In his essay “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde refutes the charge that politicians are the consummate prevaricators. “They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation,” he ironizes, “and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind.”
Wilde would therefore have been flabbergasted by the spectacle of Donald Trump, who embodies “the temper of the true liar” like no politician before him. The full catalog of his superb irresponsibility need not be rehearsed here. Everyone knows about his excursions into the birtherist fun house, his phantasmagoric evocation of Jersey City Muslims cheering the destruction of the Twin Towers, his baseless insinuation that an opponent’s father abetted the assassination of John F. Kennedy, his contemptuous confidence that Mexico would pay for the wall he would build to cut it off from the United States, and his jaw-dropping assertion that President Obama was “the founder” of ISIS, to mention only a few of his lunatic ravings—the mind boggles at the merest enumeration. Yet this man is to become the President of the United States.
How could this have happened? What does the triumph of brazen fabulation portend for the future? What does it tell us about the state of the American psyche?
Truth-telling is not the foremost political virtue. We profess to honor Honest Abe and the George Washington who could not tell a lie; but we actually admire them for what they accomplished by hook and by crook, including ruse and deception, and not for their adherence to some unwavering standard of truthfulness.
Politics is a rhetorical art. It aims to persuade, not to prove, and to persuade in order to mobilize the otherwise inert. There are “private and public positions,” as Hillary Clinton rightly confessed. The painting of a false picture can be a powerful motivator, and if the motivation leads to a laudable outcome, commentators from Plato to the present have been inclined to excuse the falsehood as “a noble lie.” Martin Jay has examined this age-old justification of political prevarication in his magisterial The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics.
But there is nothing noble to redeem Trump’s lies. What force did he seek to mobilize? To what latent majority did he direct his appeal? His followers angrily rejected a certain style of political discourse, which they saw as remote from their concerns, bloodless, and “weak.” This was the style of experts, or “wonks”: that is, you and me. Trump calls us “losers”—“elitist” losers to be sure, but losers nonetheless. If we actually knew anything worth knowing, wouldn’t we have fixed everything by now? Look at Hillary: Thirty years in public life and still problems remain. A loser. And now she, and we, have lost.
We losers mistakenly believe that political debate consists in the critical examination of propositions concerning future probabilities: Will fewer people likely be unemployed two years from now if the government today spends more than it collects? Even if increased government spending contributes to growth, won’t it also accelerate inflation? Will it matter if it does?
For Trump and his followers, debate about such matters is meaningless wonkery, a devious tapestry of words whose twin purposes are to perpetuate the power of elites and to distract patriots from their gut certainty that everything has gone to hell. Deliberation cannot fix anything; wonkery is itself the lie. Only a strongman in possession of his own incontrovertible truth can put things right. Republicans have, for years now, been preparing the ground for this foul harvest: “We’re an empire now,” Karl Rove said in 2002, “we create our own reality.” But even Rove could not quite believe what havoc such empire had wrought in Trump.
The strongman’s truth derives not from tentative and fallible reckoning of future probabilities but from primal instincts. He tells it like it is, or, rather, like his minions, feeding endlessly on silos of factoid and fabrication, think it is: “We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics, are living in hell, because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.” The barbarian is at the gates, the savage already within.
Anyone who rejects such truths must necessarily be blinded by political correctness. Why “condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue?” To do so would be to join the ranks of the losers. The demagogue lays claim to a deeper truth, which he passes off as unvarnished rather than merely crude. No prissy politesse prevents him from speaking his mind. He paints a Babylon of depravity and decadence to set his followers marching by torchlight. His weak-kneed opponents chastely avert their eyes from the “hellhole” that their politically correct mouths dare not describe. The strongman meanwhile serves up brimming taco bowls of word salad, beguiling acolytes with slapdash jeremiads—a dab here and a dab there insinuating a truth greater than the sum of its parts, but only when viewed from the proper distance, neither so close as to reveal the want of logic nor so remote as to dull the lurid colors.
In 1877 the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé congratulated the novelist Émile Zola on his unsparing portrait of working-class desperation in L’Assommoir: here was a work “worthy of an era in which truth has become the democratic form of beauty.” Trump stands this judgment on its head: His farrago of falsehood bespeaks an era in which the meaning of democracy has been debased to the point where every claim of truth, no matter how flimsy, is treated equally. Faith in independent authority has withered; the once “lamestream media” is now the Lügenpresse (lying press), a term tellingly borrowed from Weimar Germany, where the distinction between truth and falsehood was enforced by party discipline. Tocqueville foresaw what this vacuum of intellectual authority portended: “No society can prosper without common beliefs,” he wrote. Indeed, “none can survive…for without common ideas, there is no common action, and without common action, men may still exist, but they will not constitute a social body.”
Trump’s lies speak to this craving for a social body. His myth of past greatness, of a vanished glory that only he can restore, reflects a hunger for wholeness. Hungry Trumpians subsist on a diet of denial: They imagine a communion in which American supremacy is universally acknowledged, nonwhites and non-Christians know their place, and jobs long since forfeited to robots can be “brought back” by forcing China to its knees. As Tocqueville explained, each individual “retreats within the limits of the self and from that vantage ventures to judge the world.” Any dissent from this imaginary consensus is mocked.
Such fables can survive only if never put to the test. But what was so truly remarkable about this campaign was that nothing was put to the test. Not that American presidential campaigns have ever been paragons of rational dialogue. But promises to put a chicken in every pot used to be subject to rough and ready counts of numbers of pots and quantities of chickens. Facts were checked, columns of figures were added up, and, if the discrepancies were too glaring, fouls were called. Facts are still checked, but falsehood is no longer penalized: The enormity of Trump’s lies and the rapidity with which he dropped his bombs on the ever vulnerable news cycle jammed the usual safety valves. Opponents were left sputtering, while the media remained transfixed by the sheer chutzpah of a candidate who could attack both a former POW and the mother of a dead soldier while calling openly for the United States to perpetrate war crimes “worse than waterboarding” and reprisals against civilian populations. Such assertions cannot be “fact-checked.” They can only be gaped at.
Where does this leave us, then? Although the United States has fallen behind other developed countries by such measures as the proportion of the population with a college degree, it is hard to believe that want of education was responsible for the readiness of so many voters to embrace Trump’s trumperies. The problem is not inability to reason, but unwillingness to do so if reasoning leads to unwanted conclusions: that the racial and ethnic composition of the nation is changing irrevocably, that the United States cannot work its will unilaterally, and that the economic development of the rest of the world will not put an end to either cultural differences or incompatible interests and, hence, the need for comprehension and compromise.
Trump’s success has demonstrated the potential for an illiberal democracy predicated on denial of unwelcome truths. Liberal democracy cannot endure if such denial goes unchallenged. But first we must reckon with our own denial. We refused to believe that this could happen. We too were blind; disaster has forced us to see. To cope with this catastrophe, we will need an amazing grace, which I am not at all sure we are capable of mustering. For all our misgivings, we believed that, in the end, truth would overcome. It did not. The realization that this could happen here will cast a pall over us for quite some time. I doubt I will live to see its end.