How spin can morph

Ig­nor­ing truth can turn into ap­a­thy to­ward democ­racy.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Twitter: @qjure­cic Quinta Jure­cic is the as­so­ciate ed­i­tor of Law­fare, an on­line pub­li­ca­tion on na­tional se­cu­rity law.

Idon’t be­lieve that Pres­i­dent Trump was ly­ing when, the day af­ter he swore the oath of of­fice, he told a room­ful of CIA em­ploy­ees that the crowd at his in­au­gu­ra­tion “looked like a mil­lion, a mil­lion and a half peo­ple” and “went all the way back to the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment.” I don’t be­lieve he was ly­ing when he re­counted that the rain “stopped im­me­di­ately” when he be­gan de­liv­er­ing his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress and that “it poured right af­ter I left.” And I don’t be­lieve he was ly­ing when, on Mon­day, he re­peated in front of law­mak­ers his post-elec­tion false­hood that 3 mil­lion to 5 mil­lion il­le­gal bal­lots cost him the pop­u­lar vote. Trump was do­ing some­thing far worse. Ly­ing, as de­fined by philoso­pher Harry Frank­furt, is an act un­der­taken in­ten­tion­ally to ob­scure the truth. Liars look at the truth and go in the other direc­tion; but in do­ing so, they rec­og­nize im­plic­itly that there is such a thing as the truth and such a thing as its op­po­site.

Trump, how­ever, of­ten op­er­ates with­out any con­nec­tion to the truth. For him, truth is not an en­emy so much as an ir­rel­e­vance. As a real es­tate devel­oper and cul­tural fig­ure, his rou­tine spout­ing of false­hoods could be com­par­a­tively harm­less, even en­ter­tain­ing. As pres­i­dent, how­ever, his dis­re­gard for the truth could eas­ily be­come dis­re­gard for demo­cratic norms and the rule of law.

Frank­furt’s es­say “On Bull­shit” was first pub­lished in an ob­scure lit­er­ary jour­nal in 1986, and it be­came an un­likely best­seller when it was re­pub­lished as a book in 2005. It surged to promi­nence once again dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion, as a hand­ful of com­men­ta­tors — in­clud­ing the New Repub­lic’s Jeet Heer, Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Fa­reed Zakaria and Frank­furt him­self — turned to Frank­furt’s dis­tinc­tion be­tween ly­ing and B.S. to parse Trump’s at­ten­u­ated re­la­tion­ship with facts.

“It is of­ten un­cer­tain whether Trump ac­tu­ally cares about the truth of what he says,” Frank­furt wrote for Time magazine in May. “. . . For ex­am­ple, on May 5, 2016, Trump tweeted: ‘The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love His­pan­ics!’ This could hardly be any­thing other than bulls---. Does he have any real ev­i­dence about where the best tacos are, or was he just mak­ing it up? Does he re­ally love His­panic peo­ple? Both as­ser­tions come across — at least to me — as lit­tle more than hot air.”

Trump’s claim about il­le­gal vot­ing is em­blem­atic of his dis­con­nec­tion from the truth — with far graver im­pli­ca­tions than taco bowl tweets. Sig­nif­i­cantly, when pressed on Trump’s state­ments, press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer failed to pro­vide any ev­i­dence of voter fraud in 2016. In­stead, he em­pha­sized Trump’s “be­lief ” that fraud had oc­curred, as if the be­lief it­self were enough to oblit­er­ate fact and make it so. Trump was as­sert­ing — and his press sec­re­tary was de­fend­ing — the right to make up what­ever re­al­ity he chose. Like­wise, Trump aide Kellyanne Con­way’s coinage of the un­for­get­table phrase “al­ter­na­tive facts” doesn’t merely re­sist the ac­cu­sa­tion that Spicer lied to the press corps; it also in­sists that Spicer and Trump have some­how cre­ated a new cat­e­gory of re­al­ity, mar­shal­ing them­selves in op­po­si­tion to the ex­is­tence of know­able truth.

In an es­say I wrote for Law­fare in late Novem­ber, I sug­gested that Trump’s ha­bit­ual dis­re­gard for the truth raises se­ri­ous ques­tions about his pres­i­dency: How will it af­fect his abil­ity to carry out the du­ties of his of­fice? And what is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween dis­re­gard for truth and dis­re­gard for law?

By sit­ting in the Oval Of­fice, Trump is com­ing up against an in­tri­cate sys­tem of re­spon­si­bil­ity and con­se­quences. To put it bluntly, the world be­haves as if the pres­i­dent’s words mean things. This is per­haps most acute in the area of law, which — de­spite the rep­u­ta­tion of lawyers for fast talk­ing and forked tongues — is a highly sys­tem­atized struc­ture of mean­ing used to eval­u­ate the merit and rel­e­vance of facts and ar­gu­ments, and which im­poses con­se­quences based on a cer­tain as­cer­tain­ment of truth.

In the Law­fare es­say, I spec­u­lated that Trump’s flout­ing of the truth would ren­der him char­ac­tero­log­i­cally in­ca­pable of hon­or­ing his pres­i­den­tial oath, which re­quires the pres­i­dent to “faith­fully ex­e­cute” his of­fice and to “pre­serve, pro­tect and de­fend the Con­sti­tu­tion” — both du­ties that de­mand a ba­sic level of re­spect for the con­cepts of law and of mean­ing. Now, of course, Trump has sworn that oath. Yet we can’t know whether he will be any more faith­ful to his pledge than he was to the re­al­ity of the weather on In­au­gu­ra­tion Day.

Both truth and law pro­vide con­straints on hu­man ac­tion, bind­ing us to the facts of the world and to cer­tain agreed-upon norms of be­hav­ior. In that way, they limit our free­dom, yet they also cre­ate the shared space within which we in­ter­act with one an­other. But if you get to de­fine what­ever you do as, say, not sex­ual as­sault, it re­ally doesn’t mat­ter how many women may think you’ve sex­u­ally as­saulted them — or even if you have pre­vi­ously de­scribed how you “grab them by the p---y.” You can re­de­fine all that as “locker room talk.” Sim­i­larly, if the pres­i­dent can de­cide whether it’s rain­ing and how many peo­ple are lin­ing the Mall, then we are not speak­ing to govern­ment (and govern­ment cer­tainly is not speak­ing to us) in the reg­u­lated lan­guage of law, which holds peo­ple and in­sti­tu­tions ac­count­able ac­cord­ing to mu­tu­ally un­der­stood sys­tems and rules.

Par­tic­u­larly wor­ri­some is the pres­i­dent’s abil­ity to order the im­ple­men­ta­tion of pol­icy that flouts facts. Think of Trump’s pro­posed in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the sup­pos­edly mas­sive voter fraud that he claims de­nied him the pop­u­lar vote. This could play out sev­eral pos­si­ble ways, all of which are con­cern­ing. Per­haps the Jus­tice De­part­ment will end up con­duct­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion on a premise that al­most ev­ery­body knows to be a fic­tion. Or per­haps the in­ves­ti­ga­tion will not man­i­fest, ei­ther be­cause Trump has no ac­tual intention of pur­su­ing it — in which case the pres­i­dent of the United States has shown his promises to be empty — or be­cause the Jus­tice De­part­ment re­fuses. If the in­ves­ti­ga­tion does not go for­ward be­cause of re­sis­tance from the de­part­ment, or if the in­ves­ti­ga­tion does go for­ward but finds noth­ing (be­cause there is noth­ing to find), Trump will be putting pub­lic ser­vants in the ex­tremely un­en­vi­able po­si­tion of hav­ing to stand up to the pres­i­dent to per­form their work with in­tegrity.

As with Spicer and Con­way, these em­ploy­ees will then be forced to de­cide whether to sup­port Trump’s dis­re­gard for the truth or stand in op­po­si­tion to it. Spicer’s and Con­way’s de­ci­sions, at least, are clear.

In a sense, Trump and his post-truth team have em­braced the same post-struc­tural­ist cri­tique of the no­tion of sta­ble truth that the Amer­i­can right has railed against for the past 30 years. Shortly af­ter the elec­tion, Trump sup­porter Scot­tie Nell Hughes de­fended his false claims about il­le­gal vot­ing by as­sert­ing that “there’s no such thing, un­for­tu­nately, any­more as facts.” She was ar­gu­ing, how­ever in­co­her­ently, that Trump sup­port­ers and op­po­nents are each en­ti­tled to their own ver­sions of what is true.

But this com­par­a­tively demo­cratic vi­sion of a world with­out truth is not quite what Trump seems to have in mind. He wants to make up the “al­ter­na­tive facts” and im­pose them on the rest of us, as well. And so Spicer not only be­rated the press for ac­cu­rately re­port­ing at­ten­dance at Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, he also pro­vided the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ver­sion of re­al­ity and an­grily de­manded that re­porters ad­here to that re­al­ity.

It’s a cliche these days to say that govern­ment con­trol over what con­sti­tutes truth is foun­da­tional to the uglier forms of po­lit­i­cal dom­i­na­tion. Af­ter Con­way pro­posed “al­ter­na­tive facts,” Ge­orge Or­well’s “1984” — in which a to­tal­i­tar­ian govern­ment sys­tem­at­i­cally erodes its sub­jects’ abil­ity to dis­tin­guish be­tween truth and false­hood in ser­vice of to­tal loy­alty to the party line — soared to No. 1 on Ama­zon’s best­seller list. Like­wise, quotes from the Ger­man philoso­pher Han­nah Arendt, whose early study of fas­cist and to­tal­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments fo­cused closely on the ma­nip­u­la­tion of truth in the ser­vice of po­lit­i­cal power, have be­gun to cir­cu­late reg­u­larly on Twitter in re­sponse to the lat­est des­e­cra­tions of fact by the Oval Of­fice.

In the sim­plest terms, a con­cep­tion of truth out­side what the govern­ment tells us to be so is foun­da­tional to democ­racy be­cause it al­lows us to stand up against power. It’s also nec­es­sary to lay the ground­work for any kind of demo­cratic de­lib­er­a­tion among cit­i­zens. Af­ter all, if we can­not per­suade one an­other to agree with ref­er­ence to some shared sys­tem of mean­ing, the only thing left is to com­pel agree­ment through force. There’s a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous re­la­tion­ship be­tween sus­tained dis­re­gard for truth in po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and au­thor­i­tar­ian co­er­cion.

I am not pre­dict­ing that Trump will prove him­self to be a dic­ta­tor or an ex­trale­gal pres­i­dent. The United States is still equipped with an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary, and Trump’s dis­re­spect for truth aside, it seems un­likely that the courts will face a sus­tained, con­sciously il­lib­eral on­slaught from the new ad­min­is­tra­tion — though Trump’s will­ing­ness to ig­nore the truth will prob­a­bly test the will­ing­ness of the ju­di­ciary to grant its usual def­er­ence to the ex­ec­u­tive in cer­tain ar­eas of the law.

But it’s clear that there is a foun­da­tional in­com­pat­i­bil­ity be­tween our pres­i­dent and some of the du­ties of the of­fice he holds.

The ques­tion we now face is whether our shared un­der­stand­ing of truth, and the struc­ture of law that rests on it, can hold up un­der a pres­i­den­tial cav­al­cade of B.S. I wouldn’t ven­ture a guess at this stage. But I would ar­gue that, pre­cisely be­cause the United States as yet re­mains a democ­racy gov­erned by the rule of law, it’s our shared re­spon­si­bil­ity to in­sist on the ex­is­tence of facts and the force of law as the lan­guage of demo­cratic govern­ment — and that just as the pres­i­dent is not above the law, he is also not above the facts.

Put an­other way, there ex­ists a world out­side of Trump and apart from and larger than his fab­ri­ca­tions. It was there be­fore he be­came pres­i­dent. It will, hope­fully, be there af­ter his pres­i­dency, too.

Will he be any more faith­ful to his oath of of­fice than he was to the re­al­ity of the weather on In­au­gu­ra­tion Day?

OLIVER MUN­DAY FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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