Flat lies and flat truths. Welcome to the Communicational Flatlands of Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg
Try to imagine a conversation between Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg. Some things cannot be imagined: it’s like imagining that in another galaxy 2 plus 2 equals 5. The reason is not the large political culture gap separating these two persons, nor their completely different personalities. Yes, Trump binges on fast food whereas Thunberg’s history of anorexia bespeaks ascetic otherworldliness; Trump is oversexed, Thunberg asexual. Yet I believe they share something very essential. Trump lies “no matter what,” and Thunberg says the truth “no matter what.” What both share is the “no matter what.” This is the real reason why any communication between them is impossible.
The one is the face of truth and the other the face of lies. When it comes to truth telling and lying, the climate activist and the president deploy an uncanny amount of “flatness” in their respective expressions of truth/falsehood. Normally, in the landscape of truths we have hills and mountains: there are nuances, perspectives, doubts, and compromises. There are embellishments, exaggerations, irony, self-irony and — most of all — humor. The landscapes of lies are similarly hilly: there are bad lies but also half-lies, necessary lies, cute lies, lies with which we can sympathize, lies in which we can recognize some good intentions.
In Trump’s and Thunberg’s speeches those landscapes become flat. The flatness is determined by the content as well as by the style of communication. Truths become flat through the repetition of one and the same idea absent of any variation, counterpoints, mis-en-abymes… They also become flat through directness, which in Thunberg’s case has been called frankness. Without a moment’s hesitation Thunberg delivered her radical criticism of world leaders in her “impromptu speech” at the G7 or at the UN. Thunberg’s way of telling the truth is unique. Most truthtellers refrain from spelling out obvious unequivocal facts that are true “no matter what.” If they do, they most probably come from the landscapes of fanaticism and fundamentalism. The same applies to liars. “Normal” liars rework their lies because being identified as the author of a “flat lie” is unpleasant, embarrassing, and scary. Donald Trump lies about facts that can be checked within seconds on the internet, but apparently he does not care. His lying turns into a flat process: it is lying “no matter what.” Lies also become flat through overuse. “Is he lying again?” Long term, the lying game becomes boring even for those who are lied at.
Numerous books tackle Trump and so-called post-truth.[i] However, one must not mix up two separate phenomena. Post-truth exists, but the style of flatness with which this post-truth is communicated is a different topic. Linked to the post-truth phenomenon is the concept of “bullshit,” pioneered by philosopher Harry Frankfurt with his bestselling academic book On Bullshit. Frankfurt explained that bullshit is different from lying because the “bullshitter” does not want to deceive but to mislead. James Ball establishes in his recent Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World (2018) a strong link between bullshit and post-truth. However, I believe that Trump’s flat lies confront us with a completely new reality that is not covered by the concept of bullshit. The goal of bullshit is to deceive whereas the goal of the flat lie is, well, to lie. The landscape of bullshit is hilly but Trump resides in the landscape of flatness. Items like playfulness or artful arrangement, intrinsic to bullshit, are entirely missing. There is the proverbial “bullshit artist” — but would one want to associate Trump with any form of art, no matter how degraded?
Thunberg speaks a scientific truth that — for her — requires no reworking in terms of nuances, complexities or potential uncertainties. Her message is single-minded devotion and sacrifice. The specter of imminent self-extinction leaves no time for debates. Flat truths cannot be discussed. Flat lies cannot be discussed either. Flat truths and flat lies often culminate in an authoritarian appeal to total commitment. Don’t argue but act. Both flat lies and flat truths can be called kitsch versions of truths and lies.
The flat lie is a new phenomenon in the media world, and the flat truth might have been produced as a counter-reaction (or maybe it exists just because we are living in the age of flatness). Thunberg addresses one of the flattest topics on earth: the possible extinction of humanity through climate change. In her ascetic fashion she sticks to this one topic. The voracious Trump has chosen the opposite approach: he picks as many topics as possible and lies about all of them. According to the Washington Post lying barometer, Trump has accumulated 12000 lies up to now. The insatiable one and the fussy one have different approaches but both approaches lead to the same end: to expressions of flatness.
The new pattern of flatness is the result of recent political developments. In the world of populists, the opponent is an enemy incorporating Evil and Falseness. If you contradict the Good and Truth you are a traitor. The art of debate that has enlightened western civilization since Antiquity is no longer possible. The new pattern of flatness in the realms of both truthtelling and lying is also the consequence of an essential shift in the media world. First, with so much fake news around we long for absolute truths. Second, with an overload of information we need people who spell thing out in a simple fashion. Sooner or later, those truths will become flat in their own right. Don’t think, just believe. Finished the époque of postmodern irony where kitsch could also be non-kitsch or a sophisticated, not entirely serious expression of cultural complexity. Postmodernism was basically bullshit. Now things are much worse: they are flat and we no longer know how to react to them.
Finished the post-cold war elusive disillusionment reveling in paradoxes, ambiguities, absurdities, and inconsistencies. Finished the time where engagement could be critically mixed with distance and detachment. Today’s truth or falsehood kitsch is not the postmodern second degree kitsch of mockery and playfulness. Trump’s and Thunberg’s true/false kitsch constitutes a regression to the first-degree kitsch of those who firmly believe in the truth and the lies that they are telling. It’s not the kitsch of Jeff Koons. Koons is basically bullshit while Trump’s and Thunberg’s true/false kitsch leaves no margins for discussions, witty twists, satirical maneuvers, or perhaps even a joke. In flat kitsch everything is either true (Thunberg) or false (Trump). Truths or lies of the “no matter what” era lack human sensitivity or simply a reasonable amount of taste.
What is disquieting in both cases is that under normal circumstances Trump and Thunberg might be considered too educated to go for their own kitsch. They are not representatives of the non-educated working class or third world underlings. Nor are they fanatics or fundamentalists. How can they believe in the normality of their communicative strategies without noticing that something is wrong? It’s of course more annoying with regard to Trump because he inhabits the realm of falsehood. We are living in the post-bullshit era and have to find strategies to fight the new flatness of truth/falsehood.
[i] In the last two years three books addressing this topic have been released. Ken Wilbe’s Trump and a Post-Truth (Shambhala, 2017); Lee McIntyre’s Post-Truth (MIT Press, 2018), and Stephen Long’s Truth Telling in a Post-Truth World (Wesley’s Foundery Books, 2019).