05.25.2017
  • United States

Donald’s Myths

Liberals won't get anywhere fact-checking Donald Trump, because they have no powerful message of their own.

Trump supporters in Phoenix, AZ on June 18, 2016. Gage Skidmore

Our new issue, “Earth, Wind, & Fire,” is out now. Check out the table of contents and subscribe today!

Since Donald Trump’s victory in November, liberals have felt a profound sense of loss. After decades of defining the relevant facts and truths for others, they find themselves in a world that seems to have given up on factuality itself. As an exasperated Huffington Post contributor explained:

The greatest problem of our future is not political; it is not economic; it is not even rational. It’s the battle of fact versus fiction. Sadly, a Trump victory illustrates that we are no longer able to distinguish between the two.

In “The Fallacy of Post-Truth,” we recommended a healthy dose of skepticism toward this narrative. arguing that liberals who decry our post-factual age are really mourning the end of an era in which their statements of fact and value stood relatively undisputed. The age of truth never existed; the ruling class has always defined what counts as fact and fiction.

But even if you agree with this point, you might insist that Donald Trump — inaugurated at the half-empty and totally packed Washington Mall on January 20, 2017 — still profoundly threatens scientific fact and ethical truth.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, criticizing our work in LA Review of Books, seems to think so:

. . . the authors take their one-sided judgement too far by ignoring the “fact” that a fascist onslaught against truth is not a mere advancement of liberal misrepresentation, but its antithesis. A radical assault on democratic values by a fascist regime is not a worsening of liberal pretensions but a radical distortion of social reality and ethical values.

This argument shares many features with liberal nostalgia: both suggest that a firm affirmation of truth and values will defeat the grifter-in-chief. But if fact-checking and moral outrage couldn’t stop the lying pussy-grabber from winning the election, how could they remove him from office?

Liberals’ favorite tactic — correcting their opponents on moral, factual, or procedural grounds — not only doesn’t work, but it also reveals their strategic incompetence. We can only confront Trumpism once we recognize it as a symptom of American political culture, that must be attacked on a political terrain.

The Honest Bullshitter

No doubt, Trump’s election marks a rupture with previous administrations. But what kind of rupture? As we argued in the prequel to this text, many of the characteristics of the new “post-truth era” have been part of American politics — and all politics — for a long time.

Indeed, the hate now directed toward Donald Trump closely resembles the hatred many progressives felt for Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. Tricky Dick personified all the ills of the United States’ political culture: secrecy, lies, wars, and misuse of state power. Because liberals fully identified their political critique with one figure, they were left completely defenseless the day Nixon left office.

Personifying the problem blocked obvious and important questions: how did American political culture produce someone like Nixon? How did his administration reshape this culture? What would he leave behind? By failing to pose these questions, his opponents left the door open for the militarism, racism, and neoliberalism of our first B-list celebrity president, Ronald Reagan.

To avoid repeating this mistake, we must see Trump as an aggravating symptom: he reveals something about an underlying illness, while making the disease worse.

Trump’s candidacy does not represent a break with American political culture. His perverse appeal came from how he uncovered some of the foundational lies and distortions that underlie contemporary politics. With Trump, we could no longer see corporate-funded candidates as salt-of-the-earth defenders of the forgotten man; we had to recognize the falsity of claims that an impoverished Middle Eastern country posed an existential threat to American safety; we were forced to reckon with the contradiction between the political class’s promises of imminent economic prosperity while implementing the neoliberal policies which impoverish millions.

In this context, Trump appeared to be at least an “honest liar.” He would enjoy transgressing ethical norms rather than playing the far less entertaining game of hypocrisy, shame, and guilt.

Trump differs from past presidents not because he lies, bullshits, or engages in morally repulsive acts but because he does so shamelessly. His politics, we imagine, relieves some of his supporters of their sense of shame, as well.

This shamelessness begins to explain why liberal fact checking, both pre- and post-election, had no impact. What good can come from shaming the shameless?

Bullshit and Lies

Trump’s surprising success emboldened him to go further, reaching levels of dishonesty and immorality far beyond traditional politicians. But the fact that Trump and his ilk do not acknowledge common standards of truth and ethics does not mean that fact-checking and moralism can stop them.

Fact-checking only has power over only simple lies — statements the speaker knows not to be true. People lie for all sorts of reasons: to snatch an opportunity, to avoid extra work, or to cover up inconvenient facts. Paul Ryan’s presentation of the Republican health-care plan falls very close to this category.

But fact-checking has no power against claims unconcerned with their own verifiability or against individuals beyond shame. It cannot correct what philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls “bullshit”: speech with no regard for truth.

Bullshit does not try to replace truth with a lie. Instead, it creates pleasant-sounding landscapes of often-meaningless rhetoric that conform to its audience’s preference. This format applies to most of Trump’s speeches, but it also permeates American culture, from advertising to televangelism and reality television.

Fact-checking does nothing to disabuse people of the myths that structure their worldviews, which are neither factual nor completely fictional. Myths play a central role in people’s moral orientation, because they reduce reality’s murky struggles into simplified stories of good and evil, greatness and failure. The failure of liberal moralizing to stop Trump has everything to do with the power of myths.

The Crisis of Liberal Myths

While most of Trump’s utterances are bullshit, his nonsense is structured around some myths that allow him to project a certain coherence and orientation. This is an important reason for his success.

Myths’ power lies in their ability to radically simplify a complex world, helping people understand a chaotic and intelligible system. These stories must align with people’s experiences, so myths pick out those pieces of reality that sustain their narrative and values.

Most of Trump’s utterances may count as bullshit, but he structures his nonsense around two long-standing narratives that grant his project a certain coherence and orientation.

The two key tenets central myths of Trumpism are: “America was once great, but outsiders destroyed it,” and “Islam is a threat, and (only) I can protect you.”

His opponents could successfully debunk these myths, but his supporters won’t abandon a narrative that gives their world coherence without having another framework on hand. Unfortunately, liberal myths are either so weak or so close to Trump’s own story that they provided no alternative.

Establishment liberals have two competing myths that once seemed incontestable: “America is great” (which morphed into the slogan “America is already great” in response to Trump’s “Make America Great Again”), and “America is a force for good in the world.”

The collapse of these establishment myths allowed Trump to replace them with his own, reactionary stories, leading many to adopt far-right beliefs in order to orient themselves in the world.

Americans of color and the working poor have always seen through the myth of the United States’ greatness. But while Obama could bring them to the polls by producing hope and promoting change, Clinton offered them nothing.

Meanwhile Trump mobilized many whites for whom the myths had recently turned sour. Thirty years of stagnating wages, crumbling infrastructure, deindustrializing cities, and rising inequality — combined with promises that the rising tide would lift all boats — had tainted the narrative of American exceptionalism for these voters. The final straw came in 2008 when the housing market collapsed and the government bailed out the banks.

The catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the muddled intervention in Syria undermined the myth that the United States is a force of good in the world. Few outside the Washington bubble believe that lofty ideals — rather than economic and geopolitical interests — drive the ongoing incursions in the Middle East.

Americans have experienced these seemingly never-ending struggles in the form of body bags returning with children or spouses. Trump at least promised them something in return — grabbing all the oil, keeping America safe, or just getting revenge.

Trump’s campaign called bullshit on these establishment myths, and, even though he hasn’t brought us any closer to the truth, he provided alternative myths that confirm what a lot of people know already: the United States has sacrificed a large part of its workforce on the altar of finance, free trade, and automation; the war on terror has failed.

Trump the bullshit-artist became an unlikely truth-teller, revealing the lies and guilty disavowals of mainstream politicians. But to win, he had to appeal to broadly accepted myths. If bullshit is improvisation, myths are the structures on which the bullshit artist performs his sketch. The better known those structures are, the more people will follow the improvisation.

Shared Myths and Institutions

As much as Trump thrives on liberal ideology’s collapse, he and his opponents actually agree on a number of points. Trump, mainstream Republicans, and Democrats all believe that the United States must remain preeminent among nations, that benevolent white men founded this country, and that every American citizen is a shareholder in the fortunes of American capitalism.

These stories promote a version of history that eliminates the role slavery and settler colonialism played in the nation’s development and disavows class struggle.

Trump smoothed his entrance into politics by building on voters’ experience of authoritarianism in already-existing institutions — the army, the police force, the corporate sector, and the patriarchal family — and on citizens’ silent acceptance of profound racism — in the disregard for brown and black lives in domestic and imperial policy as well as in Obama’s mass deportation programs. The implicit celebration of capital’s “clarity” and “expertise” over politics’ “messiness” and “partisanship” cannot be divorced from the idea that a supposedly successful businessman could run America better than Congress. Few liberals question these facts.

These long-standing institutions and policies make Trump’s proposals seem like reasonable extensions of current practice, called for by economic and military emergencies — a crisis mentality, we should note, that previous administrations also cultivated. Opponents can only undermine his wall, his deportations, his Muslim ban, and his authoritarianism by attacking the institutions and practices that found them.

Liberal myths cannot lead the struggle against Trump. Most of them no longer mobilize supporters, while others too closely resemble Trump’s own beliefs. Indeed, the focus on factuality, civility, and procedure in liberal centrism reveals that the Democratic Party has largely abandoned the struggle over ideas and now attaches itself to the reality of the current institutional setup.

Toward a Better Strategy

Belief in liberal myths has shattered. With nothing to replace them, centrists draw on a feeble tactical repertoire: from questioning procedure or competence to fact-checking and moral condemnation.

While we agree that Trump embodies dishonesty and moral depravity, we believe that judgments about character, morality, and truth stand in the way of what needs to be done.

The first thing we must understand is that Trump — like Nixon — represents an aggravating symptom of US political culture. Trump the person is not the core problem; the world that made his presidency possible and the changes that will linger after he is gone demand political resistance.

The liberal refusal to recognize structural racism and diverging class interests has created space for Trumpism. Understanding this entails that we move the struggle against racism beyond diversity management and begin developing economic policies that genuinely benefit working-class people — not just those white working-class voters whom Trump mobilized, but also the white and non-white working-class people whom Hillary failed to mobilize, and the vast number of people who have been disenfranchised, never enfranchised, or simply chose not to vote.

To form collective interests that include the poor — whatever their background — it is necessary to break with the bipartisan myths of American preeminence, white entitlement, and national shareholder capitalism.

Further, a movement cannot be built on evidence-based policy speeches delivered by well-mannered politicians, nor can one be built on calls for impeachment or for intervention from the intelligence community. These approaches depoliticize people because they imply that those who created the world in which Trump thrives could get rid of him.

Once we understand that no one wants to die for technocratic governance, procedural decorum, or the deep state, then we begin to understand the importance of promoting ideas and practices that can bring together broad segments of the population. For all its limitations, the success of the Sanders campaign powerfully demonstrated that such a way forward still exists.

Bhattacharjee correctly describes fascism as a “radical distortion of social reality and ethical values.” But remember what Walter Sobchak says in The Big Lebowski: “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” We would add: National Socialism constructed reality rather than simply distorting it.

The same applies to Trump. The torrent of bullshit and blustering late-night tweet storms still contain the kernels of a coherent ethos, of ideas people can believe in. Trump draws on the power of American liberalism’s disavowed dark side; he negates its self-celebratory progressivism. Trump is the United States as we know it, liberated from its sense of shame.

To fight this reactionary wave, we must construct our own reality, based on ideals and practices of solidarity and economic justice. This politics would promise to free people from shame because it would engage them in the fight against the shameful. This project demands the critique of dearly loved liberal myths and institutions, genuine democratic participation, and real movement building.

Any anti-Trump movement that doesn’t reach beyond the president’s personal antics will be powerless after he is gone. If Trump were impeached tomorrow, the world would still be stuck with Ryan, Pence, Breitbart, and the Koch brothers. Within and beyond the US our movements must oppose the world that created Trump, not just his revolting personality.