Politics, Aesthetics, and Truth

In recent times, the concept of post-truth politics has been used by many commentators (see e.g. this recent Economist article) to explain the rise and peculiar characteristics of a time where lies seem to dominate politics more than ever before. From Donald Trump to Brexit and continental European populists, a search for a political truth is far from their political aims, but often downgraded to something not only unnecessary, but also as part of the dominant, dangerous discourse of the “unjust” elites that we are ought to hate.

For me, this post-truth political moments correspondents with a return of an “aestheticization of politics”. This concept, which belongs to the great Walter Benjamin, is important in understanding the current populist surge. This movement in many ways is all about “liberating” politics from the grip of an ugly and unjust elites, and bringing (back?) power to the righteous peoples who stand opposite these elites. This people is aestheticized, as the only true, just and beautiful holders of power within the (primarily) national polity. This power is then presented as something beautiful and corresponding to the historical beauty of the nation-state — a power I believe to be waning.

The arguments made by these populists aren’t so much about truth; they are about beauty. About the beauty of the people and their nation, the beauty of the movement itself, and the beauty of their proposals. Just think about Donald Trump arguing not just for a wall with Mexico, but for a “big beautiful wall”. No such wall will be build (thus, it is post-truth statement), but nevertheless, the proposal is aestheticized; the wall will be big, and it will be beautiful. Or think about how European populists often position their nation-states as a beautiful holder of sovereignty against the unjust and ugly European Union.

America will not be great again, as Trump and his followers so often claim, because the unique circumstances which made America the sole superpower of the late 20th century are unlikely to return any time soon. But who cares when you aestheticize America and its power, and exchange it for truth?

As Bas Heijne wrote in NRC last Saturday, the populist surge might partially be explained as the removal of Freud’s reality principle from politics and its discourses, i.e. the principle which prevents our lusts that not everything is possible. The populists and post-truth politicians don’t aim for truth, they aim for the return of the long lost beauty and power of the nation-states (this, I argue, is their nativists core ideology). Removing the reality principle also removes truth from politics; again, the wall with Mexico is unlikely to be build (let alone paid for by Mexico!), but it’s beautiful, and it’s big. Removing the reality principle thus also means the removal of the realization that building the wall is unlikely.

Benjamin argued that this aestheticization can be dangerous. For him, it gave rise to fascism. I think he might be (partly) right, as I argued in my MA thesis . I think it is only appropriate here to paraphrase David Henry Thoreau; rather than beauty, give me truth.