Email: marc1seed (nospam) yahoo.com
21 Feb 2020
Trump's politics is naive and skeptical, gullible and cynical. Trump's relation with truth is like a generalization of conspiracy theory assumptions that see manipulative-conspiratorial activities at work behind ob servable reality. Beware pathological narcissists who are pathological paranoids!
TRUMP AND THE POST-FACTUAL
The deeper causes of a skeptical relation to truth
By Sebastian Schindler
[This article published in: Attack on the Liberal World Order: US Foreign and Security Policy under Trump by Christopher Darse and Stefan Kroll, Wiesbaden, Springer is translated abridged from the German on the Internet, www.academia.edu.]
The post-factual relation with truth that characterizes Donald Trump’s politics is naïve and skeptical, gullible and cynical. Post-factual politics and its deeper causes are interpreted starting from this contradiction. Trump’s relation with truth is like a generalization of conspiracy theory assumptions that see manipulative and conspiratorial activities at work behind observable reality. Inspired by Hannah Arendt’s and Erich Fromm’s analyses, an explanation of this form of post-factual politics will be presented that interprets it as a result of a development robbing people of courage for combined action and the full unfolding of their freedom.
Trump; Truth; Lies; Naivety; Cynicism; Conspiracy theory; Desolation; Freedom; Courage
1. Introduction [This chapter originated from a theater project “100 Days Great Again.” The universities in Wurzburg and Frankfurt grappled with the problems of suspicion and prejudice.]
Trump’s association with truth reveals a great naivety. Trump is known for uncritically forwarding news disseminated by certain media. Sometimes he supplements this with his own fabrications and inventions. On February 20, 2017, Trump spoke of a serious incident ”last night” in Sweden: “Sweden has accepted many immigrants. They have problems that they never thought possible” (NZZ, 2017). This incident was invented as Sweden’s former foreign minister Carl Bildt explained. Later we learned Trump saw a report on rising criminality rates in Sweden on Fox News…
Trump’s naivety accompanies his gullibility or credulity. Trump is very skeptical about certain facts. He claimed the official results of his victorious presidential election were the product of manipulation. People in the border regions between states often voted in two or more states – for Hillary Clinton, he said in his first television interview as president. He actually had more votes, not Clinton (ABC News, 2017) [Trump won the most votes in the “electoral college,” not in the “popular vote”]…
The photos published by the New York Times showed fewer people than at Obama’s ceremonies. Trump called these photographs partisan and unfair. They were taken from a certain angle that made him and the forgotten and unheard people all across the country look bad. In both cases, Trump made many arguments why the reports could not be trusted. These facts were the result of manipulation, Trump insisted. Behind them was the conscious will to discredit him and his voters.
At times Trump invents facts that did not exist. Sometimes he criticizes facts as fabricated. Trump believes some media accounts without any further examination; he criticizes others for inventing facts without any corroboration. This astonishing malleability in dealing with truth needs an explanation… Trump only believes the media organizations that are near to him. He conjures facts that benefit himself and support his political positions on migration. He doesn’t believe media organizations that criticize him. He calls facts that make him look bad manipulated. Trump’s narcissism provides a simple explanation for this discrepancy. We could say Trump’s relation with facts is not as unusual as it seems on first view. We live in an age when many people are skeptical about politics. Political language only serves certain political or economic interests.
In the 1940s, the critical theorist Erich Fromm described the “connection of cynicism and naivety” as very characteristic for modern persons. For Fromm, this contradictory attitude was part of a larger problem described as the “fear” or “escape” from freedom that he sought to overcome.
In this chapter, I will argue that Trump’s inconsistent relation with facts was and is neither a result of a personality disorder nor a characteristic of normal politics. The political changes that Trump brought about and whose symptom he is must be taken seriously. Trump’s conduct may often be an occasion for laughter but we should not misjudge the dangers inherent in this conduct…
The qualitative change in dealing with truth embodied by Trump can be summarized with the term post-factual. Trump’s post-factual politics is the return of an older phenomenon identified by critical thinkers in the 1940s and 1950s as a general political and social problem. Hannah Arendt and Erich Fromm emphasized the contradictory connection of gullability and cynicism as a corruption of human freedom that characterizes societies on the way to authoritarianism and totalitarianism.
In the following, the phenomena of the post-factual will be illustrated with several examples of Trumpian politics. Then the figure of conspiracy theory underlying the post-factual association with truth will be analyzed. In the third section relying on Hannah Arendt’s totalitarianism theory, conspiracy theory assumptions can be seen as a form of “emancipation from reality.” Lastly, I offer an interpretation of the causes of post-factual politics. A loss of freedom precedes the loss of truth, I will argue.
2. The Post-Factual: A Diagnosis
In 2016, a new term circulated quickly that was lacking in our past political vocabulary, the so-called “post-factual.”… The uncovered lie, it seems, has lost the reputation-damaging effect. So the fantastic claims about the supposed economic advantages of “Brexit” were no longer invalidated by the argumentative proofs of their falseness. On the contrary, the objection that this or that claim contradicts the facts was often interpreted as an attitude of arrogant superiority that misjudges the “real problem.” The “real problem,” as populists in Great Britain and the US argued, is the elites’ ignorance of the simple people – in Trump’s words, the “unheard” and “forgotten,” the “great American middle class.” This became the refrain of Trumpian rhetoric which he even used before the UN General Assembly (2017). On the backdrop of this “real problem,” the evidence of lies seemed narrow-minded if not manipulative and as an expression of the arrogance and ignorance of journalistic and political elites.
The term post-factual or “post-truth” characterizes a time in which the question whether something is actually true or not has become unimportant or irrelevant…This is a good description of a certain aspect of Trumpian politics with its general contempt for the idea of truth. Truth and facts are no longer considered, scrutinized and demanded. This cynical attitude to the factual “explains” assertions as political positioning…The post-factual attitude toward facts is paradoxically accompanied by a naïve belief in certain facts. The phenomenon of the post-factual can only be recognized and analyzed when the new cynicism is understood in its paradoxical combination with an old form of naivety.
3. The Figure of Conspiracy Theory
When one considers the kind of cynicism shown by Trump’s supporters, their criticism of a supposedly naïve truth concept is itself the expression of a naïve unquestioned faith. This is a different kind of naivety than the Sweden story described at the outset. The radical relativization of the possibility of truth obviously underlies the naivety of the post-factual attitude toward truth. The reason Trump’s supporters doubt the possibility of truth is the influence of interests on politics. Trumpians conclude the distinction between truth and lies is generally worthless in politics because factual statements are formed or deformed by interests…
The phenomenon of the post-factual results from a generalized use of conspiracy theories. It is as though the belief in certain conspiracies had changed into the generalized assumption that politics can only be defined by conspiratorial interests working in secret. This assumption culminates in statements like climate change was only invented to harm the interests of American industry by “the Chinese” – an explanation that Trump shared in a Twitter tweet and met with considerable agreement (66K likes and 104K shares!). Such statements are extremely naïve and do not only exude cynicism.
In sociological research, conspiracy theories were described as a remarkable hybrid of skepticism and superstition. Conspiracy theories combine two “epistemic vices” – paranoia and naivety, as the anthropologist Mathijs Pelkmans at the London School of Economics explained. Conspiracy theories tend to paranoia because they assume the entire public reality can only be maintained by the machinations of a certain group of hidden conspirators. This paranoid assumption is extremely naïve because it uncritically accepts a certain kind of knowledge – the knowledge that there are conspirators who try to make us believe something. Post-factual association with facts that doubts distinguishing different assertions by means of truth and lies is based on a deeply naïve belief that interests always stand behind facts. The naivety of this assumption of an eternal battle of interests is remarkable because conspiracy theorists usually have very exact ideas about what interests are central and who are the conspirators pursuing their interests.
Trump claims Chinese interests were behind the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)… The naive belief that evil forces and dark powers control the official version of reality and necessitate resistance underlies the Trumpian cynicism and skeptical relation with facts.
Such a belief is not naïve in every case. Well-known cases like the Watergate scandal show interests influence media reporting. Moreover, the notion that “political” considerations have considerable influence on supposedly technical, formalized decision-making processes is widespread in many modern institutions… The naivety in conspiracy ideologies is manifest in Trump’s Twitter tweets that put in question facts – about election results, climate change and migration. He refers to interests without citing any evidence.
To explain the problematic and the dangers in spreading post-factual positions, I turn to two theoreticians who reflected on the cynical relativization of all facts in another epoch. Hannah Arendt explained this relativization as an element of total rule. Erich Fromm interpreted this relativization as loss of freedom. With these two thinkers, the post-factual is taken seriously as a problematic corruption of politics and as destruction of the possibility of politics generally. This is different than quickly dismissing the post-factual as a curiosity or trivializing it as an accompaniment of the post-modern media age. Arendt’s and Fromm’s historical analyses could help us better understand where the post-factual constellation can lead and what its deeper causes are.
4. The Emancipation from Reality
In her historical occupation with the phenomenon of total rule in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union with Stalin, Hannah Arendt described total rule primarily as liberation from the idea that there is a fixed reality and not primarily in the total fixation of reality. She understood the “emancipation of thinking” from experienced and experiencable reality as an essential characteristic of totalitarian movements that are totalitarian because they take away all support in reality and subject everyone to the movement – in the sense of a political group and constant struggle against the enemy (Arendt 1986). Enemies were selected, accused and annihilated arbitrarily in Nazi Germany. An ethnically and religiously defined group was declared the main enemy even though this group objectively did not represent any danger.
Totalitarian ideologies defined these enemies as an existential threat regardless off whether the enemies to be destroyed were an actual threat. Totalitarian ideology represents an extreme form of conspiratorial thinking. As Arendt explained, this thinking “emancipates from the reality given to us in our five senses” and exists over against a “more authentic reality behind this given reality. This more authentic reality rules in a hidden way and requires a sixth sense to be observed” (Arendt 1986). However weak and powerless the Jews appeared, their supposed dangerousness and power were enlarged and magnified and by no means put in question by totalitarian ideologues in the course of radicalizing persecutions.
The observable reality of the common world comes under pressure by the cynical logic of the existential battle against a fictional enemy. This logic suggests a deeper “more real” reality can be found behind all observable realities – like the alleged Jewish-Bolshevist world conspiracy in the ideology of the Nazis. The Nazis saw this conspiracy behind all foreign governments that in the end fought Nazi Germany in a world war. The more thinking in this merciless and inexorable logic totalized itself, the more intensely was the emancipation from reality or the immunization of conspiracy ideology from criticism. The most absurd declarations found naïve faith. Every disguised lie was interpreted only as evidence of the shrewdness of the totalitarian leader to lead the enemy by the nose.
Totalitarian propaganda presupposed a public ready at any time to gullibly accept everything however improbable (Arendt 1986)…This characterization of totalitarian thinking as a thinking that deals cynically and carelessly with facts fits the Trumpian politics of the post-factual. On one hand, Trump’s fantastic claims in his Twitter tweets immediately find naïve faith. On the other hand, the uncovered lies in no way become a problem for Trump and his supporters since the cynical relativization of the border between fact and lie has become omnipresent. Everyone who still believes in facts is dismissed as merely naïve.
The parallels between totalitarian ideology as in Arendt’s analysis and post-factual politics as practiced by Trump and his supporters show the latter was by no means a completely new phenomenon or a phenomenon only possible through the media age or through the vulgarization of post-modern thinking. Rather, the post-factual has a history from which the deeper causes and problems of the post-factual constellation clearly emerge.
The post-factual is a cynicism that originates from the circulation of a total (conspiratorial) explanation of the world and is not a mere skepticism in dealing with facts or only an instrument in the struggle for survival. The enemies in this struggle for survival can be changed with amazing flexibility in totalitarian movements. In Stalinism, everyone could become the class enemy. In Nazi Germany, the categories of enemies were defined ethnically or racially but no one was secure from being declared anti-social and becoming a victim of terror.
One distinction should be clear. Trump does not speak of the total annihilation of enemies. However the features of the totalitarian world model are manifest, above all the cynical reduction of politics to a self-interested struggle in which facts do not matter. The know-it-all that characterizes the narcissist Trump matches the total security of the totalitarian explanation of the world in a frightening way: “the total explanation of all historical events, total explanation of the past, and total knowledge of the present and reliable predictions of the future” (Arendt 1986). “Nature only serves to explain the historical. The historical is reduced to the natural” (Arendt 1986).
5. The Escape from Freedom
Arendt and Fromm develop similar diagnoses of the social conditions that lead people to enthusiastically turn to an ideology that ultimately takes away their freedom and courage for independent thought and action. Arendt’s concept is that of desolation or loneliness. Desolation describes a state where people abandon the social bonds enabling them to develop themselves. This desolation arises through fear. When fear of others is omnipresent, it brings about a terror that makes us see a potential spy or assassin in everyone. The person is actually abandoned by his environment. He cannot trust anyone anymore and also ultimately loses confidence in himself… Confidence in one’s personality can first arise through the plurality of human existence.
Abandonment is the breeding ground on which the mixture of gullibility and cynicism arises. The belief in the absolute truth of the assertions of certain authorities and at the same time the nihilism that nothing is true can occur when the social bonds are destroyed. This leads to cynical naivety or naïve cynicism.
Like Arendt, Fromm describes the “connection of cynicism and naivety” as a symptom of a crisis that makes persons susceptible for the promises of authoritarian leaders (Fromm 1996). Like Arendt, Fromm sees the deeper causes of this crisis in the desolation of people in modern society – even if he uses another conceptuality to describe this situation. The fundamental theme of Fromm’s early treatise “Escape from Freedom” is the question of dealing with individual freedom gained in the modern age and characterizing it. He sees freedom both as the greatest achievement of the modern age and as its greatest problem. The escape from freedom triggers a flight to authoritarianism, conformism and cynicism. In Fromm’s diagnosis, this fear leads to a situation in which “all truth is interpreted as relative” and “truth is explained as a thoroughly subjective affair, almost a matter of taste” (Fromm 1990). This relativistic and post-factual relation with truth analyzed by Fromm in 1941 results from a lack of courage for independent critical thinking, It is a flight phenomenon, an abandonment by others and an abandonment of one’s own self that leads to abandoning the distinction of truth and lies and the concept truth itself.
To Fromm, the courage for independent thinking was lost when individuals – for whatever reason – abandoned exchange with others. Orientation in the outer world and inner strength are closely linked (Fromm 1980)…
We must ask about the deeper causes that take away the courage for independent thinking if we want to understand the spreading naïve relation with facts embodied by Trump in an almost parody way (Fromm 1990). This courage is lost when the possibilities of social exchange come under stress and are reduced. This happens when fear spreads in a society.
The terror of our time is not total and totalitarian as Arendt described. It does not start from a totalitarian state. However, a powerful fear seizes the “private-social life” of certain persons in certain social strata today. This fear results from the anxiety over naked survival that replaces the concern for the good life in many places.
Existential anxiety has many social forms. In his essay “The Fear of the Other,” Zygmunt Bauman (2016) emphasizes the connection between terrorism as a security threat, socially produced “migration panic” and the socially-produced anxiety of their failure. “When other persons in the immediate neighborhood” as neighbors, work colleagues or pedestrians are understood more as actual and potential rivals in a performance-oriented society, they are automatically suspect of being evilly-minded, malicious rivals” (Bauman 2016). “So we often live today in a resurrected Hobbesian world of the war of everyone against everyone else,” Bauman wrote (Bauman 2016)… This feeling of omnipresent competition to work more than others and to be in existential competition with them is a foundation for spreading the ice-cold-logic of post-factual thinking…”
Trump actually acts like a natural phenomenon because he has internalized the logic of the Hobbesian natural state and outwardly only pretends to follow the iron law of competition among individuals and nations. The reference to “nature” reduces the historical to the natural” (Arendt 1986) – or in other words to transfigure the historical idea of an eternal struggle between races, states and persons as natural. The naturalization of this struggle for survival implies the relativization of truth because it robs persons of the idea that freedom is something different than survival and truth is something different than power. The Socratic insight that there is something worse in life than death is gladly misunderstood in our age as a form of naïve faith although it essentially justifies the distinction between mere existence and self-realization in actions. Freedom and truth are lost where human conduct is driven more by the fear about existential survival.
Indignation over Trump’s naivety and cynicism prevails today in many places. The former amuses and the latter terrifies. Together they produce the picture of a clear enemy: impudent, narcissist, irreverent and serving the lie as it benefits him. To counter Trump’s challenge, emphasizing the deeper naïve faith that justifies and motivates the post-factual task of distinguishing between truth and lies is urgently necessary. This problematic faith corresponds to the central figure of conspiracy theory thinking It operates with the assumption that other secret battles run behind what is revealed to our senses on the surface and identified as deeper interests – whether they are the interests “of politicians,” “the Chinese” or “the Establishment.” This assumption is not generally false. As long as it remains an assumption and doesn’t become a prejudice, it can help us understand what game is played. But its generalization leads to a naïve form of cynicism that assumes power-interests are behind claims of truth and thereby puts verifiable facts in question…
The seemingly skeptical relation with truth can be referred back to a deeper logic that becomes powerful when the social conditions under which people can develop their freedom are threatened. The existence of spaces of common action is narrowed where persons experience themselves as different from others because they do not measure their power or their wealth in the same way. The disappearance of such spaces leads to a fear and a flight to figures like Trump who promise everything. Perhaps the aggressions that so often shimmer through Trump’s conduct and characterize many of his supporters may only be a result of missing acknowledgment by others. They result from the fundamental deficiency that Arendt recognized as the deeper cause of the crisis “in which we all live today,” namely the absence of political experience. In other words, the aggressive post-factual relation with the truth arises from the missing experience of common action. “The courage to be really free arises through common action.”