Alice Wang | An Arendtian Analysis of Trump’s Election and Post-Truth Politics

Contempt for the “Fake Culture of Educated Talk” and “Facts as Such”:

An Arendtian Analysis of Trump’s Election and Post-Truth Politics

            The victory of presidential elect Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton took the media and the American public by surprise, leaving progressives reeling. No one had anticipated this outcome. Never before have the polls been off by such wide margins, nor had the confidence of the losing party been so inflated. Leftists who had prepared to spend the next four years resisting and challenging a familiar opponent—the neoliberal warhawk—were instead faced with the inconceivable alternative: an unpredictable demagogue whose fascist rhetoric spurns the norms and boundaries of traditional political discourse. Recognizing this crisis as the harbinger of eminently dark times, the Left was quick to detect the parallel between our current predicament and the rise of European fascism between the two World Wars, turning to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism for guidance in thinking through what occurred and strategizing for what’s to come.[1] Of the numerous lessons that the text offers, its illumination of the forces that made political correctness one of the focal points of the election and rendered the distinctions between fact and fiction meaningless is the subject of this inquiry.

Much of the election analysis produced thus far propagates the assumption that the bloc of working class white voters whose economic interests went unaddressed by the Clinton campaign swung the election. This narrative lacks evidentiary support, however, as exit polling shows that 52% of voters who ranked the economy as the most important issue voted for Clinton[2] and the vast majority of voters in swing states favored her economic platform.[3] Arendt’s insights into the susceptibility of dispossessed “masses” to fascist propaganda illuminates the flaw in concluding that the blue collar workers most acutely impacted by economic disenfranchisement voted in accordance with their economic interests. Her characterization of the “new terrifying negative solidarity” forged by the “unemployed worker[s] [who] hated the status quo and the powers that be” is uncannily consistent with the core Trump supporters who hailed him as the antithesis to establishment politics and the so-called liberal elite.[4]

According to a journalist who “attended Trump rallies in the Northeast, the South, and the Midwest,” none of the “dozens of Trump supporters” she interviewed “mentioned NAFTA, but many—perhaps most—complained about political correctness.”[5] Another Trump supporter she spoke to on a radio show post-election claimed to be driven by economic issues, yet shifted, “when pressed on Trump’s economic policies…to a denunciation of oversensitive college students who needed time off to process the election results.”[6] This transubstantiation of material grievances into the specter of political correctness is legible through Arendt’s inquiry into the conditions and phenomena that gave rise to the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century For Arendt, “totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals”[7] who had “no escape from the daily routine of misery, meekness, frustration, and resentment embellished by a fake culture of educated talk”[8] and “really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption.”[9]

In the current political context, the social alienation that Arendt identified as a necessary condition for mass mobilization is exacerbated by the myth of meritocracy and idea of rugged individualism that condition dispossessed Americans to “judg[e] themselves in terms of individual failure or the world in terms of specific injustices,” despite the fact that “the same fate had befallen a mass of individuals.”[10] Thus precluded, by their isolation, from “acting in concert,”[11] the American masses project their internalized shame and “self-centered bitterness”[12] onto the perceived moral condescension of political correctness—in Arendt’s words, the “fake culture of educated talk.”[13] Not only is the pluralist consensus pejoratively labeled as “PC culture” prescribed by insiders to the very social and cultural institutions from which these dispossessed individuals are disconnected, but its progressivism spurns their nostalgia for the America that predated their impotence. Tapping into this groundswell of mounting resentment, the Trump campaign “consequently, became more and more psychological and ideological in their propaganda, more and more apologetic and nostalgic in their political approach,”[14] reaching its apotheosis in the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

Another pertinent dynamic that Arendt elucidated is the extension of the masses’ contempt for the intellectual elite to “facts as such.”[15] The phenomenon of fake news[16] and Trump’s habit of Tweeting outrageously unfounded statements[17] have led commentators to adopt the terminology, “post-truth” in reference to the post-election epoch.[18] The production and dissemination of fake news stories and lies told by politicians are, of course, nothing new, but the Trump campaign’s manipulation of the media and unprecedented disregard for truth has radically reconfigured political discourse. Arendt recognized what the Democratic party was unable to comprehend: that to his supporters and sympathizers, Trump’s knowledge “has nothing to do with truth and [] being right has nothing to do with the objective truthfulness of [Trump’s] statements which cannot be disproved by facts, but only by future success or failure.”[19] In the battle to win the hearts and minds of the masses, the traditional methods of verification—data, science, fact-checking, and the exposition of lies—had virtually no purchase.

As Arendt argued, the gutting of truth’s authority is inextricable from widespread economic disenfranchisement:

Before the alternative of facing the anarchic growth and total arbitrariness of decay or bowing down before the most rigid, fantastically fictitious consistency of ideology, the masses probably will always choose the latter and be ready to pay for it with individual sacrifices—and this not because they are stupid or wicked, but because in the general disaster this escape grants them a minimum of self-respect.[20]

When distrust of “the fake culture of educated talk”[21] prevails, deference for the factual and scientific foundation of such discourse also deteriorates, resulting in “the elimination of that reality which either unmasks the liar or forces him to live up to his pretense.”[22] With Trump thus insulated from the “normal consequences” of propagating lies, the wishful thinking that “the very enormity of [his] lies would be [his] undoing” severely “handicaps” his opponents.[23]

Seizing upon the American masses’ suspicion of career politicians, the Trump campaign relentlessly manufactured Clinton’s banal technological error [24] into a scandal of Watergate proportions, succeeding in displacing the vast majority of news coverage from the candidates’ policies to Clinton’s emails.[25] As Arendt astutely observed, “[r]evelations of scandals in high society, or corruption of politicians, everything that belongs to yellow journalism, becomes in their hands a weapon of more than sensational importance.”[26] Trump’s most formidable strength as a political candidate was his mastery of the news cycle to stoke controversies that served as subterfuge for the aberrancy of his policy positions and lack of qualifications. Unpracticed in covering a candidate so far outside the range of normalcy, the mainstream media’s adherence to journalistic convention produced false equivalences, distracted from policy issues, and functioned to normalize Trump’s actions and rhetoric.

Arendt’s study of totalitarianism warns that it is through such normalization that “the movements make their fantastic lies more generally acceptable, [and] can spread their propaganda in milder, more respectable forms, until the whole atmosphere is poisoned with totalitarian elements which are hardly recognizable as such but appear to be normal political reactions or opinions.”[27] In our so-called “post-fact” era, increased vigilance for truth will not, in itself, forestall this dystopic future. If we fail to insist on just how far from normal—indeed, aberrant—Trump’s politics are, however, the scenario Arendt delineated is all too conceivable.

 

[1] See, e.g., Jeffrey C. Isaac, How Hannah Arendt’s classic work on totalitarianism illuminates today’s America, The Washington Post, Dec. 17, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/12/17/how-hannah-arendts-classic-work/?utm_term=.9dea3777c80e; Elliot Lusztig, Twitter, Nov. 28, 2016, available at https://68.media.tumblr.com/e719bf816041cbfd246a73280253277d/tumblr_inline_ohezw67wGN1s6vsgt_540.png; Ingrid Burrington, How a dead WWII-era philosopher understands Donald Trump better than anyone on CNN, Oct. 28, 2016, Fusion, http://fusion.net/story/363002/hannah-arendt-donald-trump-origins-of-totalitarianism/.

[2] Fox News Exit Polls, Fox News, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/elections/2016/exit-polls.

[3] Philip Bump, In nearly every swing state, voters preferred Hillary Clinton on the economy, The Washington Post, Dec. 2, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/12/02/in-nearly-every-swing-state-voters-preferred-hillary-clinton-on-the-economy/?utm_term=.00e5a8e89a4a.

[4] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New ed. 1976), 315.

[5] Michelle Goldberg, Democratic Politics Have to Be “Identity Politics,” Slate, Nov. 22, 2016, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/11/democratic_politics_have_to_be_identity_politics.html.

[6] Id.

[7] Arendt, supra note 4 at 315.

[8] Id. at 331

[9] Id. at 351.

[10] Id. at 315.

[11] Id. at 474–75.

[12] Id. at 315.

[13] Arendt, supra note 4 at 331

[14] Id. at 315.

[15] Id. at 350.

[16] See How fake news and online hoaxes played a role in the election, PBS, Nov. 17, 2016, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/online-hoaxes-fake-news-played-role-election/.

[17] See e.g., Louis Jacobson, Donald Trump’s Pants on Fire claim that millions of illegal votes cost him popular vote victory, Politifact, Nov. 28, 2016, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/nov/28/donald-trump/donald-trumps-pants-fire-claim-millions-illegal-vo/.

[18] See Margaret Sullivan, The post-truth world of the Trump administration is scarier than you think, The Washington Post, Dec. 4, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-post-truth-world-of-the-trump-administration-is-scarier-than-you-think/2016/12/02/ebda952a-b897-11e6-b994-f45a208f7a73_story.html?utm_term=.8b75d6c9b157.

[19] Arendt, supra note 4 at 383

[20] Id. at 352.

[21] Id. at 331.

[22] Id. at 384.

[23] Id.

[24] Garrett M. Graff, What the FBI Files Reveal About Hillary Clinton’s Email Server, Politico, Sep. 30 2016, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/09/hillary-clinton-emails-2016-server-state-department-fbi-214307 (“The interviews—taken together and reconstructed for this article into the first-ever comprehensive narrative of how her email server scandal unfolded—draw a picture of the controversy quite different from what either side has made it out to be. Together, the documents, technically known as Form 302s, depict less a sinister and carefully calculated effort to avoid transparency than a busy and uninterested executive who shows little comfort with even the basics of technology, working with a small, harried inner circle of aides inside a bureaucracy where the IT and classification systems haven’t caught up with how business is conducted in the digital age.”)

[25] Jason Easley, The Media Has Spent 3 Times More Air Time Discussing Clinton’s Emails Than Policy, Politics USA, Oct. 26, 2016, http://www.politicususa.com/2016/10/26/media-spent-3-times-airtime-discussing-clintons-emails-policy-2016.html.

[26] Id. 354

[27] Id. at 367.

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