SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Amongst the many questions to have crossed everyone’s minds recently, one of them is no doubt: ‘how did we get here?’ We have seen pundits and analysts and politicians talk about those left behind by globalisation, about the failure of liberalism and neoliberalism, about the depths of misogyny and racism in the American psyche, about systematic gerrymandering, about disenfranchisement, anti-elitist sentiment, popular frustration, the working man’s forgotten burden. There are varying amounts of insight to be found in all of these explanations, each contributing to the multifaceted and irreducibly complex analysis that will inevitably be needed so that we on the left can effectively respond to the rise of a newly invigorated far-right. Nonetheless, something, always, remains missing.
With Donald Trump’s inauguration, at the beginning of fascism in the White House, I want to look at one factor that has brought us here: the specifically American style of truthfulness. The mammoth task of understanding how Trump has risen to power cannot be reduced to a single factor, but I hope to add my own insight by pointing to the relationship between history and norms of truth. I hope to open a space for critique by destabilising previously given norms that have thus far been perceived as unproblematic, eternal, self-evident, given, transcendental, pre-discursive assumptions that structure the very possibility of debate – not as the social-historical constructs they really are, built atop disqualified knowledge, unknown struggle, and delegitimised suffering, norms as fragile as Trump’s small-handed masculinity.
Before examining the concrete historical events that have constituted the American style of truthfulness, we need to talk about two understandings of truth and their respective relationships to the political realm. Cambridge philosopher and Nietzsche expert Bernard Williams distinguishes between truth and truthfulness, a distinction I think broadly helpful for my purposes here. Briefly, truth denotes a correspondence between the contents of the world – the facts of the matter, how things really are – and our representations of them; truth is born of a relationship between the world and our ideas about it. This, to my mind, is relatively uninteresting, minimalistic. Truthfulness, on the other hand, relates to the various cultural practices associated with the value of truth – the methods by which we uncover it, why truth is better than falsity, the uses that it can be put to, which truths are self-evident and which require justification.
The problem with the current debate about ‘post-truth’ politics is that there is no truth of politics for us to be ‘post-’ of. Truth about politics does not exist. Human rights, moral equality, freedom of speech are not out there in the world. Indeed, pray show me a human right that I can see and hold in my hand. The building blocks of politics are always conceptual; they are created through discourse and only then practically enacted through the conscious or unconscious efforts of individuals acting in concert. This means that a correlation between the world and our representation of it is impossible – there are no political things for our representations to be correlated with.
But beyond this, to paraphrase political theorist Hannah Arendt, “the very idea that judging traffics in truth claims and appeals to universal criteria is antipolitical”. Truth serves as an end to discourse by assuming that there is an ultimate arbiter: the world. But an ultimate arbiter, regardless of who or what that might be, is, by definition, authoritarian. Open-ended discourse is, on the other hand, an ideal at the heart of politics. Quoting feminist theorist Hannah Pitkin:
“We are forced to find or create a common language of purposes and aspirations, not merely to clothe our private outlook in public disguise, but to become aware of ourselves in its public meaning. We are forced…to transform ‘I want’ into ‘I am entitled to’, a claim that becomes negotiable by public standards”.
This leads us to an interesting conclusion about the point of politics itself: pluralism is the name of the game. As seminal political philosopher John Rawls puts it, pluralism is not a fact of human life we must begrudgingly accept, nor an ill to be remedied, but rather “a normal result of the exercise of human reason within the framework of the free institutions of a constitutional democratic regime”. Discourse is possible only when there exists a multitude of perspectives all prepared to tackle an issue each considers worth tackling. Politics thus cannot aim toward some kind of uniformity or final agreement between all parties. This conclusion would undermine the coherence of the very project embarked upon; if we tend towards uniformity, we undermine the multiplicity that enables politics in the first place.
But now, in relegating the nature of the world to political irrelevance, we are left without a standard against which to judge our political beliefs. How do we decide which set of beliefs to adopt? Recognising the fragility of our beliefs, however, does not mean that we might, after all, be wrong and that Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos might, after all, be right. We can still hold our beliefs with conviction and wield them in a fight. Rather, in line with literary theorist Richard Rorty, this means that the very role of politics is to move toward an enrichment of perspectives alongside which we can situate our own, in light of which we can evaluate and revise the persons we have made ourselves into, and whose lives we can reciprocally better.
This also doesn’t mean that all beliefs are equally valid and thus deserve equal respect, that we must respect the rights of racists, misogynists, homophobes, bigots to believe what they believe. The voices that destroy the possibility of discourse, that delegitimise others, that oppress difference, that intimidate deviation from a norm arbitrarily defined, that tend to homogeneity, that pursue a truth requiring universal adherence, that contravene the basic limits of discourse – they are the ones that do not have a seat at the table. Rawls, talking about historian Isaiah Berlin, concludes that “there is no social world that does not exclude some ways of life”. If that is so, let us exclude those who would oppress.
The language of the American founding texts – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – presupposes just one of these exclusions. “We the people…” and “We take these truths to be self-evident…” refer to a ‘we’ that, at the time of writing, referred to but a small proportion of the population actually subject to the proclamations contained in the documents: white, straight, Christian men. But there is something more interesting at play here.
“That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. These are the self-evident truths at the heart of the United States, why it was the land of opportunity for so long. At first glance, we can all broadly adhere to this proposition – at least in sentiment. They represent a number of basic human goods and the prerequisites to be able to pursue those goods effectively. But instead of asking whether there is some truth of the matter in this suggestion – whether there are basic facts of human nature, whether the American founding texts reflect or engender them – a better question to ask, as formulated by Michel Foucault, is: what social function has their supposed truth served over the course of history?
Yes, of course, explanation and justification must indeed stop at some point. For the founding fathers – and to use Rorty’s language – Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness serve as just such ‘final’ reasons, reasons in terms of which everything else is based and can be reduced to. But instead of asking after whether these actually are final reasons, again taking our cue from Foucault, we can ask: who do we delegitimise in the instant that we call them ‘final’, self-evident, given? Who do we discredit in nominating this particular set of new justifying reasons, reasons that determine what counts as justification in the first place?
At the time of writing, the Enlightenment-inspired republicanism of the founding texts was, of course, used to escape the authority of the British monarchy. It was the divine right of the King that was delegitimised, no longer a genuine justification for the exertion of social power. Political justification now required recourse to objective standards of right rather than the invested, inherent power of the sovereign, doled out and withheld at their discretion.
Moreover, self-evidence is used in this case to grant the newly formed United States a monopoly over legitimating reasons; there was simply no need to further justify American ascension because the reasons given were proclaimed self-evident – this is where explanation stopped. We thus see the establishment of a new set of ‘final’, irreducible reasons. And indeed, Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness were later used to sell the American Dream, suburban utopia being the lifestyle that realised most fully these truths that America was founded on and with which to oppose the spectre of the communist.
This leaves us with the question: how do we meaningfully talk about politics? If we, as a society, cannot look to the world to determine how we are to live and politics is instead a matter of collective self-invention, how, exactly, should we go about inventing ourselves? Which form of truthfulness is appropriate in politics? The US, more than anywhere else, has adopted one particular discourse model and institutionalised it in a variety of different contexts. University debating societies, the courtroom prosecution and defence, the continued tussle between science and religion – all exhibit a back-and-forth structure, an antagonistic dialectic.
The underlying structure at play here is, however, more subtle than mere confrontation – whereby the force of the better argument or the more convincing orator wins out. Rather, the truth of the matter is to be found somewhere between the pro and contra: even though each party believes that they are the one speaking the truth, the assumption of this format of debate is that we all, on aggregate, converge on the truth – forcing each other to consider objections, to shore up weaker arguments, to potentially throw out a line of thought entirely. Indeed, this is the basis of John Stuart Mill’s – the father of liberalism – defence of freedom of thought and expression. By exposing our beliefs to public scrutiny, we both convince others of the truth we are privy to and we are forced to reassess our position, thus bringing society as a whole closer to the truth.
The Cold War provided the perfect historical stage upon which this model was both played out and nurtured. The debate – broadly, how to organise society and the economy – was not, however, between two university debating teams, but between two nuclear superpowers and their various nuclear allies. Faced with the certainty of mutually assured destruction from the end of the Second World War onwards, consensus, the promise of finding the truth of a debated issue somewhere in the middle, the cornerstone of contemporary liberal theory, was established as a conceptual norm due to its actual necessity.
While this model may work for scientific debates, this is simply not how truth operates in the realm of politics – as above, there is no truth for us to be converging on. But beyond this apparently simple case of misapprehension, there is something insidious here too. This model of truth diminishes and appropriates the various victories hard won over the course of history. Votes for women, racial equality, LGBTQ rights: these are not compromises of which oppressors can take half the credit. They are the result of ongoing struggle against systematic humiliation and violence. Radical social progress is always just that: radical. It is the insurrection of formerly subjugated forms of life. Nothing less than the complete deconstruction of systems of oppression is acceptable – regardless of whether consensus has been achieved.
Having surveyed the historical landscape, now we come to the present day. Drawing these threads together, we have a proclaimed monopoly on legitimating, self-evident, ‘final’ reasons paired up with a tendency to consensus on truth, both with their roots in historical, rather than conceptual, necessity. How has the specifically American style of truthfulness influenced the rise of Trump?
We now have the tools to examine the ‘Crooked Hilary’ slogan and Trump’s tell-it-like-it-is, no nonsense persona. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, without the Soviet Union, the dialectical model of truth was instead applied to the west, to the side of the argument that won out. It found new expression in Clinton-era and New Labour ‘third way’ politics, combining liberal social and neoliberal economic policy to find the truth between the left and the right. But there is no longer an apocalyptic threat to justify the existence of such a dialectic: the need for consensus is no longer enforced by the certainty of nuclear war. And without the concrete need for consensus, we no longer need to meet the opponent halfway.
Trump’s bombastic theatricality should be interpreted as a nostalgic return to the monopoly on self-evidence that founded the United States – an important aspect of his appeal. Political consensus is not a principle of discourse for him because he has revived and re-instituted the structure of the ‘final’ reasons originally used to break from Britain – the foundation of the ‘great’ America of his campaign slogan, the first, true, genuine America.
Now that we are back to the good-vs-evil structure, there is no room for a middle ground. Hilary’s search for agreement across the aisle, for “one nation under God”, for a bipartisanship that requires subtlety, nuance, compassion, understanding, for some gradation less than black and white – those were her qualities reinterpreted and resold as untrustworthy, crooked.
This is exactly why sincerity, why being upright and straightforwardly honest, why being truthful is such a highly valued virtue in America today: it is a grand return to the founding principle of America itself. And it is this relationship between America and truthfulness that Trump has exploited.
Discourses produce new truths in lieu of their presuppositions about truth. The ‘self-evident’ truths that America is founded on are not eternal, necessary, unchanging, lofty ideals that we choose to believe or to disbelieve and that’s the end of it – by specifying that some reasons are legitimate and others not, what does and doesn’t count as an explanation, what is and what isn’t a problem requiring a solution, they structure the operations of social power and the axes along which they travel. And all of this in the service of strategic, historically sensitive, specifiable goals.
But our presuppositions about the nature of truth and politics are themselves up for debate precisely because they are not the given, unproblematic, eternal, existing things that we might think they are – they are as much the possible subjects of discourse as anything else, requiring institutional maintenance, dependent on our acceptance, open to revision at any time.
I mean to destabilise our given notions of truth in politics. By revealing them to be just as historically-dependent as anything else, just as subject to human intervention and construction, that things do not have to be as they are, then we are left open the possibility of transformation. Once more glancing back to Foucault, we can:
“separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think”.