The Russian Threat and the Poverty of “Post-Truth”

19 January 2017, 1559 EST

The following is a guest post by Sidra Hamidi, a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University, specializing in global nuclear politics and state identity. She has published previously in the Washington Post  and E-International Relations

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election to the highest office in the United States, many observers have heralded the beginning of an era of “post-truth” in which “facts” are under attack from “opinions” at best and “lies” at worst. Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” its word of the year, and Ruth Marcus even referred to “post-truth” as a “practice,” citing Hannah Arendt’s 1967 essay, “Truth and Politics” to demonstrate the immediacy of the threat to facts.

The recent controversy over intelligence that Russia hacked the US election brings this notion of “post-truth” into further relief: the CIA, FBI, and NSA agree on the fact that Russia attempted to influence the US election while Trump continues to attack their authority and intelligence. Liberal commentators in particular imply that some facts are self-evident and that Trump and his supporters are simply wrong about how facts should inform the “truth,” often citing the Politifact statistic that more than 70 percent of Trump’s statements were “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire.” Trump’s approach towards the Russia controversy is yet another instance that confirms liberal predictions of a post-truth era.

The battle lines seem to be drawn into “truth” and “post-truth” camps. But the very term “post-truth” should lead us to question what the pre-“post-truth” era looked like: was it one in which objective facts ruled the day and politics consisted of a reasoned consensus towards the truth? It is unrealistic to refer to a post-truth era precisely because it assumes that we can point to another era where objective facts won out in our politics. This assumption itself undermines the many truths of the disempowered and underprivileged factions of American society for whom truth has always been manipulable by economic and political elites.

Ruth Marcus cites Arendt’s “Truth and Politics,” to point out the general relationship between truth and politics. But Marcus overlooks that Arendt both advances a more complicated relationship between truth and politics and provides helpful insight on how to think about politicians like Trump. In her essay, Arendt posits a sort of structural conflict between truth and politics insofar as politics constitutes the realm of freedom and change whereas truth reflects the status quo: “Truthfulness […] has little indeed to contribute to that change of the world and of circumstances which is among the most legitimate political activities.” In asserting the coming of a post-truth era, liberals overlook that it is often the work of politics to mediate the truth. In the end, truth and politics stand in conflict but also, quite frustratingly, need one another to function.

How does a more thoughtful understanding of the relationship between truth and politics help us think about reports of Russian interference? The controversy is exemplary of the kinds of problems we can get into if we assume that facts speak for themselves. Pundits are often surprised that Trump supporters seem not to care about self-evident facts. The conflict is often portrayed as the CIA presenting facts that Trump, through his usual political cunning, refuses to see as a threat. But liberal embrace of these intelligence reports is no less political than Trump’s rejection of them. While Trump’s knowledge on international politics is likely elementary, this narrative rests on what should register as uncomfortable assumptions. There is the assumption that liberals should trust the CIA wholeheartedly in their assessment of the situation. The recent George W. Bush era in foreign policy, during which intelligence was manipulated to invade Iraq, should make liberals err towards being skeptical towards the “facts” that are presented as “intelligence.” Just because today it is politically-expedient to use the authority of the intelligence community to combat Trump, does not mean that liberals should forget the recent past. And by the past I do not simply mean Bush era foreign policy, but also the historical record of the Cold War and beyond in which the intelligence agencies of great powers interfered with elections around the world, the very act that the CIA accuses Russia of doing to the United States. In this instance, the focus on “facts” falls into a political narrative that actually undermines the left’s historically-critical approach to great power politics.

There is also the assumption that threats from Russia are in fact, objective threats. Certainly, Russia’s potential involvement in the election signals an important shift in U.S.-Russia relations. However, threats to the U.S. are always constructed by foreign policy elites in both the U.S. and Russia: the U.S. is not simply reacting to an aggressive Russia but also plays a part in perceiving Russian actions as threatening.  Indeed, liberals should we wary of constructing the threat that Russia poses. This strategy is likely to play into the hand of Trump who recently advocated for a renewed arms race. The “fact” of a Russian threat to the U.S. can be molded to fit many a political perspective. Trump can misuse the threat of Russia to serve hawkish goals.

To be clear, I am not arguing for a kind of agnostic view towards the truth or towards Trump. Rather, my critique is centered on the inability of liberals to see that the “facts” they present to combat Trump are inevitably presented through a political context. Arendt foresaw some of these difficulties when she noted that the “truth-teller” has to articulate the truth through interest-driven politics, thereby sacrificing some notion of impartiality. On the other hand, “the liar needs no such doubtful accommodation [between truth and interest] to appear on the political scene […] he is an actor by nature; he says what is not so because he wants things to be different from what they are—that is, he wants to change the world.” And in our contemporary context, we might add that not only does the liar want to change the world, but also the nature of truth. This observation about the place of the liar in politics approximates the role that Donald Trump plays: he does not simply seek to undermine an objective truth but to make truth itself appear as liberal ideology. The more liberals assert a claim to truth, the more they fall into a trap that legitimates Trump to his supporters. But ultimately this ability is not unique in Donald Trump (although his success in this sort of manipulation is alarming) but is a central problem of politics. The complexity of this relationship between truth and politics then cannot simply be boiled down to the phrase “post-truth,” as the phrase assumes both too much and too little about the truth. It at once assumes that the truth is self-evident while undermining its contentious, yet necessary, relationship with politics.

Ultimately, the liberal assertion to “truth” against conservative “opinion” plays into Trump’s contention that truth is liberal propaganda and undermines the power of liberal critique. To return to the example of the Russian hacking controversy, liberals should not hesitate to question the validity of the CIA just because Trump also makes the same claim but towards very different political ends. Trump manages to take the essence of liberal critique off the table and, in turn, the liberal desire to assert certain facts as self-evident plays into this strategy. It is high time for commentators, particularly liberals, to examine how our relationship to “facts” informs our political climate and what bearing the conflict over “facts” has on Trump’s politics.  It is not through facts alone that we can dispel misunderstandings and undermine elite manipulation, but through a kind of politics that embraces the multiplicity of perspectives that define our times.