Unreality politics

'Post-truth' is supposedly the word of the year, but what does it actually mean for the future of politics?

Samuel Earle
7 December 2016

Credit: Flickr/Katmary. Some rights reserved.

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.

‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat. ‘We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’

We are constantly told that we live in a post-truth or post-factual age. Allegedly, fake news, false claims, and a fading respect for the truth are sending us deeper and deeper down the rabbit-hole, tumbling us into a topsy-turvy world where politicians, journalists and your average Jill or Joe can say, like Humpty Dumpty: ‘words mean whatever I want them to mean’—and so can photos, facts and quotes.

Donald Trump describes seeing thousands of Muslims cheering as the Twin Towers came down on 9/11. The Sun and the Daily Mail use photos of Jeremy Corbyn taking a walk on Remembrance Sunday with a war veteran, and cut and chop them to claim that he was doing a disrespectful jig. Peter Jones of Dragon’s Den fame declares on ITV’s This Morning show that he’s seriously considering running for Prime Minister of the UK with no political experience whatsoever—and no-one can tell just how serious he is.

In a fitting testimony, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) recently made “post-truth" their word of the year, defined as a situation “in which objective facts are less influential than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Although the word has been used before, the OED report that 2016 saw its usage increase by 2,000 per cent. Our grip on reality, it seems, is slipping.

Of course, there’s nothing new in politicians who deceive, journalists who lie, and objective facts that fail to stir the voters. ‘Reality’ has rarely been more than a plaything for those who have the power to define it, as philosophers like Michel Foucault and Maurizio Ferraris have explored in depth. All reality is constructed by knowledge and all knowledge is constructed by power, so power is central to the construction of reality.

Yet over the past several decades, the relationship between politics, truth and reality has been changing. Like big businesses, the moment that political parties began to affiliate themselves with advertising strategists they committed themselves to the primary task, not of reflecting reality or even working with it, but of constructing political reality in their own image.

As early as the 1930s, Advertising Age was claiming that “a political campaign is largely an advertising campaign.” But it was only in the 1960s in the US and the 1970s in Britain (with Saatchi & Saatchi’s close links with the Tories), that policy withdrew to the margins and ‘spin’ became the main event. Increasingly, politics became a game of smoke and mirrors.

Over a similar period of time the advent of new kinds of media and technology – mainly the internet and television – both facilitated and intensified this shift towards appearances. Reality may always have been a social construct, but in this new techno-setting social reality has never been so construct-able. “Don’t you realize,” ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi once explained to one of his close associates, “that something doesn’t exist—not an idea, a politician, or a product—unless it is on television?”

The aim of constructing political reality is not only to control perceptions but also to control the boundaries of what’s considered possible, closing down certain options while making others seem inevitable. This will be familiar to anyone on the Left. At least since the 1970s, any ambitions to rein in the market or establish a more egalitarian society through state action have been dismissed as impossible, unrealistic or illegitimate. The ascendancy of the market has been placed beyond question as a simple fact of life. “There is no alternative” as Margret Thatcher famously put it.

In an opinion piece published in The Guardian in 2015, Tony Blair offered a textbook example of this form of reality-control. Titled “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics are fantasy – just like Alice in Wonderland”, Blair ridiculed Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, the Scottish National Party and all their supporters for “a politics of parallel reality” that inhabits “an Alice in Wonderland world.” If you don’t agree with me, Blair suggests, you’re deluded, if not insane. And by the way, he adds, “Donald Trump won’t be elected President.”

In the recent US Presidential campaign, these same tactics were deployed, first by Hillary Clinton against Sanders, but then against a different kind of outsider: Donald Trump. Over the course of the campaign, politicians (especially Democrats) clung to ‘reality’ as if it offered some kind of insurance against Trump’s election. His opponents believed that the political reality to which they had grown accustomed—which had a certain set of rules and which ruled out a certain set of possibilities—would eventually disable his campaign.

Trump won’t win, Barack Obama told us in March 2016, because “this is not a reality TV show.” It’s a serious job, he said. Clinton then released a campaign video saying “Stand for Reality.” “I’m just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain,” she said—unlike Trump, a plain and proud citizen of the real world. “Donald, I know you live in your own reality,” Clinton later laughed in one of the presidential debates. And then he won.

Even now however, after Trump’s victory, faith that this version of reality will somehow correct itself and arrest Trump’s rise (if not Trump himself) continues. “Reality will force him to adjust his approach,” President Obama assures us.

But will it? The reality Obama describes no longer exists. Trump has ripped up the rulebook. He has revealed and instigated a Wonderland world where the conditions of acceptability and possibility have been reset. In the words of Marine Le Pen, he has “made the impossible possible.” Make no mistake, Trump didn’t disprove that he and his supporters live in a parallel reality, he showed that there are only parallel realities—I’m mad, you’re mad, we’re all mad here, and as a result the centre of gravity has shifted.

Crucially, it is not Trump or his allies who will have to adjust to this new reality but his opponents. Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán, for example, hailed Trump’s victory as a “return to reality” and “liberating straight talk.” Trump is this reality’s lead spokesperson, its ridiculous Queen of Hearts, Wonderland’s ruler, with a same fondness for simplistic ‘off-with-their-heads’ solutions. 

In science, Thomas Kuhn described moments such as these as ‘paradigm shifts’, times of revolution when scientists like Copernicus, Galileo and Newton reveal the world to be different to the one we thought it was, and all the pieces have to be rearranged. In many ways, Trump is a cruel Copernicus for our time: much like Brexit in Britain, he has shown American society to be different to the way many people imagined it. Unfortunately, for all the lies and deceptions of both these campaigns, there is no denying the reality of what has been revealed. 

This is not to say that Trump represents a complete break with the past. In many ways he is only a hyperbolic continuation. Finally, a system of political reality whose guiding principle is that everything should be run as a business irrespective of the injustices and the casualties that are caused—from education to healthcare to countries themselves—has been landed with a leader who is not only a businessman but a parody of one.

He is a man who sells steaks and fake degrees, builds garish hotels and golf-courses, hosts beauty pageants and says ‘You’re Fired’ on television; a man who boasts of exploiting workers, avoiding tax and sexually-harassing women. “The beauty of me is that I’m very rich,” Trump says. It is a fitting, if tragic, apotheosis. American reality television seeps through the screen and onto its streets: the dividing line was always fine, but now the two are indistinguishable.  

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