By Emma Morgan
2020 has already been a year of near unfathomable lows.
The Covid-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and the catastrophic explosion in Beirut have, in turn, taken up the baton in a sort of ghastly relay race of disaster, with climate change and political extremism growing ever more impatient in the wings.
And now, we face November’s US presidential election, a prospect which will fill many people with stomach-churning dread.
Nearly four years into Trump’s haphazard leadership, his cheap jibes and late-night Twitter rampages, it is easy to wonder: how did we get here?
How did we reach the point where the leader of the free world is also a man who thinks Thailand is pronounced ‘Thighland’ and who confuses the 9/11 attacks with a 7/11 store?
In her pithy essay, ‘The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump’, Michiko Kakutani tries to explain to us.
Jumping from the unreality of Nazi propaganda to the doublethink of Orwell’s ‘1984’, from modern-day Russian interference to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, she stages a quickfire investigation of the events, movements and social conditions which have shaped today’s political landscape, and which fuelled Trump’s unlikely rise.
Although only the length of the average novella, ‘The Death of Truth’ is ambitious in its breadth and depth of focus. It takes the tangled threads of our past, the cacophonous mêlée of voices and beliefs that brought us to this moment, and sets about smoothing them into coherent clarity.
Using incisive, memorable examples – which come so thick and fast they are almost overwhelming – she reflects on the growth of political tribalism and social media echo chambers, which sort us into hermetically sealed factions, stripped of all empathy and mutual understanding.
Trump’s loud and reactionary absolutes, his refusal to nuance issues or to accept opposing arguments, are only made acceptable by this Republican-Democrat polarity, which has transformed reasoned political debate into a deeply emotive feud.
Perhaps the most interesting, if the most unlikely, of Kakutani’s arguments posits postmodernism as a potential contributor to Trump’s rise.
At its best, she notes, the postmodernist rejection of the idea of universal truth, allows the previously silenced voices of the marginalised to be heard, troubling the monolithic linearity of patriarchal, white, Modernist narratives, and creating a polyphony of experience.
However, it also creates the impression that subjective viewpoints can be accepted as unarguable truths.
As historian Deborah E. Lipstadt observes, ‘Any truth can be retold. Any fact can be recast. There is no ultimate historical reality.’
At first, you might dismiss this lofty academic discourse as being inapplicable to Trump’s chaotic and seemingly unconsidered modus operandi.
After all, we might safely assume that this president has never heard of postmodernism, let alone set about adopting its key tenets.
However, Kakutani then tells us that Trump, when questioned on Russian interference in the 2016 election, replied: ‘I believe that [Putin] feels that he and Russia did not meddle’.
She also notes that, when presented with figures proving the falsehood of Trump’s inflammatory statements on law and order, Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, retorted: ‘The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are […] I’ll go with how people feel and let you go with the theoreticians’.
In these carefully selected moments, Trump and his supporters seem to insist that emotion and opinion are legitimate substitutes for fact, so, perhaps unwittingly, espousing postmodernist discourse and suggesting that maybe Kakutani has a point.
She then directs our attention towards the inherent narcissism of social media, the self-congratulatory public personas required by the endless slew of blogs, vlogs, selfies and stories that crowd our every waking moment.
Social media’s constant emphasis on personal lived experience, which is only heightened by the combative atmosphere of platforms such as Twitter, does inevitably, if wrongly, lend individual viewpoints the same weight and significance as real facts.
We may not think of it as postmodernism, but we live in a culture that insists on the validity of even the most irrational opinions, and which somehow makes it acceptable for Trump to swerve round the truth unchecked.
Kakutani’s explanations overflow with historical references and contemporary examples, each page littered with quotation marks.
Although this can, at times, make for a slightly jumbled feel, with several different time periods, events or theories being mentioned in quick succession and very scant detail, it also makes this book the perfect primer on the society which brought Trump to power.
Kakutani’s examples are so pertinent that you are encouraged to research them further, and the short chapters manage to impart a great deal of information without miring us in the minutiae of each point.
Rather than attempting to attribute intellectual rationality to the seemingly instinctual actions of Trump himself – as has been the accusation of some critics – ‘The Death of Truth’ works instead to distil the conditions surrounding his success.
These conditions, invisible and intangible in that they engulf every aspect of our social and political consciousness and therefore become frustratingly abstract, are then given recognisable human form by the clarity of Kakutani’s argument.
And as the she maps out the factors leading to Trump’s election, it becomes more and more obvious that, in the years since, nothing has changed.
We still live in the same narcissistic, antagonistic culture of false absolutes, and Trump is just as likely, if not more likely, to grace us with a second term in the White House.
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