Published June 18, 2019
Like many writers I know, I’ve had a passion for words for almost as long as I can remember. I’ve admired those who use words well, who have shaped my imagination and given voice to things I wanted to express but didn’t feel like I adequately could. That is why they have to be protected against assault and degradation.
At an early age I recognized their power to convey deep emotions and longings, knowledge and understanding, hopes and fears. “Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically than rivers and land and sea,” one of my favorite writers, Malcolm Muggeridge, once wrote. “Their misuse is our undoing.”
Eventually, we all come to understand words are the means by which we teach and inspire, defend truth, and seek justice. (Those of us of the Christian faith don’t consider it an accident that the first sentence in the Gospel of John is, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”) So words have extraordinary power—in our daily lives most of all, but in politics as well.
Democracy requires that we honor the culture of words. The very idea of democracy is based on the hope that fellow citizens can reason together and find a system for adjudicating differences and solving problems—all of which assumes there is a shared commitment to the integrity of our public words. If you believe words can ennoble, you must also believe they can debase. If they can elevate the human spirit, they can also pull it down. And when words are weaponized by our political leaders and used to paint all opponents as inherently evil, stupid, or weak, then democracy’s foundations are put in peril. Which brings us to the dismal, demoralizing Trump era.
The debasement of words has reached a zenith with the coming of America’s 45th president, who dominates discourse in this country in ways perhaps no other president ever has. And if we hope to repair the damage that’s been done, we need to understand what it is about Trump’s misuse of words that is pernicious and dangerous.
The least problematic part is the sheer banality of Donald Trump’s words. During his presidency, Trump has uttered no beautiful and memorable phrases. His inaugural address, which is a speech normally meant to inspire the citizenry, is remembered, if at all, for the phrase “American carnage” and Trump’s description of a dystopian nation, broken and shattered. More worrisome is that Trump’s utterances are often an incoherent word salad. If you read the transcript of many of his interviews and extemporaneous speeches, you often find that Trump is not only unable to lay out a coherent argument; at times he’s unable to string together sentences that parse.
But that’s hardly the worst of Trump’s misuses of words. When it comes to dealing with those who oppose him, he consistently uses words to demean, belittle, bully, or dehumanize. He has mocked former prisoners of war, the disabled, and the appearance of women. He has perpetuated conspiracy theories. He has attacked gold star parents and widows. And he has engaged in racially tinged attacks. The number of his targets is inexhaustible because Trump’s brutishness is inexhaustible.
Many other presidents have been viewed as divisive figures, but none have taken as much delight as Trump in provoking acrimony, malice, and bitterness for their own sake; in turning Americans against each other in order to turn them against each other. He seems to find psychic satisfaction in doing so.
The banality and weaponization of Trump’s words are bad enough, but the greatest cause for concern is his nonstop, dawn-to-midnight assault on facts, truth, reality. That places Trump in a sinister category all his own.
Many politicians are guilty of not telling the full truth of events. A significant number shade the truth from time to time. A few fall into the category of consistent, outright liars. But only very few—and only the most dangerous—are committed to destroying the very idea of truth itself. That is what we have in Donald Trump, along with many of his aides and courtiers. We saw it at the dawn of the Trump presidency, when he insisted—and sent out his press secretary to insist—that the crowd size at his inauguration was larger than that of Barack Obama’s, despite photographic evidence to the contrary. And that behavior has continued virtually every day since.
According to The Washington Post, Trump has made more than 10,000 false or misleading claims as president, roughly 12 a day. The Trump presidency is notable for the number and velocity of his falsehoods and misleading statements. They have been made in speeches and tweets, on matters significant and trivia, about others and about himself—and he virtually never apologizes or issues corrections. He says what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the reality of things.
In a 2018 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Trump said, “And just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” In other words, who are you going to believe—me or your lyin’ eyes?
“The man lies all the time,” writes Thomas Wells, an attorney once hired. In Bob Woodward’s book Fear, Trump’s former personal lawyer John Dowd describes the president as “a f******” liar,” telling Trump he would end up in an “orange jump suit” if he testified to special counsel Robert Mueller. And the former White House aide Anthony Scaramucci, when asked if he considers Trump a liar, admitted, “Okay, well we both know that he’s telling lies. So if you want me to say he’s a liar, I’m happy to say he’s a liar.” (In a later interview Scaramucci put it this way: “He’s an intentional liar. It’s very different from just being a liar-liar.”)
Trump is not simply a serial liar; he is attempting to murder the very idea of truth, which is even worse. “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda,” according to the Russian dissident and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. “It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
This is an urgent matter, and it makes this a dangerous moment because without truth and a common factual basis for our national life, a free society cannot operate. And right now, for a significant number of Americans—including many people on the right who long defended the concept of objective truth and repeatedly rang the alarm bell about the rise of relativism—truth is viewed as relative rather than objective, malleable rather than solid; as instrumental, as a means to an end, as a weapon in our intense political war. A depressingly large number of Trump supporters—again, many of whom have for years agreed with the conservative political philosopher Allan Bloom that relativism was impoverishing our souls—now seem to relish this “post-truth” political moment.
Nietzsche coined a term, perspectivism, to describe the idea that there is no objective truth, everybody gets to make up their own reality, their own script, their own set of facts, and everything is conditioned to what one’s own perspective is. We saw this illustrated in the 2016 campaign, when Newt Gingrich insisted on defending Trump’s claim that crime rates were soaring. When the host, CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, cited FBI data to support her claim that we are safer and crime is down, Gingrich responded, “No. That’s your view.”
When Camerota countered that this wasn’t simply a subjective matter and once again cited FBI crime statistics, Gingrich responded, “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel, and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.” In other words, facts be damned; my feelings will create my own reality. (By the way, those who assemble crime statistics are not “theoreticians.” They are documenting empirical data.)
Destroy the foundation of factual truth, and lies will be normalized. This is what the Czech dissident (and later president) Vaclav Havel described in the late 1970s when he wrote about his fellow citizens making their own inner peace with a regime built on hypocrisy and falsehoods. They were “living within the lie.” In such a situation life becomes farcical, demoralizing, a theater of the absurd. It is soul-destroying.
The United States is still quite a long way from the situation Havel found himself in. But to keep it that way—to keep civic vandalism from spreading—we all have a role to play, including calling out lies, including the lies of Trump, in every way we can.
The most obvious thing Americans can do is to vote for men and women who prize integrity and are, in the main, truth-tellers. It doesn’t seem too much to ask that we not vote for those who are chronically dishonest and corrupt. Americans can also end their financial support for parties that are aiding and abetting compulsive liars.
There are also plenty of ways constituents can exert pressure on their members of Congress to speak out and act against those who are duplicitous and disgracing the profession of politics. Congress has a lot of tools in its kit, from censure to holding hearings to blocking nominations and legislation to impeachment. But those efforts will only happen if public pressure is applied. If it is, politicians will respond. People who are a corrupting influence have been voted into office; they can be voted out of office.
The United States government needs to step up our efforts to stop the misinformation and disinformation campaigns by foreign powers who are influencing our elections, including learning from countries like Ukraine, which has experienced this and taken steps to defend itself. We know that social-media platforms like Facebook, Google, Reddit, and Tumblr were weaponized over the last several years; they need to be held accountable and need to be fixed, including regulating these industries if they can’t correct themselves and end this Wild West show.
The American press has to redouble its effort to get its facts right and resist jumping to premature conclusion. “Our facts need to be squeaky clean and uncorrupted,” in the words of CNN’s Jake Tapper, who is an exemplary journalist.
Each of us can refuse to become complicit in lies. We can refuse to defend them, refuse to believe them, and refuse to spread them, including lies that might help our political causes. We can also venture outside of our ideological silos, listen to other sources of information, and take into account other perspectives. (Think about how often we listen not to understand but in order to refute.) All of us can do better to remind ourselves that the main point of gathering information isn’t to reaffirm the views we already hold; it’s to better ascertain the truth.
Beyond that, we can all do better to model truthfulness, temperance, decency and integrity in our daily lives, among our family, friends and colleagues. One person acting alone can’t change much; a lot of people acting together create a civic and political culture.
The temptation is to think that if we simply flip the right policy switches, if we implement the right laws, we will put an end to this disorienting “post-truth” era. But there is no set of policies we can pull off the shelf to deal with our present political malady. Ultimately what will be decisive is whether enough Americans commit (or re-commit) themselves to defend truth and fight falsity. That has to happen in our individual lives and in how we manifest that commitment in the political realm. There’s no getting around the fact that much of what needs to be done lies in the realm of attitudes, in shaping our sensibilities in a way that respects truth and aligns with the reality of things. As Havel put it
In its most original and broadest sense, living within the truth covers a vast territory whose outer limits are vague and difficult to map, a territory full of modest expressions of human volition, the vast majority of which will remain anonymous and whose political impact will probably never be felt or described any more concretely than simply as part of a social climate or mood. Most of these expressions remain elementary revolts against manipulation: you simply straighten your backbone and live in greater dignity as an individual.
We cannot give up on the belief that human beings are rational and reasonable, that evidence and logic matter, and that persuasion is possible. The human condition is such that things are rarely all of one and none of the other, and certainly in this case, the pendulum swings from moments of collective trust and calm reason to collective mistrust, emotivism, and rancor.
A lot of different factors—internal and external, domestic and international, economic and social—influence a nation’s political and civic culture. And we all know, deep in our bones, that political leadership and rhetoric do, too. We need to stand with women and men in public life who believe, as Lincoln did, that words can be instruments of reason and justice, repair and reconciliation, enlightenment and truth. Who are willing to challenge not just their adversaries but their allies, not just the other political tribe but their own. And who are willing to make a compelling case for truth, deliberative democracy and persuasion.
Ours is a remarkable republic, if we can keep it.
Peter Wehner is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.