Told  /  Book Review

An Equal Say

Where does truth fit into democracy?

One of the stranger rituals performed by the media in the Trump era has been to keep an obsessive count of the president’s lies since he took office. By September 2018, The Washington Post reported, he had already passed the 5,000 mark, including a new one-day record of 125 on September 7. The Poynter Institute’s nonpartisan fact-checking project PolitiFact keeps a running list, and The New York Times did likewise throughout 2017.

There is a certain pointlessness to these exercises. Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to Donald Trump should recognize that, since long before his presidential campaign, he lies as easily as he breathes. He says whatever he thinks will get him what he wants, and whatever he thinks he can get away with. But if there is nothing truly revelatory about the number of Trump’s lies, keeping track of them still serves a variety of symbolic purposes for the commentators who repeat the steadily mounting figures with gleeful outrage. One is simply to underline the extent to which this is not a normal presidency. Another, far more debatable, is to hold up Trump as a symptom and symbol of what is often called the “post-truth era.”

Take, for example, Michiko Kakutani’s recent book The Death of Truth, which cites a figure for Trump’s lies (2,140 in his first year in office) on its third page. His questionable attitudes toward truth are, Kakutani tells us, “emblematic of dynamics that have been churning beneath the surface of daily life for years.” The goddess of truth has fallen mortally ill, her book charges, and a dizzying list of perpetrators are responsible for poisoning her: Fox News; social media; the New Left; “academics promoting the gospel of postmodernism”; the narcissism of the baby boomers; and “the selfie age of self-esteem.”

Kakutani and the many pundits and critics who have offered up a similarly broad cultural diagnosis have obvious incentives for doing so. It lets them pose as serious public intellectuals who can see beyond the froth of the current news cycle. It gives them the chance to display their wide-ranging and eclectic reading (in a single paragraph, Kakutani name-checks Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Thomas Pynchon, David Bowie, Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, and Frank Gehry). And, not least, it exonerates them from the charge that they are nothing but liberal ideologues by allowing them to assign blame to both sides in the ongoing American culture wars. Yes, the responsibility for the death of truth may lie, in part, with Fox News and the GOP, but it also lies with the New Left and those dreadful postmodernist academics. “Postmodernist arguments,” Kakutani explains, “deny an objective reality existing independently from human perception.” And since one perception is as good as another, anything goes. Michel Foucault and Donald Trump: brothers-in-arms.