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.