—Did you describe yourself to her over the phone?
—Yes, I did.
—What did you say?
—What do you think I said?
—I don’t know.
—I told her the truth.
—As you see it?
—Yes, as I see it.
Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza
“We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.” This sentence was repeated in dozens of news media outlets as evidence that an era was launched along with the U.S. presidential campaign in which the truth was no longer a meaningful concept. The infamous phrase wasn’t said in 2016, but in 2012, and not by Kellyanne Conway, but by Mitt Romney’s pollster, Neil Newhouse. The context for it was an electoral period marked by what many commentators denounced to be an unprecedented exercise of political dishonesty. That year, for instance, Grist’s David Roberts wrote:
Political campaigns have always lied and stretched the truth, but when caught in a lie, would typically defend themselves (claim it was actually true), retract, or at the very least stop repeating the lie. Either way, the presumption was that truth-telling had some moral force; one ought to tell the truth, even if that commandment was often honored in the breach. What’s creepy about the Romney crew is that they don’t do any of those things. They don’t deny, they don’t stop, they just don’t care at all.
This awareness encouraged a controversial discussion of the way the media approaches false statements by politicians. While not free from criticism, many journalists began to challenge a tradition that forbids from calling falsehoods “lies”, which would imply speculating about the intention of the speaker (since lying is not only saying something that is not true, but saying it with the purpose of deceiving). Editors and writers started to realize that concepts such as “untruth”, “falsehood”, or “unsubstantiated claim” fell short to explain what Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and their team were doing to put Barack Obama out of the White House. In the heat of this debate, James Bennet, back then editor-in-chief of The Atlantic magazine, predicted something that today cannot be seen but as a bad omen: “What if it turns out that when the press calls a lie a lie, nobody cares?” (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/08/were-not-going-to-let-our-campaign-be-dictated-by-fact-checkers/261674/). More than five years later, with a Donald Trump presidency and a Brexit in motion, the Western world is becoming obsessed with a new concept that summarizes Bennet’s fear: “post-truth”.
To be able to make sense out of the political catastrophes of the past two years, many have turned to a theory that says that 2016 opened some sort of parallel dimension that, unlike what we’re supposedly used to, is not ruled by rational thinking. Trump and Brexit are interpreted both as the cause and consequence of the beginning of a new world order, one in which political discourse no longer aims at convincing with arguments, but rather at manipulating the emotions of citizens who are willing to accept a lie that confirms their prejudices instead of a fact that disproves them. In short, the reasoning goes that we’re now living in times in which the concept of truth has lost the privileged place it had maintained since the Enlightenment: No less than objectivity and rational social relations are supposed to be at stake.
The popularity of the theory of the post-truth era has permeated common and academic language around the world. The adjective post-truth, defined as “denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, was picked as Oxford Dictionary’s word of 2016 (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016), among other reasons, due to the fact that its usage saw a 2,000% increase compared to the previous year. Also in 2016, the chosen word of the German Language Academy was postfaktisch, an adjective that indicates a political shift “from the truth to what is felt to be true” (https://gfds.de/wort-des-jahres-2016/). And at the end of 2017, posverdad, a Spanish noun that relates to the “deliberate distortion of reality, which manipulates beliefs and emotions with the purpose of influencing public opinion and social attitudes” (http://dle.rae.es/?id=TqpLe0m), entered the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy.
It’s no wonder why so many authors have taken credit for its introduction in the social conversation. For example, Roberts, mentioned previously, said in 2012 (http://grist.org/politics/as-romney-and-ryan-lie-with-abandon-how-should-journalists-navigate-post-truth-politics/) that, as far as he knew, he had first deployed the expression post-truth policy in a piece from two years before (http://grist.org/article/2010-03-30-post-truth-politics/); or the historian Eric Alterman, who claims authorship of post-truth presidency, which appears in his book When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences (2004).
However, it’s overall accepted that it was the Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich who coined post-truth. In his article for The Nation “A Government of Lies” (1992), Tesich argues that after the Watergate scandal, followed closely by the Vietnam War and the revelation of its crimes, Americans started to turn away from the truth, a word that became synonym with bad news. This trend, argues Tesich, continued through the 80s and 90s with Iran–Contra and the Gulf War until it hit a breaking point: “A free people” decided freely “to live in some post-truth world” (https://www.thenation.com/article/post-truth-and-its-consequences-what-a-25-year-old-essay-tells-us-about-the-current-moment/). Now, Trump has done what Nixon couldn’t: make post-truth more than an extravagant term used by writers and turn it into the buzzword of his presidency.
Oxford explains that the prefix in post-truth doesn’t simply refer to “the time after a specified situation or event”, but rather “to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant”, as is the case with post-national (1945), and post-racial (1971). The latter, one might add, had a second boom after Obama won the presidential election in 2008, when nobody was even close to imagining what was going to happen eight years later.
The British journalist Matthew D’Ancona declares that 2016, the year in which Trump’s presidential aspirations stopped being a bad taste joke — he had been threatening to run since 1987 —, “was the year that definitively launched the era of ‘Post-Truth”. In his book Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back (2017) he talks about the truth as if it were “a currency or a stock” whose value crashed because of “a wave of ugly populism” that flooded democracies around the world.
While D’Ancona pinpoints a very specific juncture, contemporary proponents of the theory of the post-truth era tend to refer to a wider period of time between Richard Nixon and George W. Bush to explain its origins. All of them, however, have something in common: No one compares concretely the post-truth era with the one that must have preceded it, that is, an era in which either truth prevailed or liars were held accountable.
The reason for this is simply that such a thing never existed. This golden age of truth that was allegedly destroyed in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s or in 2016, in which there wouldn’t have been a place for Trump or Brexit — but there would’ve been one for imperialism, legal slavery, Hitler, McCarthy or Jim Crow? — is a myth. Ironically, adherents of the post-truth theory carry with them a nostalgia for the past that is similar to that of Trump and its partisans. His campaign was basically a call to the return of the great America, a glorious country ruined by immigrants, feminists, and the crooked media.
In his iconic essay from 2005, On Bullshit, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt develops a theory about a type of false statements that he differentiates from lies. Bullshit, argues Frankfurt, is not the opposite of the truth; instead, its main feature is a total indifference toward truth. From this perspective, we could understand Trump as a preacher of George Costanza’s philosophy: “It’s not a lie if you believe it”. While the liar must necessarily be aware of the truth, the bullshiter doesn’t even consider it.
Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit is the point of departure of contemporary debates on post-truth, such as the one proposed by Evan Davis in Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit (2017), where he claims that this absolute disconnection from the value of truth has become the main political communication strategy of the present.
But even if we could maintain that politicians and their allies, focused on winning at any cost, didn’t care about the truth, we would be on less solid grounds if we said the same about their voters. The presidential election of 2016 proved many ugly things; one of them is that people are desperately looking for someone who’ll (finally) tell them the truth. The truth, that is, as they see it. Perhaps the most revealing example of this is the fact that Trump’s supporters during the campaign repeatedly praised him for “telling it like it is”. They saw in the candidate that actually lied the most somebody who was fighting for the truth in a country of politically correct speeches that attempt to hide the real cause of death of the American dream. Although deeply misinformed, they’re looking for the truth in what they consider to be a world of lies. And politicians, political strategists and campaign chiefs know this very well: Ted Cruz’s campaign autobiography is called A Time for Truth; one of the most common insults among Republican candidates during the primaries was “liar”; Trump’s prefered way of scorning non-complacent news media outlets is accusing them of being fake news; and he stills refers to Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary”.
Justifiably, Trump’s detractors complained time and again about the excessive tolerance he enjoyed during the campaign — and into his presidency. They protested that he could say anything, absolutely any lie, and not lose support. But that is not exactly true. Trump did base his campaign mainly on lies, but not on any type of lies. His most outrageous falsehoods are supported by wider narratives of the social, political and economic order in which he lives and now rules.
For instance, he retweeted a statistic claiming that blacks kill 81% of white homicide victims; the non-alternative fact being that blacks kill 15% of white victims, while whites are responsible for 82% of these deaths. He maintains having seen “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City celebrating publicly the 9/11 attacks. Needless to say that there isn’t a single report that can corroborate this. “Believe me. This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing”, said Trump of his trickle-down economics tax reform, that Republicans sold as a cut for the middle class, even though it has been proven that most of the benefits will end up in the hands of the top 1% by 2027 —Trump’s family alone could enjoy savings of around 1 billion dollars, according to an analysis by The New York Times. He has accused immigrants — that come from “shithole countries” and not from Norway, that is — of bringing crime to the United States, while recent studies show that violent crimes decrease in metropolitan areas with growing immigrant populations. But as Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, once said: “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true”.
Trump’s stories haven’t been told five, but infinite times; with other words and euphemisms, sometimes with a different tone and sometimes not. Trump does say plenty of bullshit, but a lot of his bullshit is consistent with foundational myths of his culture, and as such, all the fact checking in the world is not enough to neutralize it. His first State of the Union speech consisted basically of 80 minutes of nationalistic bombasts and lies. Still, it received 70% of “somewhat positive” or “very positive” reactions from Americans who watched it. This is an exercise of propaganda called “state of our Union”: the way things are, our narrative, our truth.
There is no post-truth era the same way there is no truth era. We have only truth politics, in Foucault’s terms: a series of discourses that are recognized as true in a specific context, that frame and signify the reality we experience, without us being aware of it. Trump operates in the regime of truth of white male supremacy and neoliberalism. That is the truth as he sees it and, explicitly or implicitly, as the 62,979,879 people who voted for him see it.
We shouldn’t let Trump’s aggressiveness, vulgarity, negligible qualifications, and rampant misogyny and racism (in a society that likes its misogyny and racism discrete) fool us into believing that he’s an exception to the rule, an outsider, as it has been widely addressed. On the contrary, Trump represents the traditional ways fighting to maintain their foundational stories in power in a world that is and has always been obsessed with an ancient concept: the truth.