Note: A couple people asked me to expand on this tweetstorm in a post, so here we are.
Most politicians are at least a little dishonest, but very few of them are dishonest in quite the same way as Donald Trump. This is a man who lies when it’s unnecessary, who contradicts himself so frequently that it’s difficult to tell from day to day (or even hour to hour) where he stands on fundamental policy issues. When he gets caught lying, he just keeps on doing it. Sometimes — as when he claimed that Hillary Clinton pioneered the birther movement — his lies are so self-evidently ridiculous that it’s hard to say what motivates them.
If Trump is not the most mendacious presidential nominee in modern American history, he has certainly distinguished himself with his unique brand of mendacity. When other politicians lie, they usually do it in the hopes of generating a certain result: they want to pick up more votes from a particular demographic, or lay the political groundwork for a policy goal, or escape public opprobrium. Trump tells lies that seem wholly unmotivated; lies that just float there and produce nothing but confusion.
When politicians are particularly dishonest, they usually tell untruths that reinforce one another. The goal is to construct a plausible reality that better fits their ambitions and policy agenda. This is the meaning of the famous “reality-based community” quote from an anonymous Bush administration official (widely believed to be Karl Rove, one of this young century’s great political bullshitters).
Here’s the full “reality-based community” passage as it originally appeared in a 2004 New York Times Magazine article by Ron Suskind:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
We create our own reality. When Bush administration officials wanted to create a reality in which invading Iraq would be morally and pragmatically justified, they told the world about nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and the Saddam Hussein regime’s illusory ties to Al-Qaeda. When they wanted to create a reality in which George W. Bush had a more distinguished war record than John Kerry, Bush allies made up a story impugning Kerry’s service in Vietnam.
These were big lies. In order for them to be effective, they had to be disseminated in a manner that was strategic, disciplined, and consistent. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth could not prevaricate or stumble in their attacks on Kerry. Dick Cheney could not claim on Monday that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, decide on Tuesday that he had never really said that, and then go back to his original position on Wednesday. When a new reality is in its infancy, it needs as much reinforcement as it can get.
Trump is building on the foundation laid by Karl Rove and other great American fabulists, but he’s doing something fundamentally different from what they did. He’s not not building new realities; his lies are too convoluted and self-contradictory for that. Instead of following the Rove playbook, he’s adopted the style of a political operative most Americans have never encountered: former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, also known as Putin’s Karl Rove.
Here’s how BBC documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis describes the Surkovian style of politics in 2014:
His aim is to undermine peoples’ perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening.
Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.
But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.”
A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is undefinable. It is exactly what Surkov is alleged to have done in the Ukraine this year. In typical fashion, as the war began, Surkov published a short story about something he called non-linear war. A war where you never know what the enemy are really up to, or even who they are. The underlying aim, Surkov says, is not to win the war, but to use the conflict to create a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control.
This is what Trump and his advisers are doing. They have no interest in creating a new reality; instead, they’re calling into question the existence of any reality. By telling so many confounding and mutually exclusive falsehoods, the Trump campaign has created a pervasive sense of unreality in which truth is little more than an arbitrary personal decision.
This, I think, is why so many people support Trump even when they recognize his obvious mendacity. They’ve been successfully persuaded that everything is a lie, so the only political choice you have is to select the fiction that most fits your self-conception. This partially explains how Trump is able to command support from both anti-Semites and some Jews. Pro-Trump Jews have decided that Trump is lying to white supremacists, and vice versa; they tolerate those lies because everyone lies, and because they’ve decided that he’s more honest when speaking directly to them. The only semblance of anything real can be found in personal identification with a charismatic, orange-tinted hero figure.
I doubt that Trump has personally studied the work of Vladislav Surkov, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his advisers have. Steve Bannon and Roger Ailes in particular are masters of political unreality — especially Ailes. But the Surkov strategy works especially well for Trump because of his roots in the world of reality television, another sphere where “reality” is defined largely by its self-conscious and blatant artifice. In The Apprentice, as in the 2016 political election, viewers are rewarded for being savvy enough to understand that everything they see is bullshit. Yet these same viewers nonetheless get to choose their own heroes and villains within the context of the show.
When politics becomes fundamentally unreal, the nature of political decision-making changes. Everything is fiction, so voters can only choose the fiction that best suits their taste and aligns with their self-image. Thus politics becomes devoured entirely by personal aesthetics. It’s the final triumph of what Carl Schmitt called political romanticism, or what Christopher Lasch might call political narcissism: politics as self-expression and nothing else.
It’s no coincidence that authoritarians are the driving force behind this development. The suspension of reality lends itself to authoritarian politics because it makes liberal democracy impossible. Without any sort of fixed reality, we have no shared reference point we can use for political deliberation; and when my policy preferences are rooted entirely in what I conceive of as my self, there is no room for compromise.
One might naturally wonder how we can reimpose a sense of political reality beyond the self. I can only say that I have no idea. There doesn’t appear to be an effective institutional check on the Trump/Surkov mode of communication, largely because it emerges in societies that already suffer from a pervasive institutional cynicism. The New York Times can fact-check Donald Trump all it wants, but Trump supporters know in their hearts that the Times has no particular authority when it comes to the truth.
This suggests to me that the unreal style of politics will continue to grow in strength and popularity beyond this election, even if Trump loses. It may very well be the future of modern democracy, as more developed liberal democracies slide into what Surkov has called “managed democracy.”
That term deserves a little explication. In a 2011 piece for Open Democracy, Richard Sakwa, a professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, described Surkov’s managed democracy as “the administrative management of party and electoral politics.” Sakwa goes on:
Surkov’s philosophy is that there is no real freedom in the world, and that all democracies are managed democracies, so the key to success is to influence people, to give them the illusion that they are free, whereas in fact they are managed. In his view, the only freedom is “artistic freedom”
Artistic freedom: the freedom to adopt political affiliations as a purely aesthetic exercise.
Managed democracy and political unreality are growing in influence across the West, shepherded along in no small part by the Putin regime. Just look at the the United Kingdom, where the pro-Brexit Leave campaign was able to achieve its goals by dissembling constantly, and rather obviously, about the potential effects of secession from the European Union. Nigel Farage, head of the right-wing populist UK Independence Party said for months prior to the Brexit referendum that leaving the EU would free up £350 million for the National Health Service; he abandoned that bold-faced lie within hours of the vote. (Incidentally, Farage’s successor as head of Ukip has described Vladimir Putin as a personal hero.)
Personally, I like Orban’s coinage more than Surkov’s. “Managed democracy” implies a sort of benign technocratic elite that keeps the state humming along while we’re busy cloaking ourselves in dead ideologies and pretending to debate the future of the country. Illiberal democracy, on the other hand, suggests a nation nominally governed by popular assent but stripped of any substantive commitment to an open society.
And good riddance. After all, without an independent reality to be collectively uncovered and debated, what’s the point of an open society?