Donald Trump, Bullshit, and Totalitarian Truth

Donald Trump lies with remarkable frequency and glee.  His fibs and half-truths fall upon reality like snow and for years our pundits and politicians have been largely unable to cope with it.  But over those years, the abundance of fertilizer nurtured some creative – if inadequate – strategies for sorting through it all.

Perhaps the most entertaining was the rise of the fact check and the most effective, perhaps, ignoring the distractions.  The most incisive, however, was the revival of Harry Frankfurter’s analysis of “bullshit” as a form of fiction distinct from “lying” in its utter disregard for truth at all.  Frankfurter writes of the bullshitter:

“His focus is panoramic rather than particular.  He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well.”

The description fits the president remarkably well.  Not content to fabricate something said about him by the New York Times, he invents flattering conversations with the reporters that happened before and accentuated their betrayal, a vast conspiracy bent on bringing him down, and fabulous approval ratings that prove it isn’t working.  That proof to the contrary is often readily available is irrelevant because the truth itself is irrelevant to the teller. The problem with the Trump-as-bullshitter paradigm, however, is that it works only so long as the words are just that. For a better model, perhaps we should always have looked to Hannah Arendt.

Arendt’s monumental work The Origins of Totalitarianism focuses on particular authoritarian regimes that were differentiated from others by their unique nature.  There is no comparison to make to the regimes she describes – mostly Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia – in terms of their brutality, security apparatus, or the scale of their slaughter, but those are not what make them uniquely totalitarian.  She differentiates the totalitarian movements from other genocidal or repressive regimes in a number of ways, but one that is of particular interest is their unique relationship to truth.

One way to describe Arendt’s concept of totalitarian truth might be as the bizarre and dangerous point at which “bullshit” intersects with access to power and the will to use it.

Parts of Arendt’s description of totalitarian narrative resemble that of Frankfurter’s description of the bullshitter.  Arendt describes, not a willingness to lie, but a total lack disregard for truth in favor of narritave. She states that “totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency.”  But the danger of this peculiarly political sort of fabrication lies in the willingness to take the fiction one step further. Arendt writes of the movement in power:

“Then all debate about the truth or falsity of a totalitarian dictator’s prediction is as weird as arguing with a potential murderer about whether his future victim is dead or alive – since by killing the person in question the murderer can promptly provide proof of the correctness of his statement.  The only valid argument under such conditions is promptly to rescue the person whose death is predicted.”

To Arendt, the danger lay not in the lie or the ability or inability to deceive the audience, but in the willingness to wield power; to bend reality to fit the fiction.  No analogy is perfect, but the notion is instructive when we find the bullshitter in a position of enormous power and find ourselves buried in falsehoods.

Trump for years crowed that Obamacare was failing, even as – for all its imperfections – tens of millions of people were insured for the first time.  On January 20, 2017, however, the truth of his words became irrelevant as he was suddenly granted enormous latitude to make reality fit his narrative. So he began using the power at his disposal to undermine the law and make it untenable, rather than fix it and improve people’s lives.

Trump has stoked tension with North Korea for months saying that negotiation was impossible and suggesting that war was inevitable.  He recently agreed to slapdash head-of-state talks with the country’s leader, set a deadline two months in the future with a gutted State Department and no ambassador to South Korea, and fired his Secretary of State barely a week later.  That Trump would make his Twitter rants into truth by rushing into complicated negotiations half-cocked is a real possibility.

Mocking blatant lies can serve as a sort of personal salve.  Ignoring them entirely can take away their power to distract.  Those we should pay attention to, however, are those that the president has the power to make true.  Immigration, terrorism, national security, trade, war and peace, and law enforcement are areas where his fictions can suddenly have very real consequences in hard reality.

Arendt’s totalitarian concept of truth may sound like an extreme comparison but it can inform how we respond to a massive web of fictions.  Brush off the fibs and mock the flattery of his ego, but notice those tales whose very truth he can determine. Prove the lies wrong or ignore them altogether, but when the fictions intersect with real political power, their accuracy becomes irrelevant.  

Don’t argue about whether millions of illegal immigrants did or did not vote in the last election; simply protect the franchise.  Don’t argue about whether immigrants are more likely to commit crimes until after their civil liberties are safeguarded. Don’t argue about whether or not crackdowns in cities can stem drug use, push for criminal justice reform and protect the rights of the accused.  Don’t argue about whether or not the Affordable Care Act is or is not failing and whose fault that may be, just preserve health care for those who need it and empower those without means.

When bullshit intersects with power, the only thing that matters are the things that matter.  What matters is not being right or proving the lie wrong, but preventing the consequences of that power exercised in the real world.