Truthfulness in Politics08-16-2015
By Samantha Rose Hill
“Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings. Whoever reflects on these matters can only be surprised how little attention has been paid, in our tradition of philosophical and political thought, to their significance, on the one hand, for the nature of action and, on the other, for the nature of our ability to deny in thought and word whatever happens to be the actual fact.”
— Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics”
Earlier this month, as one politics “truth-teller,” Jon Stewart, stepped away from his desk after 16 years, another, Donald Trump, walked on to center stage in the first Republican debate of the 2016 Presidential campaign season. Jon Stewart and Donald Trump represent different varieties of truth in contemporary politics--the former employs humor and wit to hold politicians accountable, often juxtaposing what they said with clips or images of them saying or doing the exact opposite. The latter, in total disregard for political decorum and consistency, offers a form of truth by revealing the manufactured nature of American politics. Just as John Stewart pulled back the curtain on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004 by refusing to “be [their] monkey” and spoke in an honest tone without playing to the audience or hosts, Trump’s (sometimes noxious) candor brings to light the other candidates’ well rehearsed answers.
[caption id="attachment_16452" align="aligncenter" width="530"] Jon Stewart (Source: The Huffington Post)[/caption]
What does it mean to tell the truth in politics today? What does it mean when someone claims to ‘tell it like it is’?
Hannah Arendt’s essay “Truth and Politics” argues that truth and politics have never been on good terms, and the absence of truth in the political realm threatens justice and a loss of the world. Even so, truth, or at least the rhetoric of truth, plays a central role in American politics today. From Snowden to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report on Torture, our political climate places utmost value on knowing “the truth.”
Truth and “straight talk” themselves were topics of conversation in the first Republican Presidential debate. Megyn Kelly prefaced her first question to Trump about women with the following: “One of the things people love about you is you speak your mind, and you don’t use a politician’s filter.” When asked about his divisiveness among voters, Ted Cruz said: “I believe the American people are looking for someone to tell the truth.” Governor Christie and Cruz both mentioned that “we need a strong leader to tell the truth.” Part of Trump’s rhetorical style is grounded on the illusion that listeners are being let in on some knowledge: You want to know the truth? I’ll tell you the truth.
Truth is already a theme in the current election cycle, and whether it relates to speaking without a political filter or perusing results from Politifact, truth as an idea in politics is a topic of conversation. The question is this: Does this variety of truth in politics move us closer to an ideal of democracy or justice? Is it actually a form of truth?
In her essay “Lying in Politics,” Arendt discusses the different forms of lies that occur in the public realm. And today it seems that “truth” equated with “saying it like it is” has become a different sort of political lie. Arendt was wary of those who dismissed unpleasant facts as opinions, but today it seems we need to be wary of those who embrace unpleasant opinions as facts. Saying it like it is can be a form of lie that holds up one man’s truth as factual truth, when in reality that truth is opinion painted as fact. But this particular kind of disregard for the facts (how much is Trump really worth?) is not the kind of truth in politics that we are talking about. Rather, it is a feeling for truth, or a truth that affirms the audience members and listeners who are looking for a personal mirror in their political candidate.
[caption id="attachment_16454" align="aligncenter" width="530"] Stephen Colbert and "Truthiness" (Source: Rant Lifestyle)[/caption]
Trump represents the kind of “unscripted” reality TV that many Americans like to watch. There is an element of unpredictability, and always something to laugh or shake your head at. But the “aha caught you in a lie” moment is losing its dramatic oomph in American politics--people know politicians lie. We’ve known it for so long that Stephen Colbert invented a word for it: truthiness. Trump’s form of truth is irreverent to factual truth, and in his irreverence there is a truth to be found about the American political system. We can criticize him for his lack of political correctness, but that doesn’t correct the way some American’s feel about immigration or women. And we can criticize him for not playing the same political game as, say, Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton, but in doing so we miss an opportunity to talk about just how manufactured modern elections are.
Today the Wall Street and Madison Avenue lie that Arendt highlighted in “Lying in Politics” is old news. In its stead we have the demand for truth or accountability to some form thereof. Nearly everything politicians say is fact-checked by professional researchers and sifted through on the Internet. To Arendt’s catalogue of lying, it seems that today we can add a form of truth itself. Whether we want to call it the rhetoric of truth or fall back on Colbert’s “truthiness,” political discourse has been injected with the demand for truth. Even if one tells it like it is, it is always something, but it is never the objective ideal that we can know and articulate through words.
Donald Trump gives language to the way many Americans think about political issues like immigration. Is what he said about Mexico true? No. Does it reflect the way people think about the border? Yes, for some. Instead of carefully crafted sound bites and language curated for public consumption, Trump lays it out in a plain, asymmetrical, often-unreasoned way. This does not mean that his image has not been carefully honed, but it does mean he does not subscribe to what has been accepted as approved political speak. Perhaps in the spirit of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” Trump has emptied his lexicon of political jargon and in so doing has tapped into a desire of the American people to experience politics more like a reality TV show rather than a romanticized dog and pony show.
Donald Trump is a master showman, but even more so he is a businessman. He isn’t the first person to run on the credentials “businessman,” but seeing his name on the Fox News banner at the beginning of the debate highlighting his “selling points” like stats for a starting lineup, it is hard to ignore the factual truth that politics on TV is an unadorned spectacle. His presence on stage represents a moment in American politics that is being defined by the confluence of politicians running as businessmen or CEOs, reality TV, and “selfie-nation.” Presidential campaigns are announced on Twitter and through online videos, potential voters pose with candidates to collect selfies, and debates are treated like the Friday night fight. Trump’s participation in this kind of spectacle breaks down the semblance of a divide between private opining and public discourse. He has no regard for the division between private life and public life, and the way he speaks continuously blasts open the divide we hold up between private conversation and public discourse.
[caption id="attachment_16455" align="aligncenter" width="530"] Donald Trump (Source: WGRZ.com)[/caption]
Whether we like him or not, Trump has a role to play in this election. His disregard for the politically correct rules of public discourse--for which he admittedly has “no time”--makes visible in public something we already knew: Political candidates, especially in our age of technology, are well crafted for public consumption. Trump’s participation in events like the debate last Thursday show us that Americans have an appetite for his kind of rawness, and they want a healthy dose of entertainment with their politics.
In “Truth and Politics” Arendt argues that we must demand truth in politics because the loss of truth could lead to a loss of the world in-and-of-itself. For Arendt, truth is one’s ability to say what is--it is the language the binds us together in a common world. Trump’s truth is one that must be acknowledged, not as factual truth but as a form of truth that reflects the way more than a few Americans feel about certain political issues, as well as an act of truth that pulls back the curtain on the political machinery. Both Stewart and Trump claim to be truth-tellers, but they tell different kinds of truth. Whereas Stewart through satire stands outside the gates of power, Trump through fame and generous campaign donations is very much part of the political system. (Though it’s worth questioning whether or not even Stewart can be called an outsider since he apparently takes secret meetings at the White House and advises the President.)
Trump is not speaking truth with a capital T, but he confronts us with a reality. Truth in the sense of saying what one is actually thinking without dressing it up is often the best way to tell a lie, because we are not accustomed to hearing internal unfiltered opinions externalized. In a world that uses a filter for everything we are constantly preparing for our appearance in the public realm, a brash public figure that has intentionally crafted a persona of “no filter” is a novelty and phenomenon.
Maybe Trump merely affirms what some are already thinking. Maybe he’s spicing up run-of-the-mill electoral politics. Either way, he provides a good through his personality that many millions of Americans apparently want. The language of "tell it like it is" in itself is a form of political rhetoric that echoes back what many Americans are thinking. Even if that thinking isn’t factually true, it does represent a truth that needs to be addressed.
(Featured image sourced from ABCNews.)