Truth in the Era of Trump
In the blink of an eye, Donald Trump has brushed aside all that we cherish: Sophistication, intelligence, nuance, the educated mind, science, logical consistency, the authority of evidence and facts, and at bottom, truth itself. These pillars of civilization, society and humane interaction have been swept to the margins. All that stirs the mind and heart have been at the moment neutralized by the triumph of power and applied ignorance.
We no longer live in a “reality-based world,” a surrealistic state of affairs introduced by George W. Bush and brought to startling fruition by Donald J. Trump. As Roger Cohen, recently writing in The New York Times, in shades of 1984, aptly observed. “He is a master of the Art of Disorientation…The disoriented are more inclined to seek saviors. Trump knows that.” It was George Orwell, powerfully articulating the relationship of power to truth, who noted, “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
When contemplating the malleable nature of truth, my thoughts turn to the 19th century philosopher and psychologist, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was an enemy of what he judged the decadent state of bourgeois society. Nietzsche was scathingly critical of all that brought pride to high European culture—science, reason, morality—which he thought was utterly devoid of value. And Nietzsche especially hated religion, especially Christianity and its effete priestly class, which in its capacity to instill a guilty conscience on the possessors of power, was able to turn weakness into a putative virtue. Behind religion and morality was weakness and sickness, a corruption of the noble beauty of those ancient knights who could wield their power and conquer without the slightest pang of guilt.
In his contempt for Christianity, Nietzsche proclaimed that the only honorable figure in the New Testament was Pontius Pilate. Why Pilate? When Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate to be judged, he, who some said was God incarnate, proclaimed, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” to which Pontius Pilate responded, “What is truth?”
It is that ancient assertion of radical skepticism that Nietzsche found compelling. In Nietzsche’s world-view, which skirts very close to nihilism, there is no truth. For Nietzsche, the only certainty, possessed by all living things, is what he identified as “the will to power.” All life seeks to overcome other life and to self-overcome in what is a ceaseless struggle. The assertion of power, over others and oneself, is the only constant. The ultimately task of this struggle is to create the “Ubermensch,” the “Overman,” the superior type, which Nietzsche points to but does not completely describe. It should be mentioned that the Nazis appropriated Nietzsche as a forerunner of Nazi ideology and their endeavors to create a master race. But this was a tragic misappropriation, for Nietzsche hated nationalism and was especially contemptuous of German nationalism.
When it comes to truth, for Nietzsche there is no truth “out there” beyond human perceptions. All “truths” are perspectival, issuing from the perspectives of those who proclaim them. What this leads to is the presumption that what is construed as true is highly malleable in the hands of he who holds the power to mold the truth. In short, truth is a function of power, and can be exploited to further the power interests of those wielding it.
I invoke Nietzsche because we can see Donald Trump (and I am loathe to dignify him more than he deserves) as a Nietzschean personality, and we will soon have a Nietzschean in the most powerful office in the land. His will to power, making all norms—consistency, constitutionality, science, knowledge, truth itself—subservient to his interests, is frightfully in evidence.
As noted, society stands on the pillar of the presumption that truth matters very much, and beyond, we need believe that people aspire to be truthful, until proven otherwise. But we live in times when politics has been melded with entertainment, when fake news is rampantly produced on social media, and we have a president-to-be who lies with a clear conscience and with total indifference as to whether his utterances are true or not. Without an abiding respect for truth and truthfulness society cannot stand; the assault on truth is a weapon of disintegration at the very core of society.