The Chronicle Review

Know-Nothing Nation

January 15, 2017

Machiavelli, one of our most famous theorists of deceit, reminds the prince that while everyone sees what he seems to be, few experience his real nature up close. This is counsel better suited to leaders far craftier than Donald Trump. Our new president is all text, sometimes in all caps. His temper tantrums, his view of himself, his lusts, his hatreds, and his feuds are no secret to anyone. When he lies, it is not usually or primarily to conceal his true self.

Trump is therefore no ordinary political dissembler — for one thing, his lies are more frequent, more audacious, and more ominous than most. Even so, it is difficult to see why his rise is so disturbing without focusing on his audience. We do not minimize the dreadfulness of the man himself if we also ask about the electorate that elevated him.

Look not at the liar, but at his audience.
Yet our usual assumptions may prove ill equipped for that task. When we talk about political dishonesty, our question is normally framed in terms of the vertical relationship between state and citizen: What should we do if the government lies to us? But in Trump’s America, the problem is at least as much horizontal as it is vertical: Citizens are trading lies to each other.

Or, to be more precise, we are trying to perform democratic politics amid a public debate that has been momentarily captured by a movement characterized by a striking indifference to truth. Importantly, this is not simple manipulation via the familiar top-down channels of talk radio and Fox News, but a spread of pseudofacts disseminated voluntarily, via the horizontal channels of social media, by voters themselves. Researchers have found that far-fetched, easily debunked stories are vastly more popular on Facebook than real news, and that there is a much larger appetite for viral lies on the right.

Trump’s most ardent supporters would surely object to this characterization, but one searches in vain for a similarly successful politician who has so systematically departed from most conventional standards of truth. Trump’s day-by-day policy shifts and his manifold self-contradictions dissolve the possibility of honesty by ignoring basic requirements of coherence and consistency. His tweets promoting fake, racially charged crime statistics and antivaccination propaganda reflect a near-total indifference to empiricism. His numerous appointments of major federal officials who wholly lack either relevant experience or policy knowledge demonstrate what he thinks of expertise.

So if Trump represents a kind of truth to his supporters — about a corrupt system, the evils of politics-as-usual, the essence of American greatness, or whatever — it’s a curious truth, one without coherence, consistency, empiricism, or expertise. The minority of American voters who have elevated him to the White House have bestowed an electoral blessing on this disregard for truth, energized Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters, and guaranteed that this approach to public discourse — which Trump partly leads and is partly enabled by — will play an outsized, perhaps defining, role in American politics for years to come.

During the 2016 campaign, the preponderance of fake news on Facebook brought the social media behemoth under scrutiny for its role in our politics. But this is not merely a failure of technology. Voters who read and share wild-eyed stories about the Clintons having an FBI agent murdered, or Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump, are not simply gullible innocents. Rather, their actions demonstrate the vast distance between our familiar normative conceptions of political argument and citizens’ actual practice of public conversation.

What of the idea that debate in a liberal democracy ideally turns on an exchange of reasons among citizens? Such a conversation is difficult enough when participants inhabit different epistemic universes, but it grows even more difficult when standards for securing agreement drift apart from each other. You should believe this — because I read it in the newspaper, because experts say so, because holding Opinion X also commits you to Opinion Y. These are forms of intellectual consistency, yes, but our willingness to be bound by them is also a stance on the authority and relevance of truth to our beliefs. In agreeing to see truth and its attendant qualities as authoritative, we place limits on what reasons are acceptable to give in an argument and to which knowledge it is appropriate to appeal.

In this populist moment, we often speak as if The People were (or at least wanted to be) a repository of truth and common sense. But if the 2016 campaign showed anything, it’s that the appetite for the fake, the absurd, even the paranoid — both from candidates and new media — is now a major destabilizing force.

In other words: Look not at the liar, but at his audience. Here, another remark of Machiavelli’s — striking in its bluntness — seems more relevant: "You will find people are so simple-minded and so preoccupied with their immediate concerns, that if you set out to deceive them, you will always find plenty of them who will let themselves be deceived." Even if the small-d democrat rightly cringes at the caustic accusation of mass simple-mindedness, Machiavelli undeniably captures the disquieting voluntarism of what we are now experiencing: many people "will let themselves be deceived."

How can we, individually or collectively, do anything about this? Just as we cannot stop politicians from lying, so we cannot stop other citizens from disregarding facts. But regardless of the fields in which we research and teach, we can still strive for consistency in our own thinking, call out lies, and remind people (not just our students) which sources are unreliable. And if frustrated voters are turning to catharsis instead of information, we should pursue, whenever reasonable, policies that address the frustrations that lead people to seek relief in political fairy tales and the reassuring bursts of a demagogue.

For the most part, then, we are constrained to acting in our own lives — but that is the only way to create the conditions that make it possible for us to act together. The rise of Trumpism has brought some dusty values back into fashion. It is now for the enemies of reaction to return to the language of citizenship, obligation, decorum, and truth. This does not require us to adopt a simplistic or monolithic idea of truth; by contrast, it requires that we reconcile some form of objectivity with a multiplicity of perspectives. Otherwise we are ripe for the authoritarianism our new president threatens. As John Dewey observed in 1941: "The freedom which is the essence of democracy is above all the freedom to develop intelligence; intelligence consisting of judgment as to what facts are relevant to action and how they are relevant to things to be done, and a corresponding alertness in the quest for such facts." That alertness for facts atrophies at our peril, and it may soon require us to act with unusual determination and foresight — as the scramble of scientists to copy government climate data before a possible Trump-led purge dramatically illustrates.

In linking freedom, intelligence, and democracy, Dewey captured an insight that we are now in danger of discarding. Our ability to remain a democratic society, he wrote, will largely be determined by how well we connect political intelligence — concerning how we, together, should act — with our horizontal processes of communication: "the method of conference, consultation, discussion, in which there takes place purification and pooling of the net results of the experiences of multitudes of people." This is a difficult task when our leaders withhold the truth from us. But it is impossible when we disregard it among ourselves.

Nathan Pippenger is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at the University of California at Berkeley and a contributing editor at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.