In her seminal 1967 essay, “Truth and Politics,” Hannah Arendt observed:
Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.
Though she died in 1975, Arendt’s writings on political philosophy, and lying in politics in particular, feel like essential reading right now. Indeed, truth and politics have been long engaged in a relationship, albeit a dysfunctional one. Still, President Trump has made more than 13,000 misleading or false claims over the 1,000-plus days of his presidency; the very idea of lies, of “fake news,” of “alternative facts,” of “post-truth” continually threatens to swallow any notion of an objective reality.
Ever since Plato defended his concept of “the noble lie,” politicians of varying stripes have sold braggadocio and delivered bupkis. Yet, it’s not merely that Trump lies. It’s that the president, and his willful cabal of enablers, cheerleaders and cultists, have turned lying into its own poisonous bread and circus. Past Republican politicians like George H.W. Bush, who famously lied to his party (and the country) with his “Read my lips, no new taxes,” pledge, faced a strong challenge in the 1992 GOP primary by Pat Buchanan, for what many on the right considered a betrayal of conservative principles. Today’s GOP conspiratorial gaggle has made inter-party lying their emblem of unity. And some of their bogus greatest hits — posing significant threats to national security, mind you — include the idea that Trump was highly concerned with corruption in Ukraine; that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 election; that Joe Biden got a Ukranian prosecutor fired for investigating him; that the Bidens should be subject to a corruption investigation of their own. Farewell Republican classic, we hardly knew ye.
As Trump faces impeachment over soliciting a foreign power’s help in undermining the next presidential election, Trump’s consortium of lies and liars continue to savage and warp any notion of collective norms. From smearing career diplomats to threatening to out the name of the whistleblower to Trump having lied (most probably) in his written answers to Robert Mueller to his knowledge of Roger Stone and the Wikileaks email dump, the lies go on and on, unabated. But it’s not just the lies. It’s what Arendt meant when she coined the term “organized lying.” Trump’s mad-hatters make lying for the man a robust movement all its own. Arendt’s writings on lies and the liars who tell them, written (ironically enough) at the height of the Nixon era, offer penetrating insight into the means by which lies of any stripe can be, and are, so cunningly deployed.
Arendt was born in Hanover, Germany in 1906, and she fled the Nazis in 1933. She lived briefly in Paris, before emigrating to the US. Her work in the middle of the 20th century, particularly post-World War II, is legendary. Both “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” which assessed the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, and “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” remain crucial guideposts not only for the insidious nature by which totalitarian regimes seize and maintain control. Arendt’s remarks on the means by which societies shore up their despotism feel eerily prescient:
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
In 1972, Arendt published “Crises of the Republic,” a collection of essays, during another era of American mendacity, the Vietnam War. Here, Arendt scrutinized the now-infamous Pentagon Papers, the top-secret Department of Defense study of American involvement, politically and militarily, in Vietnam, from 1945 to 1967. Daniel Ellsberg, a military expert who worked on the study, came to see the futility (and dishonesty) of the war effort, and he photocopied the report and gave it to The New York Times in 1971. The rest is history.
Included in the collection is Arendt’s essay “Lying in Politics,” which perceptively examines the public relations angle of Vietnam — as she put it, the “managers in government whom learned their trade from the inventiveness of Madison Avenue.” Her essay is cautionary, both in its concern that history could be oversimplified into binary categories of liars and truth-tellers, but also that a manipulative theatricality in politics engenders a fundamental distrust in government. In an analysis that may register as familiar to our reality-TV-show moment, Arendt warned that lies in politics not only deceive the populace, it instills fear in them, too:
The only limitation to what the public-relations man does comes when he discovers that the same people who perhaps can be “manipulated” to buy a certain kind of soap cannot be manipulated — though, of course, they can be forced by terror — to “buy” opinions and political views.
Arendt’s observations from almost half a century ago, in the case of Trump and his wanton, reckless violations of his oath of office, feel imbued with fresh currency. Ironically, for all of Trump’s manipulations, fabrications and machinations, his advisers — who, in the words of Ambassador Gordon Sondland — “followed the president’s orders,” have only undermined him. In the end, Trump may have struck terror in his own government, and demanded a level of grotesque obsequiousness not seen in modern times, but, as of this writing, he is poised to be the third impeached president in American history. As Arendt elaborates, it’s the presidency, in and of itself, which can surely be engulfed by its own untruths. Trump, by dint of his insularity and demands for omertà, make him vulnerable to manipulation.
The President, one is tempted to argue, allegedly the most powerful man of the most powerful country, is the only person in this country whose range of choices can be predetermined. This, of course, can happen only if the executive branch has cut itself off from contact with the legislative powers of Congress; it is the logical outcome in our system of government when the Senate is being deprived of, or is reluctant to exercise, its powers to participate and advise in the conduct of foreign affairs.
For Arendt, politics is a sphere of public action, where an active, engaged citizenry gather to debate matters of societal importance. Like the ancient Greeks, ideas themselves form the basis of political action in Arendt’s thinking, so her worry about lies and falsehoods, especially in the modern era, reveal the power of the lie as a weapon, not just against one’s opponents, but against our democracy itself. As our politics grow indistinguishable from spectacle, where the McConnell-led Senate acts less like a check than an extension of the Trump White House, the liar can no longer be differentiated from the truth-teller. Our founders’ key insurance claim against runaway executive power was a robust separation of powers. Consequently, our democratic discourse, now replete with dangerous fictions all in service to only one of our three branches of government, morphs into a propaganda lab.
Congenitally amoral and playing the role of a lifetime, Trump has come to represent his own spectacle, though his vindictive brand of showbiz moxie doubtless comes at our nation’s expense. If the liar accomplishes anything, Arendt warns, it’s the collapse of consensus. In the inverted Trump era, patriots are cowards, heroes are villains, Russian interference in the 2016 election is a “hoax,” and political adversaries are “human scum.” Honesty in politics might sound righteous or even naive, but Arendt saw that all we can do in the name of democracy is to bear witness to the lie. For a nation born of revolution, telling the truth may just be our most defiant act yet.