The Burden Of Truth
Hannah Arendt, Democracy, & Donald Trump’s Lies
By Professor Christopher Beem (The Pennsylvania State University)
January 15, 2017 Picture: Patrick. T. Fallon/Reuters.
This article is part of The Critique’s January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture & An Obtuse Political Establishment.”
In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell famously said “political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell’s claim is not about some subset of politicians or certain occasions of political speech. He notes that “with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists.” It is thus as universal as it is damning. Politicians may try to sound truthful, but they are not. Politicians lie.
This universal claim is accepted universally. Questions about how much and what kind of lies are of critical importance in what follows, and partisans will always point exclusively to the other side, but is there anyone who disputes the fundamental notion that, in the words of Hannah Arendt, “truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other”?
Indeed, the idea is so universal that often there is a breezy, even cavalier quality to it. Perhaps this is because by identifying politics with lies, we are able to detach ourselves from the entire enterprise. The idea that political language is distinctively untrue fits with our low expectations regarding the outcomes of elections, and thereby helps us defend ourselves against the chronic disappointment that little will change, and even less will be for the better. If Orwell is right that all politicians lie, then in the words of another famous Englishman: “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”
But while such claims are easy and may offer some measure of existential defense, it is meet to ask: how far down does such an assumption go? How much lying can we tolerate from politicians? Or, asked the other way, how much truth is required to sustain a democracy? As Americans confront the swearing in of their 45th President, these questions take on a newfound salience.
Democracy and Truth
Born of the wars of religion, democracy says that disagreements about God’s nature, and God’s will for human beings, are deep, abiding, and insoluble. Since more than a century of violence and tyranny could not overcome them, Western Europe had no choice but to acquiesce to their reality. It had to organize society in a way where agreement about these questions could no longer be assumed nor achieved. Within very wide limits, democratic society therefore confirms citizens’ right to believe whatever they want, and it institutionalizes forms of debate by which citizens express and argue about their differences. The mechanisms of democratic politics—campaigns, elections, debates (as well as arm-twisting, logrolling and well-timed contributions)—are the means by which we do this. They make it possible for us to achieve a civil society despite these disagreements.
But while we no longer kill each other over these disagreements, they have not disappeared. What’s more, they remain so deep and so insoluble that many political thinkers believe they need to be cordoned off from politics. John Rawls, for example, said that in a democracy, the agreement that grounds those democratic mechanisms—agreements that includes fundamental ideas about justice, freedom and the rights of the individual— ought to be understood to be “political, not metaphysical.” That is, this kind of political ideal “presents itself not as a conception of justice that is true, but one that can serve as a basis of informed and willing political agreement between citizens.” To go further and determine whether and why these ideals are true requires debating deep and often theological claims that cannot be settled rationally, and which can rend a peaceful society to pieces. Besides, Rawls says, truth is not only a bridge too far, it is also unnecessary. A pragmatic agreement, what he calls an “overlapping consensus,” is sufficient to make a democracy go.
In her essay “Truth and Politics,” Hannah Arendt also argued for a kind of cordoning off of truth claims. “Seen from the viewpoint of politics,” says Arendt, “truth has a despotic character.” Claims about the truth are, by their very nature, authoritarian and exclusionary. They don’t let any other claims in, making dialogue or debate both unproductive and impossibly contentious. And the deeper these claims are, the more they resemble the claims associated with the wars of religion, the more they “strike at the very roots of all politics and government.”
Because some of our differences are so deep, contentious, irredeemable, and dangerous, Arendt, like Rawls, is nervous about them. Better, Arendt argues, to leave these absolutistic and exclusionary truth claims to the philosopher, and beyond the ken of politics and politicians.
But for Arendt, cordoning off certain claims does not mean that truth doesn’t matter in politics. Indeed, democracy’s need for truth is born of the same argument that seeks to exclude certain claims about it. Again, dialogue—civil argument and disputation—is constitutive of democratic politics. It is the alternative to violence. And just as political dialogue cannot productively take on absolute truth claims, neither can it do without shared commitments about how we work together through dialogue to find the truth.
We all have our own perspective and experiences. Therefore the world is in a fundamental sense distinctive to each one of us. Following Socrates, Arendt argues that when we discuss and contend in the public square, we bring forward our unique perspective, our doxa: “the world as it opens itself to me.” Nevertheless, while the world opens up differently to every one of us, and none of us can claim objective knowledge, there is still an objective world out there that all of us seek to understand. “The sameness of the world, its commonness…or “objectivity” resides in the fact that the same world opens up to everyone.” More, it is only through this communication between individuals, this dialogue in which different perspectives are presented and evaluated, that we can come to best understand the world. It is thus through communication that “truth reveals itself.” Arendt avers that “truth itself is communicative.…within the ‘existential’ realm, truth and communication are the same.”
Arendt therefore maintains that any cordoning can only go so far. If a democracy is going to sustain its most elemental features, then “truth is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” In my reading, this means that democracy requires from all of us, politicians and citizens alike, at least two things: 1. we agree that there is a world that exists independent of our beliefs or knowledge. That is to say, we agree that there are such things as facts. And 2. we approach democratic debate with the idea that we are all presenting our unique understanding faithfully. We know that we all can be wrong or misguided, that we are all unable to fully escape our own biases, but in dialogue, we strive to offer an accurate accounting of how the world opens up to us. That is, we strive to be truthful.
None of this obviates the fact that politicians do not always tell the truth. Politicians use words not to convey their own doxa, but to win elections and campaigns, to mislead or misdirect. But if this reading of Arendt is correct, then these lies do not tell the whole story. If it is correct, then the degree to which a politician will lie, what he or she lies about, and to what ends and for what reasons—all of this matters. Because a democracy requires a shared commitment to truth to sustain itself, at some point, lying by politicians will undermine and threaten democracy.
Just when we might come to that point is not at all clear, of course. But I will argue that we are now closer to that point than we have been in a very long time. During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump lied more frequently, and more destructively, than any politician in recent memory. His election thus represents a new and significant danger to American democracy.
The Frequency and Severity of Donald Trump’s Lies
If all politicians lie, then it should not surprise us that Donald Trump lies, as well. But even if such a universal statement is true, it does not follow that all politicians are therefore the same. In fact, the overwhelming evidence is that no politician in recent American history has said untrue things with the frequency and the extremity of Donald Trump.
Consider the following chart. Produced from data from Politifact, a non-partisan, fact-checking website, it compares statements by leading presidential candidates since 2007.
[Credit: Robert Mann]
First off, it is worth noting that this graph lends credence to the claim that all politicians lie. Since 2007, not one of the American presidential candidates of either party has been judged to be completely truthful.
But the other fact is that Donald Trump is a significantly bigger liar than any other candidate in that timeframe. According to PolitiFact, 4% of Trump’s statements— that is, 14 out of 338— have been rated as true. Fully 70% have been rated as various degrees of falsehood. PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan has concluded, “Donald J. Trump’s record on truth and accuracy is astonishingly poor.”
Partisan critics will argue that despite their claims of objectivity, Politifact is really a left-leaning organization that only serves their partisan agenda. And, in fact, Robert Lichter at the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University has shown that during Obama’s second term Politifact “rated Republican claims as false three times as often as Democratic claims.” To be sure, this analysis hardly settles the matter. It is possible that the reason for the disparity is not bias but rather that over the period in question, Republicans simply lied three times more frequently.
Regardless, however, it is true that Politifact’s conclusions about the distinctiveness of Trump’s lies are in no way unique. FactCheck.org, another nonpartisan fact-checking organization, called Donald Trump “King of the Whoppers…In the 12 years of FactCheck.org’s existence, we’ve never seen his match. He stands out not only for the sheer number of his factually false claims, but also for his brazen refusals to admit error when proven wrong.” The news website POLITICO did a five-day analysis of Trump campaign speeches and found that “Trump averaged about one falsehood every three minutes and 15 seconds over nearly five hours of remarks. In raw numbers, that’s 87 erroneous statements in five days.” The Huffington Post assigned five and a half reporters to look into a roughly 12,000-word transcript of Trump’s town hall event on CNN the night before. Their conclusion: “we found 71 separate instances in which Trump made a claim that was inaccurate, misleading or deeply questionable. That’s basically one falsehood every 169 words (counting the words uttered by moderator Anderson Cooper), or 1.16 falsehoods every minute (the town hall lasted an hour, including commercial breaks).” Again and again, quantitative, comparative, and purportedly objective analyses have shown that Donald Trump is distinctive among politicians in how much he lies.
But even if that is true, it is not clear what difference that makes. It is fair to assume that at some point, the sheer number of times a politician lies can become so voluminous that the ability of the body politic to absorb them and their effect becomes compromised. It is not clear to me how one could calculate that point, but at minimum, it is fair to say that Donald Trump has drawn closer to that standard than any other presidential candidate, let alone president, in recent memory.
Trump and Bullshit
The question of how much lying a democracy can sustain is not merely one of volume, that is, the sheer number of lies. It also concerns the quality of those lies. What kind of lies are they, how are they presented, in what context and about what subjects? Here too, Donald Trump’s behavior is singular, and indeed singularly dangerous. For Donald Trump is not merely a liar; he is a bullshitter.
In his essay On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt argues that bullshit and a lie are not the same. For Frankfurt, a liar wants “to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believes something he supposes to be false.” But for this very reason, “the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true.” If hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue, a lie includes an implicit awareness of, and thus concern for, the truth.
“Donald Trump is not merely a liar; he is a bullshitter.”
Bullshit, on the other hand, is “indifference to how things really are.” The bullshitter “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” In sum, the liar is more aware of, more concerned about, the truth than the bullshitter. And that makes the bullshitter worse: “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
If this is indeed a useful distinction, then how does it apply to the President-elect? What makes his lies, bullshit?
Right before Thanksgiving, Donald Trump sat down with writers and editors of the New York Times for a wide-ranging, on the record interview. Columnist Frank Bruni was at the meeting. He noted that only seven hours before, Trump branded the Times a “failing” news organization. That epithet is a fairly common one coming from Mr. Trump, but he has also called it (among other things) “disgusting,” “dishonest,” and “a laughingstock rag.” But for all this, at the meeting—again, seven hours later—Trump said that this same paper was “a great, great American jewel.” How does one account for this: two statements, diametrically opposed, uttered within hours of each other? It cannot be explained away as papering over former differences for the sake of a fresh start; the distance between those two accountings is far too great. The far more plausible explanation is that Trump is a bullshitter— that with respect to his statements about the Times he “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
The question immediately arises: what then exactly is Donald Trump’s purpose? What does he value over and above any desire to either form a coherent opinion or to describe that opinion truthfully? Bruni offered the following account: Trump’s “epic ache for adoration or outsize need to tell everyone how much he deserves it” wildly overwhelms any commitment Trump has to the truth. Donald Trump says whatever he needs to say to receive the esteem of his listener. And in pursuit of that adoration, truth is an irrelevancy. In Frankfurt’s terms, Trump’s ego causes him to epitomize bullshit.
Further examples are legion.     Again and again, Donald Trump has made claims that are objectively false. And every time, the most plausible explanation for why he has said what he said was to cosset his ego. This state of affairs raises genuine and quite serious questions about the President-elect’s mental status, but my point here is to consider its implications for American democracy.
Politicians lie, but they do not normally bullshit. That is to say, politicians behave in precisely the manner that Frankfurt articulates—they lie with an eye to the truth. Indeed, they commonly surround their lies with the truth in order to make them plausible. That makes it possible to argue about their claims. But a bullshitter, by definition, operates without any such constraint. And that renders democratic dispute, at best, extremely difficult. For how does one argue constructively with a bullshitter? How does one assess, dispute, or even discuss statements made by someone who is faithless to the truth? Speaking more directly about politics, how does a nation address problems when we do not know and cannot deduce the opinion of the leader of our government?
Trump and Gaslighting
At the end of his short essay, Frankfurt notes that “The proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things really are. These ‘antirealist’ doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry.” Here, too, Donald Trump implicates himself. Here, too, his lies manifest one of these deeper sources, and thus are both more significant and more damaging to American democracy.
The term gaslighting owes its origin to the 1938 play and 1944 movie Gas Light. The husband manipulates the gas lights to a flicker. When the wife notes the change, the husband says that the lights haven’t changed at all and that she must be imagining things. Thus the term, used frequently among those who treat victims of domestic abuse, refers not merely to a lie or series of lies, but to their underlying purpose: to cause someone to doubt their own grasp of reality.
“Politicians lie, but they do not normally bullshit.”
This fall, Donald Trump tweeted that he had been invited to appear on John Oliver’s HBO show, Last Week Tonight. Trump called the show “very boring and low rated” and said that he declined: ““NO THANKS” Waste of time & energy.” John Oliver tweeted back that they had never extended such an invitation.  Shortly thereafter, Trump doubled down on his lie, claiming that he had been invited on the show “four or five times.” On his show, Oliver played the tape from the radio interview, and noted that “being on the receiving end of a lie that confident” was “genuinely destabilizing.” In words that directly recall Blackman’s distinction, Oliver said that he was not even sure if Trump “knows he’s lying. I just think he doesn’t care what the truth is.” But not only was the lie bullshit, it also caused Oliver to doubt what he knew to be the truth. It is this deliberate creation of doubt that distinguishes a lie as gaslighting.
Of course in this case Trump’s behavior merely serves as fodder for a comedy news show, but the strategy, and its impact on the victim, are anything but funny.
Consider the case of Ben Terris, a reporter for the Washington Post who witnessed Corey Lewandowski, then Trump’s campaign manager, take reporter Michelle Fields by the arm and yank her away from the candidate. “In the moment, Terris reported, I was sure it happened. I asked Fields if she was okay. (She was bruised and a bit rattled.) I told her it was Lewandowski who had grabbed her. There was no question.”
But once the story came out, Trump and his campaign staff dismissed the claim and sought to discredit both Terris and Fields. Trump said that he thought Fields “made the story up.” The campaign called the accusation “entirely false” and Lewandowki tweeted that Fields was “totally delusional.” Here again, the confidence and certainty associated with their denial caused Terris to question what he had himself witnessed. “By the time my editor asked me about it three days later, doubt had started to creep in.”
To Terris, this one episode reflects a more dangerous and, as far as Trump is concerned, a more ubiquitous kind of lie. “It was a type of lie that has lived at the center of the Trump campaign. This was not simply a misreading of history, an embellishment of biography, or a dishonest interpretation of a piece of legislation. It was a flat-out denial of something that undeniably happened.”
Here as well, other episodes are easily garnered. But Terris is correct that individual examples are properly understood as part of a broader effort by Trump to sow doubt and distrust. Unemployment figures are phony. The U.S. judicial system is akin to that of a third world country. Against overwhelming science, Trump calls global warming “a hoax”, “laughable” and “a con.” Most relevantly, Trump refers to journalists not just as “dishonest,” but as “disgusting” and “scum.” All of these statements are united because they all serve to discredit independent authorities which claim to be nonpartisan, and which strive for objectivity, and which thus serve or might serve as a reliable counterweight to Trump’s lies.
Arendt argued that truth and communication are the same, because that is the only way that we can achieve any reliable connection to the world as it is. For this reason, she says, journalism is indispensable. “The telling of factual truth comprehends much more than the daily information supplied by journalists, though without them we should never find our bearings in an ever-changing world and, in the most literal sense, would never know where we are.” These words convey the essential role journalists play in establishing the solid ground upon which genuine communication can take place. But the same can be said for each of the authorities that Trump disparages. By sowing doubt about them, we are left without any means for knowing where we are. By his own reckoning, the only authority that remains is the man himself, who couches his lies with the phrase, “believe me.”
Gaslighting thus destroys democracy because it undermines the idea that there are facts out there that exist irrespective of our knowledge or beliefs, and that for all our differences, all of us are party to a democratic conversation, and that it is therefore incumbent upon all of us to strive to reflect our own opinions faithfully. Indeed, gaslighting feeds on this striving, it depends on it, because by lying so confidently (in Oliver’s words), the liar takes advantage of our democratic disposition to accept the faithfulness of others. It is precisely because of that disposition that the liar’s confidence causes us to doubt our own. The more this happens, the more the disposition dies, and with it, the very possibility of democratic dialogue.
“Gaslighting thus destroys democracy because it undermines the idea that there are facts out there that exist irrespective of our knowledge or beliefs.”
Note finally that this entire effort takes place in a climate where fake news has an unparalleled power and ubiquity. And where that ubiquity is quite possibly being fostered and fomented by a foreign government. Assessing the current culture in its entirety, it is difficult to recall a time when Americans’ ceaseless burden to find their bearings has been so systematically compromised.
The habits we need now
The destruction of our ability to tell truth from lies, and thereby to take our bearings in the real world, and the disparagement and denigration of our common commitment to tell the truth, makes democracy far more difficult. Its complete destruction makes democracy impossible. With the ascendency of Donald Trump, that distinction has become operative.
How should a democrat behave when confronted with such a threat? For his part, Orwell was not sanguine about the future. Rebuilding a society rendered decadent is not something that can happen quickly or easily. In a culture awash in lies, it is therefore necessary to start small. Orwell says, “one can at least change one’s own habits.”
For democrats, operative habits might include the following: calling out lies as lies whenever they are uttered, without apology or diffidence, and regardless of the politician’s office or party; reporting how the world opens up to each of us, as faithfully as possible, every time we communicate; and insisting on the existence, the authority, and the saliency of facts. For now, and for the foreseeable future, all of these habits will serve as political acts—acts that at once stand up for democracy, and which represent a refusal to buckle before the depredations of the incoming administration.
Footnotes & References
 George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.” http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/
 Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” The New Yorker, February 25, 1967, 296 https://idanlandau.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/arendt-truth-and-politics.pdf
 John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14 (1985): 230. For my take on Rawls’ “overlapping consensus,” see Pluralism and Consensus: Conceptions of the Good in the American Polity, CSSR Press, 1998.
 Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” 302.
 ibid., 297.
 Hannah Arendt, “Philosophy and Politics,” Social Research Fall (2004): 433.
 Hannah Arendt, “Karl Jaspers: Citizen of the World?” Men in Dark Times (New York: Harvest, 1968), 86.
 Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” 312.
 In his book Truth and Truthfulness, Bernard Williams makes a similar argument: “the basic rights of liberal society and democratic freedoms themselves depend on the development and protection of methods for discovering and transmitting the truth.” And for Williams, chief among these methods is public debate. See Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 219.
 For more on the implications of motivated reasoning and its implications for democracy, see my Democratic Humility: Reinhold Niebuhr, Neuroscience and America’s Political Crisis (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015).
 http://www.factcheck.org/2015/12/the-king-of-whoppers-donald-trump/. I say more about Trump’s predilection for “brazen refusals” below.
 Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 55.
 Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit, 51.
 ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 56.
 ibid., 61.
 Frank Bruni, “Donald Trump’s Demand for Love,” The New York Times, November 22, 2016. See http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/22/opinion/donald-trumps-demand-for-love.html?_r=0
 Frank Bruni, “Donald Trump’s Demand for Love.”
 For another take on Donald Trump as a bullshit artist, which also references Frankfurt’s work, see Jeff Heer, “Donald Trump Is Not a Liar,” The New Republic, December 1, 2015. https://newrepublic.com/article/124803/donald-trump-not-liar
 Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, 64-5.
 See Jethro Nededog, “Donald Trump and John Oliver fought it out on Twitter over the weekend,” The Business Insider, November 2, 2015. http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-john-oliver-last-week-tonight-feud-2015-11. Note that Trump’s claim is suspect on the face of it, because Last Week Tonight is not a talk show and does not regularly have guests.
 Ben Terris, “The Trump campaign’s war on reality made me question what I saw,” Washington Post, November 7, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/07/the-trump-campaigns-war-on-reality-made-me-question-what-i-saw/?utm_term=.93bbcb513b1c
 Katy Tur and Ali Vitali, “Trump: Breitbart Reporter Michelle Fields ‘Made Up’ Alleged Lewandowski Assault,” NBC News, March 11, 2016. http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/trump-breitbart-reporter-michelle-fields-made-alleged-lewandowski-assault-n536451
 Ben Terris, “The Trump campaign’s war on reality made me question what I saw.”
 Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” 311.
 George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”