Lying As A Way Of Life10-15-2020
As the lies pile up, people ask why the President’s lies don’t seem to hurt his standing. Roger Berkowitz argues that lies barely register today because lying has become, simply, a way of life. And he asks, “How Do We Rebuild a Shared American Reality on a Foundation of Lies?”
Arendt argues that the refusal of reality is tied to the “mass manipulation of fact and opinion,” which she attributes to the “decisive” consequences of the rise of public relations that has “invaded our political life.” Arendt’s prime example of the dominance of image-making in politics is the Vietnam War. To look at the Vietnam War is to be confronted with a reality that is “unbelievable”: the horror of the war, the failures of US policy; the lies and corruption; and the atrocities committed. This “not very honorable and not very rational enterprise was,” she writes, “exclusively guided by the needs of a superpower to create for itself an image which would convince the world that it was indeed ‘the mightiest power on earth.'” The war in Vietnam was fought for neither “power nor profit.” It did not aim at imperialist domination. Not even influence in Asia was the goal. “The terrible truth” revealed by the Pentagon Papers was that the “only permanent goal had become the image itself.” The war was fought for “audiences” according to imagined “scenarios” and how they would be perceived. And at the end, the entirety of the effort was not to avoid losing, but “to avoid admitting defeat and to keep the image of the ‘mightiest power on earth’ intact.”
Today, our infatuation with images and our flight from the real world is all around us. The President lied about the size of the crowds at his inauguration. He lied to the American people about the Corona Virus. He is now lying about the threat of voter fraud. Just this week he appeared at campaign rallies after having tested positive for COVID-19. The audacity of Trump’s lies is at times difficult to fathom. What needs to be understood, however, is that the President’s lies are not attempts to convince or persuade; his lies are designed to buttress his image. His lies about the inauguration are to protect his image as a powerful leader. But above all, his lies that attack experts, civil servants, the intelligence agencies, and our political institutions are aimed to burnish his image as a truthteller.
It is a twist of irony that the greatest liar ever to hold the office of the Presidency won in large part because people saw him as telling the one big truth—that the system is broken and corrupt. Donald Trump can appear as a truthteller because he rejects the expert-and-pundit-driven theories and speculations that have come to justify globalization, imperialism, systematic racism, rape culture, and media objectivity. Globalization and free trade have been sold as an unqualified good by the cosmopolitan classes who jet around the world attending conferences and opening factories, while millions of people in the lower and middle classes see their incomes diminished with little benefit. United States intervention in foreign nations is defended by the foreign policy elite as necessary to uphold the liberal world order, but the people who fight those wars are almost exclusively those on the bottom of the economic and social ladder. Systematic racism and white privilege embrace a theory of collective guilt, ignoring differences of class, origin, and hardship, and forgetting that where all are guilty, none are guilty—all of which leads to a public relations strategy of admitting an abstract guilt divorced from consequences. The claim from the #MeToo movement to “believe women”—rooted, of course, in the longstanding silencing of women—makes the ideological demand that all women be believed, until, of course, someone like Tara Reade accuses Joe Biden of rape or popular feminist professors are accused of harassment, at which point the phrase “believe women” hits its limits. And the embrace of “resistance journalism” by much of the media elite has, finally, made clear the real bias of mainstream journalism that largely ignores and diminishes the worldview of those outside the centers of urban and elite culture. There is no greater example of this than the continued effort by some in the press to connect the dots showing President Trump’s collusion with Russia even after the Mueller Report found no evidence of such collusion.
The problem today is not simply that President Trump lies incessantly. It is not only that those on the left insist on theories and speculations that defy common sense. It is easy to focus on the specific lies the President tells because they are so brazen. Conspiracies are thriving and not only on the fringes of our society: There is the Qanon claim about a pedophile ring throughout the reaches of the U.S. government; the fantasy of #Obamagate that President Obama and Vice-President Biden conspired to prevent President Trump from winning the election; there is the fictional claim that President Obama and now Representative Ilhan Omar are not U.S. citizens; Holocaust deniers are in ascendence and #Russiagate purveyors insist that President Trump is controlled by Moscow. To point out that conspiracies impact both the left and the right is not to state an equivalency; it is, however, to recognize that there is a flight from reality across our social and political worlds: lying today has become a way of life….
Finally, the President’s lying displays the cancerous growth of the public relations machine to encompass all areas of political and economic life such that lying and the evasion of reality are made into matters of principle. When lying becomes a way of life, the very idea of truth is transformed into a battle of competing images. The question of whether there is voter fraud ceases to have a true answer; it is transformed into a contest between dueling images. Is wearing a mask medically sound? It is, rather, a partisan statement, an image representing one’s political commitments. “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth,” Arendt writes, “is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”