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Lying as Politics in the Age of Trump

What Hannah Arendt does, and does not, anticipate under a deeply vicious presidency

Reading Hannah Arendt’s Crises of the Republic in the Age of Trump: A Symposium

Hannah Arendt’s Crises of the Republic is not so much a book as a collection, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1972, of three essays and an interview that first appeared, individually, in the years between 1969 and 1971. Three of the pieces were first published in The New York Review of Books, and the fourth, the essay on civil disobedience, was first published in the New Yorker. Even though the words “crisis” or “crises” do not appear in the titles of any of these pieces, all of them clearly address what Arendt considered to be a constellation of forces that together represented a severe test of “the American Republic.”

This symposium contains essays by Mary Dietz, William E. Scheuerman, Christian Volk, Seyla Benhabib, and Jeffrey C. Isaac that engage with the obvious and meaningful resonances between Crises of the Republic and the present. They were originally presented in August at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting in Boston, in a panel organized by William Scheuerman and moderated by Cidgem Cidam.

“What has often been suggested has now been established: so long as the press is free and not corrupt, it has an enormously important function to fulfill … Whether the First Amendment will suffice to protect this most essential political freedom, the right to unmanipulated factual information without which all freedom of opinion becomes a cruel hoax, is another question.”

Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics,” in Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972)

I’m interested in reading Hannah Arendt’s essay “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers” [LP] from a historical and political perspective that intersects with three different moments in contemporary US presidential politics in which the press also plays a significant role. The first moment is November 1971, the year the essay was published in the New York Review of Books, and Richard Milhous Nixon was in office. The second is September 2006, the year that George W. Bush was in office and I found myself at the American Political Science Association Meetings in Philadelphia, on a panel called “The Legacy of Hannah Arendt,” with LP as my chosen text. The third moment was this past August 2018, when I was again with LP at the APSA amid what some have come to call “the age of Trump” and a nightmarishly different world of “lying in politics.”

To ask “what happened?” requires the kind of sustained thought and imaginative work that I can’t possibly attempt here. But however we might wish to make sense of the arc of presidential lying from 1971 to 2018 I don’t think our imaginations are well served by thinking in terms of a simple declension narrative of “bad to worst” or even in terms that rely primarily on deducing the unprecedented from precedents. To see why not, I venture some reflections on “Lying in Politics.”

Arendt’s essay addresses three political events in real and immediate time: The first is the writing of the top-secret 47 volume text called “History of US Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy.” The second is its leaking by Daniel Ellsberg to Neil Sheehan of The New York Times and the publication of the first installment on June 13, 1971. The third is the relentless escalation of the US war in Vietnam to which Arendt had earlier referred as “our mad Vietnam escapades.”[1] Elizabeth Young-Bruehl correctly describes LP as written in a mood of “defiance, unintimidated, with no thought of whom [Arendt] would please or displease” (p. 446). In that context, the essay opens with reference to the tangled web of duplicitousness and “the quicksand of lying statements of all sorts, deception as well as self-deceptions” that the Papers expose and any reader must unhappily “recognize as the infrastructure of nearly a decade of United States foreign and domestic policy” (p. 4).

It’s precisely Arendt’s contempt for the Nixon regime’s efforts “to deny in thought and word whatever happens to be the case” (p. 5) and “fit their reality … into their theory” (p. 12) that seemed to me so pertinent in 2006 following the Bush/Cheney regime’s cynical manipulation of US public opinion in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001. Then came the rhetorical manufacturing of “our war on terror,” initiated by Bush in an address to a Joint Session of Congress on September 20, well in advance of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In this moment, as the war waged on, the “free press” was again decisive in exposing duplicity. With reporter Michael Smith’s publication of the “Downing Street Memo” in The Sunday Times of London (May 2005), the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) was quoted as expressing the judgment that Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein “through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” (emphasis added). The activity of “fixing” and manipulating intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was aided and abetted by the alarmist rhetoric of White House officials, most infamously National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s caution in a 2002 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, that “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”. This entire charade perfectly fit Arendt’s account of the “defactualized world where political goals were set and military decisions were made” and where the “factual reports of the intelligence community” were consistently violated, in the era of Vietnam (pp. 21, 14).

In 2006, I read LP as fully able to capture the “reality” of lying statements in the infrastructure of American imperial foreign and domestic policy in the era of Iraq. What I saw at work then was precisely what Arendt saw in Robert McNamara and the rest of the Vietnam war “problem-solvers” in 1971: “…the deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends …” (4); the “deadly combination of the ‘arrogance of power’ … with the arrogance of mind, an utterly irrational confidence in the calculability of reality” (39). It’s a short step from that moment to 2004 when a Bush administration aide said to reporter Ron Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality … we’ll act again, creating other new realities … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Déjà vu all over again.

To be sure, by January 22, 2017 and the beginning of the “age of Trump,” it was tempting to see the tragic consequences of a “defactualized world” playing out for a third time, only now with all the risibility of a full blown farce. Accordingly, on Meet the Press we find Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway defending Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance numbers at Trump’s inauguration by confidently asserting the existence of “alternative facts.” Interviewer Chuck Todd finds himself gamely responding: “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.” Conway’s unflappable demonstration of Trumpian doublespeak would prove to be merely the initiation of a cavalcade of falsehoods from Trump himself, starting with the day before the alternative facts: “I wasn’t a fan of Iraq, I didn’t want to go to Iraq” (January 21, 2017).

Up to this minute, the President’s daily deluge of fabrications, deceptions, shams, pretenses, untruths, deceits, mendacities, and “demonstrable falsehoods” (dare the news media call them lies?) have been tallied, fact-checked, parsed, characterized, and catalogued on the websites PolitiFact and FactCheck.org and by the country’s newspapers of record, including an interactive enumeration in The New York Times. At last count (September 13) the Washington Post reported more than 5,000 “false or misleading claims” popping off the President’s tweeting tongue. Among them were Trump’s serial and increasingly convoluted lies about what he knew of hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels, subsequently “reality-checked” by his snappish and reliably falsifying Press Secretary Sarah Sanders as a “ridiculous accusation” deserving no further comment.

This distinctly American Grand Guignol demonstration of what Arendt calls “the disregard of reality … [and] for the actual consequences of action” (pp. 42, 43) in this distorted climate has by no means yet reached its culminating point. But one tellingly climatic moment arrived on August 18, on Meet the Press, where the omnipresent Chuck Todd again found himself on the rhetorical field of another Trumpian purveyor of alternative facts. This time the disingenuousness took form in Presidential “defense” lawyer Rudolph Giuliani’s allusion (amid talk of collusion and obstruction of justice) to “somebody’s version of the truth.” To this the evidently disconcerted Todd (by now Presidentially pegged as “Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd of Fake NBC News”) responded, “Truth is truth” — only to hear his interlocutor reply, “No, it isn’t truth. Truth isn’t truth. The President of the United States says, ‘I didn’t — ’.” On this new field of rhetorical play it appears that if the President says “I didn’t,” then the falsehood must be taken as a truth. And that is a fact.

Yes, all of this is about lying in politics. Yet in returning to Arendt’s brilliant critique of “deception, self-deception, image-making, ideologizing, and defactualization” (p. 44) and the war in Vietnam, I find the essay of limited value for grasping the peculiarities of our currently deranged political situation. Which is to say, LP doesn’t offer a way of fully comprehending what Arendt herself refers to elsewhere as “the distinct quality of what [is] actually happening” right before our very eyes.[2] The aspects of lying in politics that characterize the regimes of both Nixon and Bush simply can’t be readily fixed to fit and therefore explain what is “actually happening” now, in the age of Trump. Whatever else was going on in 1971 and 2006 — horrendous for the world as the wars and the prevarications certainly turned out to be — we weren’t in a polity where substantial segments of the US citizenry had been talked into believing that it’s the press and not the President that dissembles before our own lying eyes. What now matters, as the current President of the United States put it to the VFW on July 24, is to “Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people — the fake news … What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” This isn’t another example of what Arendt calls “the deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to political ends,” as with the concealments and deceptions about the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. It’s a “delusional reality show” in which the only “end” is the recycling promotion and self-promotion of Trump himself, a mesmerizing condition in which the necessary distinctions between “truths and lies,” “real and fake,” and “means and ends” no longer matter at all. In the age of Trump, “truths,” “lies,” “real,” “fake,” “means,” “ends,” are merely words, the rhetorical stuff of a hypnotic spectacle sufficiently entertaining and profitable enough (including for the “fake news”) to keep a significant part of the US population in a state of cognitive, psychological, moral, and political incoherence, if not utterly abject confusion.

All of this could perhaps be laughed off as a totemic presidential farce if not for the fact that (as of survey data on August 14) almost a third of the American people agreed with the Trumpian claim that “the news media is the enemy of the American people,” including a plurality of Republicans (48%); a quarter (26%) thought that “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior,” including a plurality of Republicans (43%); and 72% now believe that “it should be easier to sue reporters who knowingly publish false information.” These indicators support the General Social Survey finding that the number of Americans who now express “some or a great deal of trust in the press” has dropped by 30 percentage points since the 1970s. In the age of Trump, the “integrity and power of the press” and “the right to unmanipulated factual information” to which Arendt appealed in 1971 are demonstrably under threat from the very thing that her essay was concerned to defend: The thinking, reading, literate, American public in alliance with the freedom of the press. What Arendt’s essay does not anticipate is how, under a deeply indecent President, the American public could be made capable of performing upon itself the “cruel hoax” through which the press is demonized as the enemy of the people and “freedom of opinion” is made indifferent to factual truth (p. 45).

By this I don’t mean to suggest that LP is wholly irrelevant for purposes of thinking what we are doing in our presently menacing political times. Rather, it’s “the age of Trump” that we might read as irrelevant to the terms of analysis that Arendt used and I later deployed to identify “recent varieties” and new “genres” in the “art of lying in politics” in the eras of Nixon and Bush (pp. 7, 9). In truth, what might serve us better in considering Trump’s irrelevance is the significance that Arendt herself assigned to the historical interpretive activity of recognizing the phenomenon of the “unprecedented.” With this in mind, to ask “what happened?” with regard to the advent of the age of Trump, requires resisting the urge to see the latter as the outgrowth of a set of developing trends that began with Nixon, were amplified by Bush, and finally reached their logical culmination, albeit with an exceptional degree of venality and political corruption, in Trump. Instead, we might have to consider how Trump’s quotidian viciousness, propelled by Twitter and performed through absurdist tangles of meaningless “tweets,” has unleashed an entirely new genre in the art of lying in politics. If this as yet unnamed genre hasn’t utterly exploded what Arendt terms “our traditional categories of political thought” it must at least be recognized as something quite novel and different from the “recent varieties” of lying that she characterized in 1971 as the “public-relations managers” (pp. 7-8) and the “professional ‘problem-solvers’” (9).

How to get a grip on thinking about new and the unprecedented varieties of lying in politics is of course a challenging question for all of us. For Arendt what is paramount is avoiding what she calls the kind of “confusion” in which “everything distinct disappears and everything that is new and shocking is (not explained) but explained away either through drawing some analogies or reducing it to a previously known chain of causes and influences.”[3] To this I’d add the notion that, by staying alert to actual events and differences of factuality, we might also be better able to perceive what is perhaps unprecedented in the age of Trump: Not “lying in politics” but “lying as politics.”

Mary G. Dietz is John Evans Professor of Political Theory at Northwestern University. She teaches in the Department of Political Science and in the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.

Footnotes

[1] “Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers: Jan 16, 1967,” in Correspondence: Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers 1926-1969, eds. Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992, p. 667.

[2] Hannah Arendt, 1953. “The Origins of Totalitarianism: A Reply,” The Review of Politics 15:1, p. 80.

[3] Arendt, 1953. Ibid, p. 83. With thanks to a member of the APSA audience for suggesting the phrase “lying as politics.”

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