Getty
Show Hide image

Why Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin lie... and why they are so good at it

Post-truth is the first step toward authoritarian rule.

In a recent interview in Mother Jones, the political activist and Russian dissident Masha Gessen offers an important insight as to why Donald Trump seems so comfortable lying, even when he can easily be disproven. Trump does not lie because he believes what he is saying to be true – nor to change the minds of others – Gessen argues; he lies to assert power. “Every time [Trump] lies, especially when he lies about something really obvious – like the size of the Inauguration – he’s saying ‘I can say whatever I want, whenever I want to, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ I think he understands that instinctively."

In this, Trump has learned the lesson of countless dictators and strongmen across the ages, a lesson that could be well taught by his opposite number in Russia, Vladimir Putin. Real power does not need the consent of the governed. One need not worry about changing others’ beliefs (which may be thought of as requesting their cognitive consent), when one can dominate their reality.

This is why post-truth is so dangerous. In the public imagination, post-truth is about lying and fake news. But in actuality it is not merely about these, nor even about disinformation, spin doctoring, or propaganda. Post-truth is the first step towards authoritarian rule.

Many are shocked by the current political situation in America, and believe it has no precedent. Yet “post-truth” did not arrive anew in 2016, when it was proclaimed the Oxford Dictionaries’ word-of-the-year. In reality, its roots stretch back decades, with both historical and conceptual precursors.

The historical parallels are easiest. Of the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s, the political theorist Hannah Arendt once observed that “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction … true and false … no longer exist.” In the initial stages of an autocratic regime, it is not uncommon for a would-be ruler to see how many lies he or she can get away with, before preserving political power through propaganda. Even here, though, the point is not to convince but to dominate. Contempt for truth goes hand in hand with political oppression.

As the philosopher Jason Stanley argues in his recent book How Propaganda Works, the goal of propaganda is not to persuade, but to demonstrate that you have authority over truth itself. Epistemological authority has always underpinned political authority. Writing about Bolshevism, the philosopher Roger Scruton, put it this way: “Facts no longer made contact with the theory, which had risen above the facts on clouds of nonsense, rather like a theological system. The point was not to believe the theory, but to repeat it ritualistically and in such a way that both belief and doubt became irrelevant. . . . In this way the concept of truth disappeared from the intellectual landscape, and was replaced by that of power.”

As for the conceptual roots of post-truth, these are easy to see, though perhaps difficult to accept. Most prominent is the notion that forty years of science denial – be this the correlation between smoking and lung cancer, the existence of evolution and climate change, or whether vaccines can be linked to autism – has conditioned people to challenge facts that they simply don’t want to believe. Who needs empirical evidence when you already know what to believe on the basis of ideology? Another root of post-truth, inherent cognitive bias, seems obvious in the abstract, though it can be stubbornly difficult to recognise when we are in its grip. Do viewers believe most of what is seen on MSNBC because they trust that their broadcasts are double-sourced and fact-checked before going on the air, or because they fit with their ideology? And it works that way on the right too – indeed more so – as cognitive scientists have found that those with conservative political beliefs have greater susceptibility to conspiracy theories and fear-based thinking. Finally, what if any blame might be due to post-modernism – that 800 pound gorilla of 1980s literary criticism and cultural studies – that taught a generation of scholars to question whether there was such a thing as objective truth (even in science) and to be suspicious of all factual claims outside the context of their political motives.

Each of these – along with the rise of social media and hard times for journalism – created an ideal environment within which fake news could thrive, tribalism could gain ground over reasoning, and politics could trump reality. Although the Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential election may seem inextricably tied up with post-truth, neither was its cause – they were the result.

What then of the gathering threat of authoritarian rule in the United States? A recent VOX article asserted that the US was facing an epistemic crisis, due to the fact that even if the Mueller investigation turns up evidence of wrong-doing, the political response may be underwhelming. Years back, one wag in philosophy set the terms by observing that the response to every philosophical argument was either an “oh yeah?” or a “so what?” So far, the Trump administration has vociferously denied that it is lying about Russian involvement in the 2016 election and, in fact, has said that all of the lying is on the other side. What then of the day when solid evidence is revealed, but no one cares? When our post-truth politics facilitates the easy slide from “oh yeah?” to “so what?”

Lee McIntyre is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and the author of “Post-Truth,” which will be published in February 2018 as part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.