Pilate said unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and said unto them, I find in him no fault at all.
The Gospel according to John 18:38
Picasso once famously opined on art and truth-telling. “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” Today something very similar could be said of politics.
In politics as it’s practiced in the age of vox pop democracy lying is built right in. That’s not lying as in “I didn’t see Cardinal Pell” when you did. It’s lying in a deeper sense. At the very least it’s presenting a view that’s internally agreed upon – a view you may have argued against – as your own sincere position. It’s lying as in repackaging previously agreed policy as new policy. It’s lying as in saying that you think your colleague is doing a wonderful job, when you know he’s not. It’s lying when you come up with a slogan like “jobs and growth” and then you just grab whatever you cobbled into your latest budget and call it “A plan for jobs and growth”. It’s lying when you say Australia will be a second rate economy if it doesn’t have a GST and it’s lying when you say eight years later that a GST would be a monster tax that will ruin working families. It’s lying when you say that you’re going to the people early because speculation about an early election is destabilising government when not only did you start the speculation, but if you didn’t think it was in your interest you wouldn’t be calling an early election. It’s lying when you say you’re trying to strike a balance in industrial relations law between efficiency and fairness when your legislation is whatever you could get away with with the interest groups you had to deal with. The whole thing is put on and it’s increasingly obvious to all the punters.
And so when the post-reality politician Donald Trump is challenged about having said that his opponent Hillary Clinton would have made a “great” president a few years ago, instead of spinning and coming up with some lie about how he believed that then, but has had a change of heart (like Kevin Rudd’s about face on gay marriage), he just says stuff along the lines of “I was just lining my own pockets then. I was trying to get Hilary to do stuff for me, and that was part of the schtick”. Should we be outraged by that? Well I’m not particularly outraged. Not that I wouldn’t like my politicians to be more truthful, but that horse bolted a good while ago.
I can’t see the difference between Trump saying that Hillary would be great one minute (when that suits his self-interest and political interest at the time) and then reversing those words in a different situation and the ALP opposing the Libs’ superannuation changes on the grounds that they were retrospective (which they weren’t). In that sense I think I prefer Trump’s transparency regarding his own motives to the usual duplicity. Likewise Trump’s son shows a refreshing honesty when he says that his father is not releasing his tax returns because it would just stir up scrutiny that he doesn’t want.
Of course that doesn’t mean I support Trump. The possibility of his presidency, indeed how far he’s already come fills me with dread for our civilisation (Sorry for the grandiosity of this claim, but there you go). Like the Russian show trials of the 1930s, this is a time when people with an emotional commitment to one side of politics need to work out whose side they’re on. In the 1930s it was the left sleepwalking into the darkness. Now it’s the right. If their hostility to the left extends to supporting a narcissistic stream of consciousness rather than a competent professional politician, then they’re not making even a basic effort to integrate their thinking with their feeling selves.
Still there’s some merit in pointing to these things to understand people’s reactions to Trump’s post-truth politics. The enthusiasm towards him of at least 40% of the American voting public certainly illustrates many of the dangers of democracy sliding into mob-rule of which we were constantly warned by the political theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. That question should be at the top of the in-tray for anyone trying to think about contemporary politics.
And one, perhaps small, but by no means insignificant part of the story is that political discourse has been utterly debased by the politico-infotainment complex, the relentless drive for eyeballs and clicks on links, the nihilistic vortex of journalists spinning their role as ‘gotcha’ guardians of the truth and politicians resorting to political spin either enthusiastically or reluctantly to prevent misrepresentation (“have you stopped beating your wife?”). In that context it can be quite a relief, like coming upon an oasis in the desert, to hear Donald Trump give an answer that doesn’t play by those rules and that in its narcissistic insouciance is the very model of sincerity.