In a 1971 essay called “Lying in Politics” Hannah Arendt wrote that “The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life [to the] danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organised lying of groups, nations, or classes …” Against this tendency, she urged clarity and a tenacious memory, lest truth be “carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs.”
The political chaos that impeachment has unleashed in Washington is a cartoonish illustration of what Arendt described. Late last week, President Trump seemed to tire of “adulting” his way through the present crisis and simply told the press that Ukraine should look into the Bidens’ business activities and perhaps China ought to do the same. No more coy disavowals of a quid pro quo, no more hedging and special pleading. Trump seemed to be taunting his rivals: Impeach me if you can.
During his post-presidential conversations with the British interviewer David Frost, Richard Nixon was asked about his administration’s lawbreaking. He famously replied: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Trump, whose disdain for reading and its associated forms of knowledge is well known, seems to have adopted his Nixonian stance without any sense of history, or irony. Likewise, his son Eric recently took to Fox News to denounce Hunter Biden—the former vice-president’s son—for using his father’s political connections to obtain well-paid sinecures that were funded by foreign entities. The Trumps’ outrage is so palpable that a neutral observer is forced to conclude that neither has any idea why impeachment has become inevitable, nor what it will likely entail.
Sadly, none of this is surprising. America’s political discourse now takes place in separate informational universes. Two years ago The Washington Post found that 47 per cent of the Republicans it polled believed (wrongly) that Trump had won the popular vote in the 2016 election; 68 per cent believed the results had been affected by clandestine voting by millions of illegal immigrants; more than half were also willing to postpone the 2020 election until further illegality could be prevented. These canards have been widely debunked by the mainstream American press, but Trump’s base lives in the world of Breitbart, Fox News and talk radio and it clings to these conspiracy theories with a conviction that borders on fanaticism.
In her short book on the disappearance of truth in the age of Trump, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani makes a thought-provoking connection between Trump’s hyperbole, half-truths and lies and a passage in a self-help book that his father admired. In the 1952 bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale, writes that: “Any fact facing us, however difficult, even seemingly hopeless, is not so important as our attitude toward that fact … A confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether.” Kakutani writes that “the younger Trump would internalise the celebrity pastor’s teachings on self-fulfilment and the power of the mind to create its own reality.”
Even with nearly three madcap years to extrapolate from, who dares to guess what Trump will do next? Apparently convinced that an Infowars level deep-state conspiracy is moving against him, he seems capable of anything. Perhaps that is no surprise. But his enablers, the career politicians who are dithering as he tramples every political, legal and constitutional norm, venting pique in public tantrums and tweetstorms, will be viewed less kindly by posterity. Their silence lies at the verge between cowardice and complicity.
At the very least the current facts require an investigation of Trump’s statements and behaviour but without trustworthy—i.e. bipartisan—witnesses, as Arendt warned, these facts will be debased into fungible commodities and lose their “dwelling place in the domain of human affairs.” That appears to be Trump’s hope, and strategy, but it can only succeed if a few of his political allies remain dispassionately on the sidelines as this latest scandal unfolds.
—Courtesy Stabroek News