Truth-telling in the epistemic quagmire of the politico-infotainment complex: Donald Trump Edition

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.

Image result for photo of obama in traditional african dress

A picture the Drudge Report claimed was released by Clinton staffers as their 2008 campaign faltered





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14 Responses to Truth-telling in the epistemic quagmire of the politico-infotainment complex: Donald Trump Edition

  1. GrueBleen says:

    But surely “democracy” always has been “mob rule” ?

  2. ChrisB says:

    When it comes to lies stemming from cabinet solidarity, I wouldn’t class them as lies, involving as that term does some moral obliquity. If it’s a constituent element in representative democracy, it’s not wrong. As Bagehot said,
    “Constitutional statesmen are obliged, not only to employ arguments which they do not think conclusive, but likewise to defend opinions which they do not believe to be true. Whether we approve it or lament it, there is no question that our existing political life is deeply marked by the habit of advocacy. Perhaps fifteen measures may annually, on an average, be brought in by a cabinet government of fifteen persons. It is impossible to believe that all members of that cabinet agree in all those measures. No two people agree in fifteen things; fifteen clever men never yet agreed in anything; yet they all defend them, argue for them, are responsible for them. It is always quite possible that the minister who is strenuously defending a bill in the House of Commons may have used in the cabinet the very arguments which the Opposition are using in the House; he may have been overruled without being convinced; he may still think the conclusions he opposes better than those which he inculcates. It is idle to say that he ought to go out; at least, it amounts to saying that government by means of a cabinet is impossible. The object of a committee of that kind is to agree on certain conclusions; if every member after the meeting were to start off according to the individual bent and bias of his mind, according to his own individual discretion or indiscretion, the previous concurrence would have become childish. Of course, the actual measure proposed by the collective voice of several persons is very different from what any one of these persons would of himself wish; it is the result of a compromise between them. Each, perhaps, has obtained some concession; each has given up something. Every one sees in the actual proposal something of which he strongly disapproves; every one regrets the absence of something which he much desires. Yet, on the whole, perhaps, he thinks the measure better than no measure; or at least he thinks that if he went out, it would break up the government; and imagines it to be of more consequence that the government should be maintained than that the particular measure should be rejected. He concedes his individual judgment. “

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Indeed ChrisB as you say, advocacy is baked into political representation as one would expect – at least in representative democracy. But this worked perfectly well for as long as the cult of sincerity was kept at bay. If you look at Gough Whitlam’s or Malcolm Fraser’s advocacy, it’s often – I’d say usually – quite easy to read between the lines that they’re speaking as the advocate of a side of politics.

  3. paul frijters says:

    I am with Chris on compromise lies and multiple-audience lies ( I think the success of Trump stems more from the feeling of a large number of Americans that they are not doing so well and have been betrayed by politicians (which I think is basically true: they have been betrayed, but so many times that one perhaps should blame the betrayed). The irony is that Trump belongs to the betrayers!

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Paul – I agree that that’s the main driver. And the mob’s refusal to police abstract norms (like truth telling) without which the system can’t work properly.

      I was only suggesting it as a small, but not insignificant part of the story.

      As for it being ‘ironic’ that Trump belongs to the betrayers, it’s a bit more than that. It’s the most likely outcome of the system as it’s now constructed.

  4. Chris Lloyd says:

    “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”. That’s not lying Nick. Its Public Relations. They have whole degrees and departments devoted to it now. ;)

  5. Mandas says:

    Sincerity? Trump?

    Hahahaha. Very amusing.

  6. David Walker says:

    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).

    Funnily enough, Josh Barro tweeted on this today, in response to a suggestion that Trump’s candidacy was at least revealing that a lot of people were a**holes at heart. His tweet:

    This idea is tempting, but wrong. People pretending to be better than they are is what holds society together.

    Nick, I think Barro’s precisely right about this. When people lie and dissemble (as in your ALP example) they can be put to the test. They are pretending – or as Barro later suggested, “aspiring” – to be better than they are. They are holding themselves to a truth standard. And you and I have a shot at proving they’re falling short of that standard.

    A world where everyone defends themselves by saying “I say whatever suits my interest” has gone well past this. In such a world, standards of truth have eroded and civilisation will need to fight harder to survive.

    Call me a romantic, but I believe that truth is something you can get closer to, by Socratic and other means.

    That said, I concede it is hard to imagine what Socrates would have made of Donald Trump.

  7. Nicholas Gruen says:

    It is possible to plumb new depths? Perhaps not, but it is possible to bump along the bottom, viz this story.

    • David Walker says:

      All good fun, but that example is not really full-blooded lying. It’s naked E-minus stupidity that anyone can point at while laughing, with a dash of “I didn’t read the question”.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Thanks David,

        I guess you’re right in a literal sense. What’s linked to is the equivalent of casual lying in the realm of intent. That is, just as whether or not it’s true is a test of a statement that represents a truth, likewise vetoing the president carries with it the implication that you think it is a good idea. It’s quite clear from the story that they vetoed the president just because it was an idea. They did so without any thought whatever it seems as to whether it was a good idea :)

        Funny enough from a distance, but this is the most powerful country in the world.

        • Moz of Yarramulla says:

          Nicholas, I think you missed the point of the override. It wasn’t about policy, it was about winning. And the Republicans won. They beat the veto!

          But Obummer is still the president, so everything that happens is still his fault. The only question is *how* exactly it is his fault.

          I find The Weekly Sift an interesting summary of US stuff, and this week he mentioned the idea that Trump isn’t about the substance, he’s about the dominance. Asking what he really thinks isn’t relevant, because he lives in a world where what matters is dominating the meeting, right here, right now. If he does, he wins. If he has to back down, apologise, yield… he loses. The end.

          (the substantive article is also handy if you’re a fact-based type with opinions about Trump)

  8. paul walter says:

    I think the system now fails because changes to freedom of information, persecution of whistle blowers and dumbing down of msm have removed previous opportunities for examination and falsification, what we see is actually what comes of trying to operate in an information vacuum. The biggest hoax has been the war on terriers, as an excuse to blot out that which big business and politicians do not want us to know. another example would be FTAs shrouded in secrecy. We are told these are necessary to “facilitate trade”, yet are not permitted to know details and fine print and thus have an opportunity to plan ahead as to our own lives…in effect, we are being asked to perform the equivalent of handing over money for a car not merely without sight of without sight of a mechanical report and guarantee, but without sight of the car itself.

    My narrow experience in life has been that if people hide stuff, there is always something bad at the end of it all (otherwise why would they lie?).

    BTW that link really cuts to the chase as to that unabashed and greatly enthusiastic, now dying, lying machine known as the Tea Party. Now I shall adjourn to Quiggin, whose attention is also often directed toward examination of Murdochian lying and brain washing and the mad, bad and sad reasons for it.

  9. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Nice reference in this tweet – highlighting different ideas of truth. Of course Trump is the most ‘dishonest’ presidential candidate there’s ever been as measured by the literal meaning of what he says – but a considerable margin. On the other hand he’s less manipulative of the press. Of course I can hear the guffaws of those who are thinking that he’s spent his whole life making himself news. But that’s a little different. It’s been obvious that it’s not in Trump’s interests to traduce his accusers – for instance, the women who’s ‘pussies’ he’s been groping. He responds to every slight and gives his audience at his rallies a stream of his own consciousness. In that sense he’s not ‘on message’ and his every word is NOT a manipulation.

    And it’s precisely the sense that most politicians are on message all the time that people hate. It’s one of the things that they hate about Hilary (and why they didn’t hate Bill because he was so good at dressing up his being on message as ‘authenticity’) What I’m suggesting was implicitly (and ineptly) acknowledged by the Gillard campaign in 2010 when it said that we would now see the ‘real Julia’. People had a viscerally negative reaction to the inauthenticity of Julia who had mysteriously morphed from a feisty, forensically intelligent and largely Deputy Leader with authentiness to a talking points zombie Leader.

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