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The New Authoritarianism and the Structural Transformation of the Mediated Public Sphere III

Truth, Politics and the Bifurcated Sphere of Publics

As I have been reporting on the Wroclaw seminar’s progress, in the shadow of the collapse of democracy in Poland, I have been dumbfounded by events in the U.S. since I got back from Poland. President Trump has threatened nuclear war with North Korea, disregarding all expert opinion about the appropriate means to address the rogue regime, provoking global fears of a nuclear holocaust and the new rogue superpower. And on the domestic front, the President of the United States failed to unequivocally denounce white supremacists, Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan as they violently rioted, killed and maimed in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the dismay of many across the political spectrum, including prominent Republicans but with strong approval of Neo-Nazis.

Trump continues to provoke, appealing only to his core supporters, including David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK who explains the events in Charlottesville as an affirmation of Trump’s vision of America.

The President is ignoring the majority of the American people. With such actions, Trump becomes more and more unpopular and global anxiety heightens, but Trump apparently is unaffected by this public opinion. In fact, he seems to be digging himself ever deeper into the world of his core supporters. Even when he did finally denounce his racist supporters, his formality distanced the real him from his statement, and his continuing swipes at the fake media underscored this distance. And then the tweeter in chief took it back, apparently unable to denounce white supremacy.

While his narcissistic personality may explain Trump’s failure to reach out to a broader public, as every president in the recent past has done after his election, the shape of the sphere of the publics, as described in my last post, enables this. The way Trump knows his social reality, closes a larger world to him, as it confirms his self-centered views. And this is not all that unusual.

As I rarely come across anyone who approves of Trump, either in my media diet or in my daily life, unless I search for them, which I do, he only sees the public world I inhabit as a source of lies and slander about him and his supporters. Guided by the likes of Sean Hannity, he sees a world of them versus us, of the real people who overwhelmingly support him and the critics.

Did he really believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya? That he would build a Wall and Mexico would pay for it? That he would respond to North Korea’s insults with fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen? That all sides are responsible for the hateful demonstrations in Charlottesville? I certainly don’t know for sure. There is evidence that he didn’t, for example in the released phone conversation he had with Mexican President Peña Nieto. But what is real and true for Trump is confirmed by the response of his public, cut off from conventional sources of news and information, “the lame stream media.” Negative reports are dismissed as fake. Inconvenient truths are lies. Criticism is understood as attack.

Perhaps the fact that Donald Trump and Sean Hannity have a different understanding of the world than you and I is not surprising, given our very different positions in the world, and very different views of the world. And perhaps this would be true of active participants in the proletarian and the bourgeois public spheres of the past, which Nancy Fraser and others have highlighted. This is an elementary truth of the sociology of knowledge, in the hands of Mannheim, and of ideological critique, in the tradition of Marx. Yet, I think something more significant is happening here. It is not simply that we see and understand the world differently, or emphasize different things, because of our different situation and competing interests. It is that we are acting within competing factual orders, and our understandings of reality fundamentally conflict. Civil war or coercion, as is the present choice in Venezuela, seems to have become the alternative. This is the ground of the new authoritarianism.

Without mass centralized media, radio, television, and print also (the old Time Magazine and Newsweek, for example), we have come to live apart, occupying the sector of the sphere of publics that most appeals to us, that speaks to us, that makes sense to us. People go to the websites, and the cable news channels that make sense to them, and they know little about people who go elsewhere. Facebook and Twitter encourage this, as do the algorithms that determine our feeds and searches. In the absence of ceremonial media events and mundane mass media reporting and entertaining, we live in worlds apart. And its not only a problem of social structure, the bifurcated sphere of publics. It is made distinctive by a deeply problematic political culture, concerning the relationship between truth and politics.

It has become a common place: significant segments of the population proceed now as if they are entitled not only to alternative and competing opinions, but also with alternative truths and facts. Illuminating this became the basis for the hilarious satire of the Colbert Report, with the host, Stephen Colbert, in character, declaring that he thinks with his gut not with his head, as he devastated the Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly and President George W. Bush. Now this is standard fair in late night programing, which has become a daily staple in the politics and entertainment of America for a large segment of the population, but not for the other segment.

I set out in the seminar to discuss the serious implications of this development in political culture, and to demonstrate that this cultural ground of the new authoritarianism, though I fear it didn’t come across clearly. I’ll try again here. The key text is what I think is Arendt’s most important essay, “Truth and Politics.” Truth she notes is an enemy of politics, but it is also the necessary ground upon which politics is based. A succinct way of understanding her argument is to recall how Leon Trotsky appears in her work. As I observed in The Politics of Small Things:

 “When Arendt highlights Trotsky as a kind of totalitarian everyman in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she observes that he expresses his fealty to the truth of the Communist Party. But the fact that he could be airbrushed out of the history of the Bolshevik revolution, contrary to factual truth — that he was a key figure, commander of the Red Army, second only to Lenin — is also definitive of totalitarianism.”

Trotsky: “We can only be right with and by the Party, for history has provided no other way for being right.” But he himself was eliminated from official Soviet history after he lost his battle with Stalin. In both cases, politics, in Arendt’s sense, becomes impossible. When an interpretative truth is imposed upon politics, there is no room for the coming together of alternative opinions and judgments which constitute politics, but when politics is based on a lie, the result is the same. People with alternative opinions and judgments about the course of common action can’t act politically together if they can’t base their actions upon the factual truth.

The bifurcated sphere of publics is justified by the adherence to one interpretive truth or another, and the loss of factual truth as the basis of political life destroys the interconnectedness of publics with opposing positions. And though we can observe these tendencies across the political spectrum, it is noteworthy that they are most clearly evident among authoritarians. Trump’s and Kaczynski’s supporters know who the true Americans and the true Poles are, as Maduro and his supporters know the true Venezuelans. In each case, a significant segment of the population is ignored or vilified, not one of ours, and significant facts are denied.

It was pretty funny when Trump insisted that the crowd at his inauguration was the biggest ever. Still funny, but a little less so, when Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, argued Trump’s position, even when presented with images that clearly showed that attendance at Obama’s first inaugural was much larger. But when they insist that Trump would have won the popular vote if it hadn’t been for the voting of millions of illegal aliens, the humor disappeared, as the makings of a constitutional crisis were being sown.

By falsely challenging the fairness of the American electoral system, and falsely accusing non existent illegal alien voters of compromising American democracy, Trump and the Trumpists entered the zone of Kaczynski, Erdogan, Maduro, et al who have also attacked fundamental democratic institutions as they develop their authoritarian rule. In each case, the bifurcated sphere of publics is supported by opinions that are purported to be truths backed by state power, while factual truth is denied. I maintained in the seminar that these are the characteristics that distinguish the new authoritarianism.

What then is to be done? We didn’t explore this in any detail in the seminar. Probably the classic question should be reformulated: do our investigations suggest courses of action other than the ones that immediately come to mind: to defend democratic institutions and practices, to cultivate an understanding of democratic principles and ideals, and to work to make them a reality, to oppose the tyrants. Clearly, there are many things that need to be done. As we struggled to understand what the new authoritarian threat is, our deliberations point to the need to break through the authoritarian sphere of publics: work against the bifurcation of public life, cultivate respect for and defend factual truth, and work against the substitution of purported (interpretive) truths for political opinion. I will explore this in my next post, moving beyond the seminar deliberations in Wroclaw, tentatively entitled “Civility and Subversion: The Intellectual in Democratic Society Revisited.” It’s an application of the central idea of a book I published in 1998, applied to our current circumstance.

Jeffrey Goldfarb

  • Joe Detroit

    Thanks for the potent framing of the issue of how you can hold the president accountable when the narcissist is entirely self-absorbed in his own delusions and his core supporters uncritically accept the fake news of cynical, partisan media.

    You quote Arendt to make a powerful point: “the loss of factual truth as the basis of political life destroys the interconnectedness of publics with opposing positions.”

    But I suspect Trump’s adherents believe the blathering’s of Fox and co. are in fact factual. So there is no actual shift in political culture to embrace an interpretive relativism. How then can we assess their inability to critically or commonsensically assess Fox, etc. as an inadequate representation of our social
    reality?

    I’m pretty sure that Arendt would not embrace the objective mass press as the solution, especially when we know that time and time again the mainstream media has often fallen into a mindless embrace of the crazed ideological perspective of the ruling elite, a phenomena already decried by Walter Lippmann in his 1922 Public Opinion, where he dissected the media and government fantasies about WWI, not to mention his earlier investigation of the distorted reporting of the Bolshevik Revolution.

    Americans are quick to blame the press for the defects of our public sphere. But I am impressed with Jeffrey Alexander’s observation that the press in fact has only weak powers to make up for the defects of organized politics when its central protagonists are no longer engaged in reasoned debate.

    • Joe, if I may, on factual truth: the point is that Trump’s adherents belief in the alternative truth makes political engagement between “them” and “us” impossible. The issue is not only that of distortion and inability to understand, or manipulation (i.e. Lippmann’s concerns), but of systematic destruction of the ground upon which political life is possible. This suggests to me the totalitarian situation that Arendt analyzed. Last night I tried to watch Trump’s Phoenix rally. He and they live in a world of alternative facts, of systematic lies. I believe the work of the mainstream media, informed criticism of the media, and organized opposition, are each necessary to avoid the catastrophe that appears on our near horizon.

      • Joe Detroit

        Thanks for your further lucid explication.

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