Trump and Truth: Or What Arendt Can Teach Us about Truth and Politics

14 February 2017, 1141 EST

Today’s revelation that Mike Flynn resigned from his post as National Security Advisor is another strong sign that the struggle between Truth and Politics is not a foregone conclusion.  Indeed, we ought to actually celebrate the fact that when Flynn lied about speaking with the Russian ambassador, and the lie was made public, he was forced to resign.  This victory notwithstanding, we still must be extremely vigilant against the Trump administration’s attack on Truth.  For the administration apparently knew that he lied some time ago, and it was only with increased public scrutiny that Flynn submitted his resignation.  Had that not come to light, the administration appears to have no compunction about employing liars.

In what follows, I will briefly argue that Hannah Arendt’s insights into Truth and Politics, as well as her understanding of power, authority, violence and persuasion are all key to helping us resist Trump and his acolytes.   We are in a fragile time where the balance between freedom, reason, and truth may be overrun by domination, nonsense, and lies.    We are on the precipice of what Arendt calls “organized lying,” where the community, or at least the governance structures and a portion of the community, seek to systematically erode any claims to factual or rational truths, and with that to unmoor the very foundations of our state.

Let us begin then with a few particulars.  First, is the division between “factual truth,” “rational truth,” and “opinion.”  These are important distinctions for us now, for the assaults waged by the likes of Trump and Bannon are actually directed at all three, and we in the US have never before been witness to this extreme version of “organized lying” before.   Factual Truth concerns events, particularly social events and circumstances.  These could be events or situations such as the Arab Spring happened in 2011, or Madison was an author to the Federalist Papers.  These facts are distinct from those found in rational truth.  Rational truth deals with mathematic, scientific and philosophical truths.  For example, that 2 + 2 = 4, or that gravity on Earth is 9.8 meters per second squared, or that formal logic can prove particular theorems, are all “rational truths.”  Opinion, on the other hand, is formed through a process where one considers an issue from particular viewpoints, “running, as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another” amassing various facts as the basis for the opinion.

Evidence, moreover, is a necessary feature of arriving at any sort of truth and thus any formation of opinion.  For factual truth, the evidence is some sort of testimony, such as eye-witnesses, records, documents, monuments, or the like.  These kinds of evidence are designed to testify that what in fact happened really happened.   Think for instance about the audacity of calling into question the Holocaust.  This is an attempt to discredit the testimony and evidence of the factual truth of one of the worst, if not the worst, crimes in human history.  Thus attempts to discredit the evidence, to call into question documents as forgeries, or the memories of survivors or witnesses, is to challenge the factual truth of a particular event.

Evidence for rational truth, however, is typically what we can measure, such as, what math’s results yield, or the coherence of a logical argument.   We can count opinions on a matter, or we can measure the exchange of information from one unit to another, heat exchange rates or particle waves.  Rational truth, as she explains, “enlightens human understanding” of various things about our world, our bodies, ourselves.   Indeed for Arendt, questioning rational truth is almost impossible.  One can destroy rational truth, but due to its “character” we could still perhaps “reproduce [it] in time” or “rediscover” it when political conditions permit. Unfortunately, factual truth, once destroyed has “slim chance” of surviving or reemerging once destroyed.

In essence, there is a tension between Truth and Politics because sometimes in the course of politics—that is action in common for common purposes—we seek to manipulate the truth to our advantage.  Basically, the tension is that politicians lie.   They lie to affect change (to act), to further their own ends, to “fit the profit and pleasure, or even the mere expectations of [the] audience.”   Lying to the citizens, audience, or community, to achieve some end is a means to accumulate power.  For power is the emergent property of people acting together to pursue some aim.  It relies on some form of legitimacy, such as consent or support from those people acting together, and where there is no legitimacy, she thinks, there can be no power.  In terms of lying, we can say that where one lies to obtain this power, one at least flirts with, if not whole-heartedly adopts, an illegitimate means to power.

Indeed, it is probably because lying is an illegitimate means that Arendt notes that “all these lies, whether their authors know it or not, harbor an element of violence.” Violence, as opposed to power, is instrumental, in need of justification, and does not depend on the supporting opinion of anyone (i.e. the basis of legitimacy).  “Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power.”  Thus if lies harbor an element of violence, systematic lying or “organized lying” is the necessary feature for rule by violence to emerge.

Yet what does systematic or “organized lying” look like? It looks very much like: the rewriting of history; the rejection of science; the deletion of data and empirical evidence; the spinning of doubt and cynicism into sources of truth and fact, or what we might call the “traditional authorities,” such as the academe or journalism; the undermining of particular public institutions, such as the judiciary.  This list is not drawn from my observance of public affairs during the last month, but is drawn directly from Arendt’s own insights.

What is at stake, then, when we hear Kellyanne Conway tell Chuck Todd not to be “overly dramatic” about calling out the lie that Sean Spicer gave, and that Spicer’s version was supported by “alternative facts.”  What is at stake is the edifice of freedom the US has struggled time and again to erect for over two-hundred years.  There are not “alternative facts.”  There may be various interpretations of one’s own subjective experience of an event, but the event is a fact.  We cannot make up events, such as the Bowling Green Massacre, either.  This is not an alt-fact; it is a non-fact.  It is a lie, an intentional deception.

Moreover, we might debate about opinions, or how one interprets the facts, or even the measurements by which one obtains facts.  But if we can show that this in fact happened, is rational, coherent, logical, then we cannot debate about this.  Truth, as Arendt claims, has a sort of “coercive,” and almost “despotic,” power at this point.  To reject Truth is to destroy “the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us;” it is to destroy our world as humans.   The scope of Trump’s and his administration’s lies, as well as their attempts at destroying both factual and rational truths, is something that should have all of us extremely worried.  As academics, too, we ought to fight against it as much as possible, for we deal in Truth.  Truth is our currrency.