Deceit, Donald Trump, epistemology, GOP, Honesty, Media, Straight Shooter, Trump, Truth
When I think of Donald Trump and his campaign for President, it always takes me back to one of the early scenes in Game of Thrones. It’s one of the few moments in that series where Geofrey Lannister proved himself almost human. In the scene, he and his mother Cercei were discussing a fight he’d had a young commoner. He’d come off rather badly, but still Geoffrey’s mother, Cercei, praised him for bravery that he didn’t show and recounted heroic deeds that he didn’t perform. Just this once (it’s the only time that I can recall), the little monster displayed a trace of honesty and corrected her on the facts of the matter. For just a moment, it seemed to matter to Geoffrey that he hadn’t actually lived up to the narratives his family were spinning about him.
Some day you’ll sit on the throne and the truth will be what you make it.
I always imagine Donald Trump as a man who learned that very lesson somewhere in the course of his life and took it very much to heart.
One of the most fascinating (and infuriating) things about Trump is the way he approaches questions of veracity. More fascinating still, the question of just why his fans support that approach. It’s easy enough to call the man a liar (and he’s certainly given plenty of cause), but it’s closer to the case to suggest that he keeps turning questions of truth on their head (perhaps in part by ignoring them). What is truth to this man? The answer to that question certainly isn’t what it is to the rest of us. And I still think Cercei’s quote is a good start on an answer.
One of the most frustrating things about Trump, for me at least, is his penchant for resolving complex problems and answering serious criticisms by simply declaring the case to be whatever he needs (or simply wants) it to be. Are there substantial reasons to believe he disrespects women? He simply tells us he always treats women with respect. Do his comments about Mexicans or Muslims reflect hatred and promote bigotry? He simply tells us he loves them and treats them well. Time and again, Trump answers serious questions simply by telling us the most convenient thing necessary to promote his own interests. Time and again, his claims are clearly counterfactual.
…and time and again, I hear Cercei telling us that truth is what a prince makes of it.
So many things about this quote seems so relevant, not the least of them being the image of a pampered aristocrat assuming the reins of power. It isn’t merely that Trump seems immune to basic fact checking or clear cases of debunkitation; he seems almost consciously to expect that the grounds of veracity itself will shift right along with his narratives. He has enough power to simply make some narratives stick, and he knows it. In time, his narratives (however disingenuous) may well become the standard by which other facts are assessed. So, he just presses onward. What counts as true is what he will make of it.
The notion that truth could be constituted in the exercise of power might seem a grad school cliché, but seldom do we see it in such a crass form, so naked, so obvious, and so orange.
Early in the campaign, Trump acquired a reputation as a ‘straight shooter’. Fans described him as a no nonsense guy who tells it like it is. All the tropes of tough love and brutal honesty were conferred on the gilded prince of kitch, which is of course at least as maddening as Trump’s antics themselves. Despite all the prevarication and notwithstanding countless instances of demonstrable falsehoods, one of Trump’s best qualities, according to his many fans, would seem to be honesty.
Does Cercei have an evil laugh? She must, because I could swear that I hear it right now.
She had to be laughing during Trump’s infamous exchange with Megyn Kelly. That’s worth a second look. Here it is, as taken from a transcript provided by Time Magazine.
KELLY: Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women.
You’ve called women you don’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.”
Your Twitter account…
TRUMP: Only Rosie O’Donnell.
KELLY: No, it wasn’t.
Your Twitter account…
TRUMP: Thank you.
KELLY: For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell.
TRUMP: Yes, I’m sure it was.
KELLY: Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?
TRUMP: I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.
I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.
And frankly, what I say, and oftentimes it’s fun, it’s kidding. We have a good time. What I say is what I say. And honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.
This exchange is fascinating, not because it’s intrinsically interesting, but because the narratives it spawned seem so very implausible on the face of it. Trump was insulted, and on his behalf Trump’s followers were also insulted. And thus Megyn Kelly became a right wing pariah for some time, which is hilarious, even if it is only a temporary problem. She became a traitor to countless right wing faithful, most of whom had sung her praises right up until that very moment. Yet, she was absolutely right? Trump himself bungled his answer, and that too seemed to count against Kelly. She had been the source of a genuine mistake on Trump’s part, and that was unforgivable. Like the Stark girls witnessing Geoffrey Lannister’s cowardice, Kelly had borne witness to something common men and women are not supposed to see.
Fire the witch!
What always fascinated me about this, is the fact that Kelly doesn’t appear to have set out for Trump’s blood in the outset. I find myself wondering if she couldn’t possibly have more to help Trump out with this question? First, she began by repeating the straight-shooter theme, thus paying the man a rather undeserved compliment and all-but answering the question for him. And then of course there is the whole ‘war on women’ theme, as if Trump’s personal rudeness had anything to do with the GOP’s campaign to restrict the rights of women in both the workplace and the field of health-care. It was a straw-man of course, and one Kelly skillfully placed in the mouth of Hillary Clinton. As tough questions go, this was a slow pitch straight up the middle, but it was too much for Trump.
And thus Kelly became a Pariah.
It doesn’t get much sillier than that. I can’t help wondering at her own internal monologue as she proceeded to spank Trump for his initial response. I can’t help but wonder if the word ‘child’ flashed through her mind as it did for so many others. And of course with Trump’s knee-jerk response he proved himself unworthy of her initial praise. His first reaction in this (as with so many other instances) had been to lie, and thus he was caught like a child with his hand in the cookie jar, telling us all it was just Rosie O’Donnell.
Did this shake the faith of Trump fans? Far from it! Well, it did shake their faith in Megyn Kelly and Fox News. They had stood for a moment as witnesses to the foibles of Prince Trump. Whatever facts or reasons Kelly might have had, they pointed only to her own disloyalty. The truth would be what Donald made of it, and it simply wasn’t Kelly’s role to stand against that.
For months after this dust-up, Trump, his campaign, and his fans simply kept telling us what a straight-foreword kinda guy he is. After awhile, you have to realize this isn’t simply a mistake, but it’s a damned odd epistemology. What counts as truth in this narrative is a willingness to tell someone something they don’t want to hear. It’s a common yarn that the “politically correct” left simply cannot handle the truth, as they say, and that the many epithets and racial slurs of right wing politics are a just brutal truth shouted in the face of milquetoast morons well deserving of any discomfort the whole affair may bring about.
The problem of course is that all this begs the question; is the source of discomfort really anything like truth? I for one can think of a few instances in which left wingers (or anyone for that matter) have thrown their weight behind some falsehood I wouldn’t mind seeing burst like a bubble cuddling up to a nice sharp needle. I can also think of a few times the left wing viewed seemed damned accurate to me, and all the cries of ‘political correctness” never did a damned thing to demonstrate otherwise. More to the point, the rhetoric of PC-bashing makes the particulars quite irrelevant, especially wielded as Trump does in his encounter with Kelly. PC-bashing makes of the entire range of left-wing politics nothing but a white lie, one just begging for that damned needle.
…and of course in Trump’s case ‘political correctness’ would eventually come to include things like not beating protesters. That might seem a novel use of the phrase, but of course making truth is hard, and sometimes it must be made at the expense of someone else’s nose.
Brutal honesty is understandable, but all-too-often brutal honesty is all brutal and no honesty. In support of this, Trump’s comments about women would be ‘exhibit A’ as far as I’m concerned. And yet countless Trump supporters seem not only to accept his deceits; they actually seem to count these deceits as evidence of his honesty. Honesty is functionally equivalent for rudeness in this story-line. What counts as truth is the ability to make liberals uncomfortable. If our discomfort is caused by counterfactual claims or clear errors in reasoning, well then those too seem to count as victories in the service of a higher truth. For truth is what Trump will make of it, and that truth is meant to make some of us miserable.
…which brings me to another feature of Trump’s relationship to honesty, that which makes his product irresistible, a sense of shared guilt. If you are like me, you can’t really bring yourself to believe that Trump’s fans actually believe the nonsense he spouts. Time and again, his reflex is to make a claim so obviously false it seeming doesn’t even seem count as a lie. Whatever else it is, is anybody’s guess. (We would need John Miller to explain it to us.) Time and again it seems painfully clear that anyone past preschool should see clearly that Trump is lying. But his fans still support him. It boggles the mind.
But only if you take the whole charade at face value.
They key to understanding Trump’s appeal, I think, is to understand that his supporters don’t really believe his crap anymore than the rest of us do. They simply see themselves as in on the con. If Trump is deceiving anyone it isn’t his followers, so the thinking goes. It’s someone else, someone square enough to take him seriously, to ask if his claims are actually true.
…someone like Megyn Kelly, who was, if only for a moment, foolish enough to think that when Trump said that he only insults Rosie O’Donnell, he actually meant that he only insults Rosie O’Donnell. Anyone with half an ounce of wit would have simply laughed and accepted this answer, knowing full well that it wasn’t literally true. After all, Trump had offered Kelly a perfectly standard whipping girl in place of an honest answer. Conservatives everywhere know that Rosie O’Donnell is fair game for any kind of abuse they care to heap on her, and the abuse of Rosie O’Donnell is a perfectly acceptable substitute for any answer to any more serious question, at least in front of the cameras.
That’s just how the game is played!
A moment of Rosie-bashing should have been enough. It would have been enough, except that for just that particular moment in recent history Kelly wasn’t hip to the con. No-one really expected Kelly, the audience, or anyone else to actually believe that Trump reserves all his misogyny for Rosie O’Donnell, but if Kelly is going to blow the con like that, she can’t really be in the fold.
This, I think is the key to understanding Trump’s reputation for honesty. It resides in a sense of truth as shared conspiracy. Those in the know cannot be expected to describe it accurately. That’s not what people in the know actually do. To speak the truth in itself would be an act of betrayal. And those who balk at the claims of Trump and his camp demonstrate only their own ignorance with every refutation they produce. Only a square would think it mattered that Trump’s claims were false, and only a complete square would make the effort to demonstrate this.
All of which brings us back to that wall Trump keeps telling us about. Is it important? Yes, but not because he actually means to build it. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. It really doesn’t matter, because as an immigration policy, a wall isn’t much. But it’s a damned important symbol, and Trump supporters know this. Trump’s wall is the ultimate in us versus them politics. This is what makes it a powerful symbol. With his wall, Trump demonstrated an absolute willingness to separate the people who count from those that don’t, which is what garnered him the support of so many who count as conservative in Today’s politics.
…all of which is kind of standard.
But what escaped my notice at first is just how much that wall suggests a kind of epistemology. It isn’t just the benefits of being American that will be locked up behind that wall. It is the truth itself. One might think that one of the hallmarks of truth would be it’s capacity to overcome boundaries, to enable people who disagree to check each others’ claims and arrive at a common sense of what is and what isn’t the case. This at least is what sometimes happens in the course of a reasonable argument. But that isn’t the vision of truth driving the Trump camp. No, their Truth is not shared. It too is locked up behind that wall, and it isn’t shared with the rest of us.
First rule of fight club and all that.
Truth in the Trump machine reside in the boldness of his lies. In the cockiness of claims that couldn’t possibly be accurate. Every time the rest of us struggle to decide where to begin with Trump’s latest round of hogwash, his fans see only a knowing wink, another reassurance that he knows what they know, and that we never will.
Which raises the question of just who really is in on the con? So many of Trump’s supporters count him as a hero for the common man. What counts as a common man? Well it isn’t a liberal. It isn’t a Mexican. It isn’t a Muslim. It may or may not include other minorities, but certainly not any rude enough to stand up for their own rights. Join Black Lives Matter and you are definitely out of the club. Trump himself may make personal exceptions for certain folks (like the London Mayor), but that is the privilege of a Prince, to make exceptions to his own rules. But the real question is whether or not the working class will get a share of whatever benefits Trump hopes to hoard behind his walls. He keeps promising more jobs, and that promise may seem empty, but in the interim he has plenty of scapegoats to offer. And of course those scapegoats remain in the dark. It’s one of the most tangible signs of Trump’s loyalty to his own followers, his honesty, so to speak, his willingness to lie to (and about) the rest of us.
Truth is what Trump will make of it, and that Truth will come at the expense of a lot of people.
I expect some will be very surprised to find themselves on the wrong side of that wall.