Speaking of misinformation…
Can America be “built back better” in the (much-anticipated) wake of the Trump Administration? Or did the disasters of the last four years simply make the fact of the country’s decline over a much longer period impossible to ignore?
I don’t claim to know the answer to that question. (I’m actually not sure I want to know the answer.) But we are absolutely awash in blogs, books and essays on the subject. One of those explorations was in the Guardian, a couple of weeks after the election, in a book review titled “Can American Democracy Survive Donald Trump?” It began by setting out the core problem we face:
I WON THE ELECTION!” Donald Trump tweeted in the early hours of 16 November 2020, 10 days after he lost the election. At the same time, Atlantic magazine announced an interview with Barack Obama, in which he warns that the US is “entering into an epistemological crisis” – a crisis of knowing. “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false,” Obama explains, “by definition our democracy doesn’t work.” I saw the two assertions juxtaposed on Twitter as I was finishing writing this essay, and together they demonstrate its proposition: that American democracy is facing not merely a crisis in trust, but in knowledge itself, largely because language has become increasingly untethered from reality, as we find ourselves in a swirling maelstrom of lies, disinformation, paranoia and conspiracy theories.
The author points out that lying, paranoia and conspiracy have long been seen as the defining features of totalitarian societies, and that the prevalence of those behaviors in contemporary America is increasingly being cited as evidence that we are becoming such a society.
As Federico Finchelstein maintained in his recent A Brief History of Fascist Lies: “As facts are presented as ‘fake news’ and ideas originating among those who deny the facts become government policy, we must remember that current talk about ‘post-truth’ has a political and intellectual lineage: the history of fascist lying.” Both George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, two of history’s most acute observers of totalitarianism, situated lying squarely at the heart of the totalitarian project.
With less than three weeks until President Biden is sworn in, America’s current president is still refusing to concede, still insisting that the results of an election that was found by international observers and state election officials alike as “transparently fair” was somehow rigged. Worse still, much of what passes for Republican leadership these days is passively or actively encouraging that belief.
An acknowledgement of the legitimacy of one’s political opponents is absolutely necessary for democracy to function. Increasingly, the GOP is refusing to admit to the legitimacy of either the Democratic Party or electoral outcomes unfavorable to the party.
As the New York Times reported last year: “At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic party and its supporters are routinely described as ‘demonic’ and associated with ‘rulers of the darkness’.” Republicans no longer oppose Democrats politically: they are opposing them existentially.
At the end of the day, American citizens are faced with a different–and far more significant– existential decision: what is true and what is not?
If Trump is symptomatic of America’s diseases of power, then his compulsive dishonesty might be the most revealing pathology of all. The US is a chronically untruthful country, deceit written into its very framework. The constitution contains explicit protections of slavery but never uses the word “slavery”, a deeply mendacious deception that eventually became a collective self-deception. The declaration “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” was written by a man who enslaved men he did not consider his equal, and became the foundation of a country that incessantly declared its belief in truth and justice while enslaving and oppressing much of its population.
Like many Americans, I have spent four years struggling against a pathological liar in the White House, only to realise, belatedly, that American culture fetishises the truth for a reason. “We hold these truths”, “truth, justice, and the American way”, the fable of the boy George Washington insisting he cannot tell a lie, “Honest Abe” Lincoln: this is a society protesting too much. American history is riddled with lies: that we talk about truth so much is just a tell.
In order to tell truth from falsehood, however, citizens need at the very least a baseline of accurate information about their government and the philosophy that animates it–something approximately 70 million of us evidently lack.
Unless we can somehow rescue fact from fiction, American democracy is unlikely to survive.