How Do We Rebuild a Shared American Reality on a Foundation of Lies?

Roger Berkowitz on the Information Collapse of the Trump Era

On May 28, 1975, then-Senator Joe Biden wrote a letter to Hannah Arendt.

Dear Miss Arendt,

I read in a recent article by Tom Wicker of a paper that you read at the Boston Bicentennial Forum.

As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, I am most interested in receiving a copy of your paper.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
Joseph R. Biden Jr.
United State Senator

The paper to which Senator Biden referred is “Home to Roost,” a lecture Arendt read on May 20, 1975 at Faneuil Hall, which also was broadcast five days later by National Public Radio.[1] The lecture was then published in the New York Review of Books. Arendt died suddenly a few months later in December of 1975, making the speech her last public appearance and “Home to Roost” her last finished essay. “Home to Roost” is republished in a remarkable collection of essays Responsibility and Judgment.[2]

“Home to Roost” gathers together Arendt’s lifelong concerns with totalitarian lying and theoretical obfuscation, alongside her deep fear about the corruption and failure of the American republican tradition of free self-government. Invited to speak at the Bicentennial ceremony billed as a birthday party for America, Arendt focused on recent “years of aberration” in which the country had seen its prestige and power wane. Her hope, expressed in the final sentences of her talk, is that when the facts of the country’s corruption come ‘home to roost’ in the crises facing the republic, we would “try at least to make” the facts welcome. “Let us not try to escape into some utopias—images, theories, or sheer follies.” For the sake of freedom, Arendt asks, let us seek to confront the facts of who we are and where we have fallen short of our ideals.

The facts of the crises facing the United States are myriad in Arendt’s telling. Just nine months earlier President Nixon had resigned in the wake of Watergate and was pardoned by President Ford. Add the defeat in Vietnam, the crisis of McCarthyism, the bankruptcy of New York City, and the “destruction of a reliable and devoted civil service.” All of which were followed by the appearance of the “ugly American” in imperialist foreign affairs. Which is why Arendt mused that for the for two hundredth birthday of the Republic of the United States, “I fear we could not have chosen a less appropriate moment.”

Forty-five years after Senator Biden wrote to Hannah Arendt, now-Vice President Biden is running for President amidst another moment of crisis for the democratic and constitutional Republic of the United States. The facts of our current crises include the impeachment of the President for abuse of power by the House of Representatives, a cultural and political war pitting educated elites against lower status Americans, rebellions against expert rule and a professional civil service, a continued reckoning with over 200 years of chattel slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow, and the racism that justified both, a pandemic that has turned into a partisan battle with deadly consequences, and the most unequal recession in US history, barely impacting those who work from their screens while causing depression-era misery for millions at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

What unites these two moments of crisis separated by half a century is the flight from reality that Arendt understood to be at the center of our modern predicament. She connects this aversion to reality first to the instinct of pundits and intellectuals to search for “deeper causes” of what went wrong. The speculations by intellectuals are “often far-fetched and almost always based on assumptions which are prior to an impartial examination of the factual record.” It is in the nature of such speculative theories to “to hide and to make us forget the stark, naked brutality of facts, of things as they are.”

Arendt also traces the modern flight from reality to the doctrine of progress, the “premise underlying this whole age” that we have to keep growing and getting bigger and more efficient.

For both socialism and capitalism, there is a belief that we must get ever richer and bigger. Not because there is anything good or beautiful in bigness, but because we are terrified of what we will find if we stop moving forward. “[T]o stop going, stop wasting, to stop consuming more and more, quicker and quicker, to say at any given moment enough is enough would spell imminent doom.”

Most importantly, Arendt argues that the refusal of reality is tied to the “mass manipulation of fact and opinion,”[3] which she attributes to the “decisive” consequences of the rise of public relations that has “invaded our political life.” Arendt’s prime example of the dominance of image-making in politics is the Vietnam War. To look at the Vietnam War is to be confronted with a reality that is “unbelievable”: the horror of the war, the failures of US policy; the lies and corruption; and the atrocities committed. This “not very honorable and not very rational enterprise was,” she writes, “exclusively guided by the needs of a superpower to create for itself an image which would convince the world that it was indeed ‘the mightiest power on earth.'” The war in Vietnam was fought for neither “power nor profit.” It did not aim at imperialist domination. Not even influence in Asia was the goal. “The terrible truth” revealed by the Pentagon Papers was that the “only permanent goal had become the image itself.” The war was fought for “audiences” according to imagined “scenarios” and how they would be perceived. And at the end, the entirety of the effort was not to avoid losing, but “to avoid admitting defeat and to keep the image of the ‘mightiest power on earth’ intact.”

Today, our infatuation with images and our flight from the real world is all around us. The President lied about the size of the crowds at his inauguration. He lied to the American people about the Corona Virus. He is now lying about the threat of voter fraud. Just this week he appeared at campaign rallies after having tested positive for COVID-19. The audacity of Trump’s lies is at times difficult to fathom. What needs to be understood, however, is that the President’s lies are not attempts to convince or persuade; his lies are designed to buttress his image. His lies about the inauguration are to protect his image as a powerful leader. But above all, his lies that attack experts, civil servants, the intelligence agencies, and our political institutions are aimed to burnish his image as a truthteller.

It is a twist of irony that the greatest liar ever to hold the office of the Presidency won in large part because people saw him as telling the one big truth—that the system is broken and corrupt. Donald Trump can appear as a truthteller because he rejects the expert-and-pundit-driven theories and speculations that have come to justify globalization, imperialism, systematic racism, rape culture, and media objectivity. Globalization and free trade have been sold as an unqualified good by the cosmopolitan classes who jet around the world attending conferences and opening factories, while millions of people in the lower and middle classes see their incomes diminished with little benefit. United States intervention in foreign nations is defended by the foreign policy elite as necessary to uphold the liberal world order, but the people who fight those wars are almost exclusively those on the bottom of the economic and social ladder. Systematic racism and white privilege embrace a theory of collective guilt, ignoring differences of class, origin, and hardship, and forgetting that where all are guilty, none are guilty—all of which leads to a public relations strategy of admitting an abstract guilt divorced from consequences. The claim from the #MeToo movement to “believe women”—rooted, of course, in the longstanding silencing of women—makes the ideological demand that all women be believed, until, of course, someone like Tara Reade accuses Joe Biden of rape or popular feminist professors are accused of harassment, at which point the phrase “believe women” hits its limits. And the embrace of “resistance journalism” by much of the media elite has, finally, made clear the real bias of mainstream journalism that largely ignores and diminishes the worldview of those outside the centers of urban and elite culture. There is no greater example of this than the continued effort by some in the press to connect the dots showing President Trump’s collusion with Russia even after the Mueller Report found no evidence of such collusion.

The problem today is not simply that President Trump lies incessantly. It is not only that those on the left insist on theories and speculations that defy common sense. It is easy to focus on the specific lies the President tells because they are so brazen. Conspiracies are thriving and not only on the fringes of our society: There is the Qanon claim about a pedophile ring throughout the reaches of the U.S. government; the fantasy of #Obamagate that President Obama and Vice-President Biden conspired to prevent President Trump from winning the election; there is the fictional claim that President Obama and now Representative Ilhan Omar are not U.S. citizens; Holocaust deniers are in ascendence and #Russiagate purveyors insist that President Trump is controlled by Moscow. To point out that conspiracies impact both the left and the right is not to state an equivalency; it is, however, to recognize that there is a flight from reality across our social and political worlds: lying today has become a way of life.

“Lying as a way of life,” Arendt observes, was “quite successful in countries under totalitarian rule.” In totalitarian regimes, lying was guided by ideologies and enforced by terror. Only a totalitarian regime can make bold and obvious lies believable. They do so, first, by choosing plausible but simple ideological fictions—that a conspiracy of Jews controls world politics—and organizing a logical coherent narrative around that fiction. These “facts” are not objective, but they are believed as part of ideological fantasy, they become as “real and untouchable an element in their lives as the rules of arithmetic.” And since the “fact” of a Jewish conspiracy is not a fact but the linchpin of a logically coherent world, it is foolproof against reality-based arguments.

In totalitarian states, lying was guided by an ideology and thus had a logical consistency that fully divorced the lies from reality, which is always complicated and never logical. Totalitarianism promises to lonely masses what they want: a logically coherent fantasy that replaces a messy and uncomfortable reality. But the totalitarian states could only cement their lies through terror–by normalizing a “sheer criminality” by which lies would be certified by mass murder. For one sure way to “prove” the fact of Jewish world conspiracy is to exterminate the Jews and make them into the enemy you claim that they are. By bringing criminality into the political process on a gigantic scale, Nazi Germany secured belief in the fictional ideological reality.

The modern lie that emerged in the 20th century “deals efficiently with things that are not secrets at all but are known to practically everybody.”

Arendt did not believe that totalitarianism as it existed in Nazi Germany or Bolshevist Russia was a threat in the United States. Aware of the dangers of totalitarianism, public opinion in the United States, she saw, was not prepared to condone mass murder, camps, and terror. And yet, writing in the wake of the blatant lying in Vietnam, the burglaries and cover-ups of Watergate, rampant inflation and urban decay amidst the refusal to own up to the economic crises in the country, she does believe that public opinion appeared ready to condone “all political transgressions short of murder.” In other words, if “lying as a way of life” might not support the kinds of criminality evidence in totalitarian states, it might serve to obfuscate and justify a lower level of criminality in a declining American Republic.

American politicians consistently get away with lying and even blatant criminality. Arendt’s primary example is Richard Nixon and Watergate. While Nixon’s crimes “were a far cry from the sort of criminality with which we once were inclined to compare it,” the facts are clear that Nixon’s administration included many persons who—if not criminals—were so attracted to the “aura of power, its glamorous trappings,” that they came to see themselves as above the law. Nixon, and those around him, assumed that they could and would get away with their crimes because they believed that “all people are actually like them.” They thought that all people are, in the end, corruptible. Thus, they believed that judges, the press, and politicians could be bought or cowed. They sought to deny the reality of their crimes by spreading the image of human corruptibility—all men would have done the same.

Against the logical ideological coherence backed by terror that supports the big lie in totalitarian states, Arendt sees that the lying in the American Republic of the 1970s was based upon the hidden persuasive power of an image: Namely, the image that those who became “accomplices in criminal activities” in the pursuit of power were normal, just like everyone else, and “would be above the law.” What Nixon sought was to replace the totalitarian support of lying on principle by the rule by terror with a culture of lying as a way of life that could persist because nobody would care. He and his cronies imagined that lying as an everyday activity in the pursuit of power would be as acceptable to their fellow citizens as it was to them. And to Nixon’s shock, the public was not amenable to such pressure and manipulation by the Executive. The press and the American republican institutions did fight back. “Nixon’s greatest mistake—aside from not burning the tapes in time—was to have misjudged the incorruptibility of the courts and the press.”

The kind of lying Arendt saw emerging in the United States—lying as a way of life—was not a traditional political lie that was intended to keep secrets of state. It did not concern “data that had never been made public.”[4] Rather, the modern lie that emerged in the 20th century “deals efficiently with things that are not secrets at all but are known to practically everybody.”[5] Everyone might know that Nixon was a criminal; the question is, would they care.

Similarly, everyone today knows not only that President Trump lies, but also that he is a con man at best and a criminal at worst: The President avoids taxes; he pays hush money to prostitutes; he harasses women; he bullies and intimidates contractors and employees to accept less money than they are owed; someone else took his SAT; he encourages foreign leaders and American corporations to do business at his hotels, thus profiting off the presidency; and he abuses his power to seek political advantage. The President is a con man and we are all in on the con. His lies simply give plausible deniability to his truth, that he is a con man who is powerful enough to get away with taking control of the most powerful country on earth. His lies are not designed to be believable. They are designed to foment chaos and instability, all in the name an image of power.

Consider one of President Trump’s many bald-faced lies. Amidst protests over the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25th, 2020, a protester named Martin Gugino approached a line of police in Buffalo, New York. The police line, with officers wearing tactical riot gear, was moving forward, to clear protesters from Buffalo’s Niagara Square at 8:10 pm, ten minutes after the 8 pm curfew. Gugino, a 75-year-old man and a “longtime peace activist and gentle person,”[6] approached the line of police. Two officers brandishing batons pushed Gugino back and he toppled and fell backwards, hitting his head. Blood began trickling from his ear. The police formed a cordon around Gugino. Eventually he was brought to a hospital, where he recovered.

Five days later, President Donald Trump tweeted that Gugino “could be an ANTIFA provocateur” and that he appeared to “scan police communications in order to black out the equipment.” The President also wrote: “I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?”

Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?[7]

The President’s lying displays the cancerous growth of the public relations machine to encompass all areas of political and economic life such that lying and the evasion of reality are made into matters of principle.

The President’s tweet was quickly refuted by mainstream news outlets[8] and even by a smattering of Republican Senators.[9] No one in the mainstream press or political life of the country believed the President. So why does the President tell such lies?

There are at least three answers to the question of why the President can lie so obviously. The first is that lying is simply a part of politics. “Truthfulness,” as Arendt famously remarked, “has never been counted among the political virtues.”[10] Political action seeks change; it must begin something new. But change is not possible if we cannot “remove ourselves from where we physically are located and imagine that things might as well be different from what they actually are.” Thus all political activism and change demand the imagination, the capacity to deliberately deny “factual truth—the ability to lie.”[11] Not only can we say that the sun shines when it is raining, we can say that “all men are created equal” when we know for sure that they are all incredibly different and unique. Without this “mental freedom to deny or affirm existence,” Arendt writes, no action and no politics is possible.[12] Lies are at the center of the political enterprise.

The second reason the President can lie is without consequence is that political facts are contingent, they depend upon agreement and persuasion. Even the President’s seemingly clear lie in his tweet about Mr. Gugino can be spun as a true statement. His tweet is expressed in the subjunctive: Gugino “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.” Gugino “appeared” to scan police communications. The President asks a question: “Could it be a set up?” To call the President a liar or to fact-check his statements may well lead to a parsing of the facts in such a way that reduces all facts to statements of opinion. This transformation of fact into opinion can destroy the common world. It reminds us “facts” are contingent and only are “true” when they are believed by enough people in a political community.

Finally, the President’s lying displays the cancerous growth of the public relations machine to encompass all areas of political and economic life such that lying and the evasion of reality are made into matters of principle. When lying becomes a way of life, the very idea of truth is transformed into a battle of competing images. The question of whether there is voter fraud ceases to have a true answer; it is transformed into a contest between dueling images. Is wearing a mask medically sound? It is, rather, a partisan statement, an image representing one’s political commitments. “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth,” Arendt writes, “is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”[13]

The end goal of lying as a way of life is not that the lies are believed, but the cementing of cynicism. When cynicism reigns, not only is everything permitted; but also everything is possible. Cynicism is the fertile ground in which power grows unstoppable absent the constraints of reality.

And for such cynicism, Arendt worries, “there is no remedy.”[14] What consistent lying achieves is the “experience of a trembling wobbling motion of everything we rely on for our sense of direction and reality is among the most common and vivid experiences of men under totalitarian rule.”[15] But if in totalitarian government reality wobbles as a result of terror enforcing lies, in the corruption of our present politics, reality wobbles because the image having overtaken truth has become persuasive.

Arendt offers a metaphor of sitting around a table to understand what it means when the real world is lost. So long as the table is there, we are all part of a conversation, connected by the table that creates as it were the world that unites us. Remove the table and we are isolated individuals sitting in space. Similarly, stories we tell and songs we sing bring us together and guide us in living together as a collectivity. Institutions we respect and symbols we revere inspire in us a shared sense of purpose. And celebrations and memorials offer us a common liturgy that builds a foundation upon which we stand, a shared ground in spite of our many differences. The building and nurturing of this shared common world is the activity of politics; politics is the telling of stories and building of institutions that unite a multitude of individuals into a common and meaningful project.

The political world needs a shared reality that in turn is based upon a factual world; and yet political facts are contingent, they depend upon agreement and persuasion. The fact that the earth is warming because of human activity, the fact that abortion is a constitutional right, the fact that we live in constitutional democracy, and the fact that systemic racism disadvantages black Americans are facts that could be otherwise and can be contested. But factual truths are “always related to other people” and such truths only exist when they are spoken about.[16] They are only “facts” when they are believed by enough people in a political community so that they come to be part of the public world.

This potential rebirth of a new common ethical world is not only possible, but likely. It depends, however, on the courage to speak honestly and openly with one another absent ideological rigidity.

It is in speaking with one another that we come to share common reference points and in our talking amongst ourselves conjure the factual world into being. At that point the facts become part of our shared truths, “the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”[17] The tendency to “transform fact into opinion, to blur the dividing line between them,” can lead to a situation where “simple factual statements are not accepted,” and even the most basic facts dissolve into the diversity of viewpoints.[18] When this happens, there is no permanence and no durability to the world. A world without durability and permanence is an inhuman world and ceases to be a home and a haven mortal beings.

While Arendt wonders if there may be no remedy for cynicism, she also offers a faith that amidst the ruin of our human world, a new world can be reborn. She holds a fundamental belief in the power of talking. She writes: “We become more just and more pious by thinking and talking about justice and piety.”[19] But why is this so?

First, in talking about the world with others, with those who disagree, we make the world visible in its complexity. Second, in talking about the world, we also make judgments and decisions about the world. Those decisions, Arendt admits, “may one day prove wholly inadequate.” But even absent agreements on the nature of a crisis and how to solve it, the act of speaking with one another about the crises of our times will, she argues, “eventually lay the groundwork for new agreements between ourselves as well as between the nations of the earth, which then might become customs, rules, [and] standards that again will be frozen into what is called morality.” In talking with one another we create the kinds of shared experiences and common points of connections that might, over time, become the building blocks of a new shared world that can give birth to new traditions and thus a new moral order.

This potential rebirth of a new common ethical world is not only possible, but likely. It depends, however, on the courage to speak honestly and openly with one another absent ideological rigidity. If and when we do, we will come to understand what we share and where we disagree. If and when we do open such a common world, we will begin the process of bringing that world into existence. That is the source of Arendt’s optimism: “I personally do not doubt that from the turmoil of being confronted with reality without the help of precedent, that is, of tradition and authority, there will finally arise some new code of conduct.” The only way to engage the crisis of our wobbling world is to confront the reality and talk honestly about it with others.

[1] The article then Senator Biden had read was “The Lie and the Image,” by Tom Wicker, which appeared in the New York Times on May 25, 1975.

[2] Citations to “Home to Roost” are from Responsibility and Judgment, ed. by Jerome Kohn (Schocken Books: New York, 2003).

[3] Truth and Politics, 247.

[4] Truth and Politics, 247.

[5] Truth and Politics, 247.

[6] https://nypost.com/2020/06/05/martin-gugino-buffalo-man-pushed-by-police-is-long-time-activist/

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/09/nyregion/who-is-martin-gugino-buffalo-police.html

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/09/nyregion/who-is-martin-gugino-buffalo-police.html

[9] https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/09/republicans-deflect-questions-after-trump-tweet-75-year-old-protester-309075

[10] Lying and Politics, 4. Truth and Politics, 223.

[11] Lying and Politics. 5.

[12] Id. 5-6.

[13] Truth and Politics, 252-53.

[14] Truth and Politics, 253.

[15] Truth and Politics, 253.

[16] Truth and Politics, 234.

[17] Truth and Politics, 258.

[18] Truth and Politics, 232, 233.

[19] “The Crisis in Culture,” in Thinking Without a Bannister, ed. by Jerome Kohn.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Founder and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and Professor of Politics, Philosophy, and Human Rights at Bard College. Professor Berkowitz authored The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition (Harvard, 2005; Fordham, 2010; Chinese Law Press, 2011). Berkowitz is editor of The Perils of Invention: Lying, Technology, and the Human Condition (2020) and co-editor of Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics (2009), The Intellectual Origins of the Global Financial Crisis (2012) and Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch (2017). His writing has appeared in The New York TimesThe American InterestBookforumThe Forward, The Paris Review OnlineDemocracy: A Journal of Ideas, and many other publications. He is a co-editor of Just Ideas, a book series published by Fordham University Press. He is the winner of the 2019 Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought given by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Bremen, Germany.





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