The pol­i­tics of loy­alty and ly­ing

Dis­in­for­ma­tion mas­querad­ing as news has be­come a weapon for le­git­i­mat­ing ig­no­rance

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - HENRY A. GIROUX

Don­ald Trump’s fir­ing of James Comey as the direc­tor of the FBI caused a firestorm around the coun­try but for the wrong rea­sons. Rather than fram­ing Trump’s ac­tions as an­other ex­am­ple of the un­rav­el­ling of a law­less and crooked gov­ern­ment, the main­stream press has largely fo­cused on the ques­tion of whether Trump or Comey is ly­ing. Even worse, the de­bate in some quar­ters has de­gen­er­ated into the per­sonal ques­tion of whose “side” one is on re­gard­ing the tes­ti­mony.

Tes­ti­fy­ing be­fore a Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, Comey claimed that in meet­ings with the pres­i­dent, Trump had not only asked him if he wanted to keep his job but had also de­manded what amounted to a loy­alty pledge from him. Comey saw these in­ter­ven­tions as an at­tempt by Trump to de­velop a pa­tron­age re­la­tion­ship with him and viewed them as part of a larger at­tempt to de­rail an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Michael Flynn’s links to Russia. What Comey im­plied but did not state di­rectly is that Trump wanted to turn the FBI into the loyal arm and ac­com­plished agent of cor­rupt po­lit­i­cal power. In other words, with­out mak­ing a di­rect al­le­ga­tion, Comey laid out a case for charg­ing Trump with the crime of ob­struc­tion of jus­tice. That po­si­tion is fur­ther bol­stered by the rev­e­la­tion that Trump has con­sid­ered whether to fire Robert S. Mueller III, the spe­cial coun­sel who was ap­pointed to in­ves­ti­gate whether Trump’s cam­paign col­luded with Rus­sian of­fi­cials.

Ex­press­ing a bla­tant con­tempt for the truth, Trump tweeted that Comey’s tes­ti­mony had vin­di­cated him and that Comey was a liar and a leaker. One can­not miss the irony in Trump sug­gest­ing that Comey is both cow­ardly and a liar given the fact that not only has the New York Times la­belled Trump a se­rial liar but he has un­apolo­get­i­cally de­clared war not just on the truth but crit­i­cal thought it­self. Un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, ly­ing has be­come an in­dus­try and tool of power. All ad­min­is­tra­tions and gov­ern­ments lie, but un­der Trump ly­ing has be­come nor­mal­ized. It is a call­ing card for cor­rup­tion and law­less­ness, one that pro­vides the foun­da­tion for au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism.

A democ­racy can­not ex­ist with­out in­formed ci­ti­zens and pub­lic spheres and ed­u­ca­tional ap­pa­ra­tuses that up­hold stan­dards of truth, hon­esty, ev­i­dence, facts and jus­tice. Un­der Trump, dis­in­for­ma­tion mas­querad­ing as news — of­ten via his Twit­ter ac­count — has be­come a weapon for le­git­i­mat­ing ig­no­rance and civic il­lit­er­acy. Not only has Trump lied re­peat­edly, he has also at­tacked the crit­i­cal me­dia, claimed jour­nal­ists are en­e­mies of the Amer­i­can peo­ple and ar­gued that the me­dia is the op­po­si­tion party. There is more at stake here than the threat of cen­sor­ship or the nor­mal­iza­tion of ly­ing; there is also an at­tack on long-val­ued sources of in­for­ma­tion and the pub­lic spheres that pro­duce them.

Trump has aligned him­self with a cul­ture of im­me­di­acy, sen­sa­tion­al­ism and theatre where thought­ful read­ing, in­formed judg­ments and a re­spect for the facts dis­ap­pear. He prop­a­gates fic­tion dis­guised as “news” as a way to dis­credit facts, if not think­ing it­self. This prac­tice in­fan­tilizes and de­politi­cizes the wider pub­lic cre­at­ing what Vik­tor Frankl has called in a dif­fer­ent con­text, “the mask of ni­hilism.” Trump cap­i­tal­izes on what might be called a pol­i­tics of dis­trac­tion that is at one with a dig­i­tal cul­ture of im­me­di­acy and short at­ten­tion spans. Trump thrives in a cul­ture in which com­plex­ity col­lapses in a bar­rage of tweets and the need for a nar­ra­tive that of­fers a sense of con­sis­tency and a respite from fear. Trump of­fers his fol­low­ers a world in which noth­ing is con­nected, desta­bi­lized per­cep­tions re­in­force a pol­i­tics that turns lethal and com­mu­nity be­comes dystopian — un­con­nected to any vi­able demo­cratic re­al­ity.

As im­por­tant as the Trump-Comey af­fair is, it runs the risk of both ex­ac­er­bat­ing the trans­for­ma­tion of pol­i­tics into theatre and re­in­forc­ing what Todd Gitlin refers to as Trump’s sup­port for an “apoc­a­lyp­tic na­tion­al­ism, the point of which is to be­long, not to be­lieve. You be­long by af­firm­ing. To win, you don’t need rea­sons any­more, only power.” Trump val­ues loy­alty over in­tegrity. He lies, in part, to test the loy­alty of those who both fol­low him and align them­selves with his power. The Trump-Comey af­fair must be un­der­stood within a broader at­tack on the fun­da­men­tals of ed­u­ca­tion, crit­i­cal modes of agency and democ­racy it­self. Trump’s en­gage­ment with Comey is about more than ly­ing. It is about us­ing all of the tools and re­sources of a gov­ern­ment to cre­ate a dystopia in which au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism ex­er­cises the raw power of ig­no­rance and con­trol.

Henry A. Giroux is a widely-pub­lished so­cial critic and McMaster Univer­sity pro­fes­sor who holds the McMaster Chair for Schol­ar­ship in the Pub­lic In­ter­est, the Paulo Freire Dis­tin­guished Scholar Chair, and is a Vis­it­ing Dis­tin­guished Univer­sity Pro­fes­sor at Ry­er­son Univer­sity. Born in Rhode Is­land, he held nu­mer­ous aca­demic po­si­tions in the U.S. and now lives in Hamil­ton.

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