The politics of loyalty and lying
Disinformation masquerading as news has become a weapon for legitimating ignorance
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.