Political Discourse

The Earth is Flat

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks during the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Monday, July 18, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke at the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 18, 2016.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • If facts are the basis for healthy political debates, democracy is imperiled if truth is replaced by what American comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” – an assertion that “feels right” to believers without regard to such things as evidence and logic.
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  • Facts

    Facts

    • The Washington Post’s fact checker has given many of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s claims the worst rating of “Four Pinocchios” – a statement that’s a “whopper.”
    • Rudy Giuliani, the Trump supporter who was mayor of New York during the 9/11 terrorism attacks in 2001 when fellow Republican George W. Bush was president, recently said, “Under those eight years before Obama came along, we didn’t have any successful radical Islamic terrorist attack in the United States.”
    • Dubious claims have also been made by German politicians including leaders in the ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union and members of the leftist Die Linke and radical-right Alternative for Germany parties.
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I have developed a nasty addiction: I am now addicted to statements from the ranks of the Republican Party. Every morning, I obsessively read through the latest things that Donald Trump and the others have said, this hair-raising gibberish, and every morning what they say gets more insane. The record so far belongs to Rudy Giuliani, who recently claimed there hadn’t been any successful radical Islamic terrorist attacks on American soil before Barack Obama became president.

Please take a moment. Just let Mr. Giuliani’s statement roll around in your mind. Does that statement not make you want to crack up in disbelief? You know as well as I and Mr. Giuliani that September 11 in 2001 represents the greatest terrorist attack in world history and that the U.S. president at the time was George W. Bush. Perhaps you might also remember who was mayor of New York then. It was Rudy G.

If Mr. Giuliani, of all people, is now acting as if there had been no September 11th, then that fascinates me. In the truest sense of the word, his lie has something bewitching about it. It is so blatant it almost feels like an act of violence. You would like to respond in some way to Mr. Giuliani but you are too flabbergasted. And of course, responding would do no good. In fact, the rejoinder, “You’re lying,” would have only proved you had missed the whole point Mr. Giuliani was making. What is interesting is that everybody can see through this lie without effort. Even the people who applauded him must know it was nothing but a lie. Thing is: they don’t care.

The question of whether something corresponds to the facts is apparently losing its relevance. That’s what the American Republicans, and not just they alone, have come to realize, and that’s what I am continually forced to watch, like a form of black magic that I can’t understand.

Post-truth politics lives from this mental glucose. It’s directed to all of those who are uncomfortable when facts threaten their own world view. The further a position is on the political fringe, the more allergic it becomes to facts.

What I do understand: it’s about feelings. Mr. Giuliani knows that for the audience in front of him, it feels true that everything has gotten worse with Mr. Obama, including the terror. Mr. Giuliani’s lie taps into this feeling, it acts as confirmation. For some time now, the term “post-truth politics” has been circulating. It’s the phenomenon that the truth of a statement is no longer so important to its value in the political arena.

And please don’t say that’s just America. That this has nothing to do with us.

Because it most certainly does. In England, for instance, the Brexit supporters were also issuing false claims every day before the referendum. For instance, some claimed that  exiting the European Union would immediately free up £350 million ($463 million) more every week for the National Health Service. That was a lie. In spite of that, the pro-Brexiters won. Or perhaps because of it.

And in October 2015, Germany’s minister of the interior, Thomas de Maizière, sat in TV host Maybrit Illner’s studio and claimed that 30 percent of those in Germany assumed to be Syrians weren’t from Syria at all. He made the claim without his ministry being able to even partially substantiate that figure, which, it turns out, is less than 1 percent.

Now who was the minister targeting with this fantasy? Wasn’t that a very conscious courting of the right-wing fringe of the Christian Democrats, a statement meant for all those whose “felt truth” this accorded with?

Or when Katja Kipping of left-wing party Die Linke declared on television that the German government doesn’t mention Turkey’s human-rights situation in its dealings with that country’s government. Wasn’t this easily refuted, false statement an appeal to all those who reject the European refugee agreement with Erdoğan’s state? Of course politicians have always enjoyed telling voters what they want to hear. But such lies weren’t supposed to be public statements, they were frowned upon, they were appropriate at a fund-raiser maybe, but not on television.

The politician who has so far proven to be the most talented in shifting German politics towards post-truth is probably Alexander Gauland. He says, for example, that the German government is trying to replace the German people with migrants. This claim can neither be proved nor disproved. It thus probably can’t be called a lie in the strictest sense, but it certainly isn’t a political statement, either. What Gauland says is a claim, the verifiability of which is of no consequence to the speaker or his listeners. It isn’t by chance that Gauland’s AfD is the most consistent in abandoning truthfulness. The party is the youngest and most up-to-date among the German political groups, and it is the one most likely to understand how to win votes these days.

At first glance it perhaps appears strange that pronouncing falsehoods and making breakneck claims happens to be in fashion at the moment. Because the mood in Germany is one of distinct distrust. According to a survey conducted in February by Forsa, only 20 percent of the German population trusts politicians. And merely a third trusts television and the print media. One would think the general distrust would make lying in public more difficult.  

But the opposite is the case. The general mistrust is a prerequisite for politics beyond the factual. Once you believe that all politicians lie, your vote no longer depends on the issue of truth. A lie, for example Mrs. Merkel’s in 2013 that her government was in the midst of negotiating a “no-spy-deal” with the Americans, only loses its truth in a climate where no one expects the truth anyway. In a world of all-encompassing distrust, it is no longer about factuality but about likeability. It is no longer about whether a party is credible, it’s about who is most in touch with the voters, in the sense that the politician talks about the world in the way they experience it themselves, independent of given realities. Post-truth politicians have grasped that. Especially the AfD, which counts among its supporters those whose distrust of the establishment – “We are the people,” “Pinocchio press” – is most pronounced.

The culture of political debate is thus subjected to the laws of Like and Dislike, the value of a political statement henceforth measured no longer by its validity or its consequences, it is judged solely by its potential to earn acclaim. In June in Elsterwerda, Gauland and Björn Höcke garnered thunderous applause for the claim that there was a “chancellor dictatorship” in Germany, even if Mr. Gauland later lied on television that he never said it. One cannot argue the validity of that statement; nothing truly follows from it, it is so unspecific that is can hardly be called an accusation. So one can only either feel that the statement is true, or that it is ludicrous.

A healthy democratic debate begins with verifiable facts about which there is agreement. The debate takes off when the question of the implications of these facts arises.

Agreement: “There is a damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima.” Disagreement: “Phase out nuclear energy!” – “Make nuclear energy safer.”

Or agreement: “The Greeks are threatened with bankruptcy.” Disagreement: “Put together a bail-out package!” – “Leave the euro zone!”

Such debates are fuelled by interpretations, by ideas and ideologies.

But what happens when the facts themselves are disputed through systematic lying, diversion and watering-down? What happens when, for instance, it is claimed that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, even after that has become painfully obvious? A dispute about what happens to be the case in the world is not a political debate, because where the only thing being argued about are versions of reality, there are no longer debates about options. This is another characteristic of post-truth politics: the constant lying paralyzes the political process.

It’s a well-known fact that 99 percent of the world’s climate experts are in agreement about the existence of man-made global warming. However, a couple of clever lobbyists have sown doubt on these scientifically-proven findings until the fact turned into a matter of opinion. So while one heat record after another is broken, many countries still argue about whether climate change exists at all.

Naturally the statement “The scientists might be mistaken, who knows,” is easier to handle than, “It seems we have destroyed creation and will have to lead our lives rather differently.” As Nietzsche put it, for the sake of truth one must suffer hunger of soul. We don’t say, “That’s the bitter truth” for nothing. The lie, on the other hand, is sweet. Like cotton candy. It doesn’t offend, it demands nothing. The lie isn’t what we have to hear but what we want to hear.

Post-truth politics thrives on this mental glucose. It’s directed at all of us who are uncomfortable when facts threaten our world view. The further a position is on the political fringe, the more allergic it becomes to facts. The ideology there becomes so dense, so all-embracing that a single contradiction already rocks the entire construct. “In Cologne, dark-skinned men molested, robbed and raped women” – that can’t be true. “Children who have fled cluster bombs and bearded psychopaths are being left to expire outside Europe’s borders” – that can’t be true.

The position of enlightenment is one that accepts both of these facts as true and then asks what the consequences are. The difference between enlightened politics and post-truth politics is thus: In enlightened politics, ideology serves to interpret the facts. In post-truth politics, ideology serves to select them.

I would so love to see a talk show in which the invited politicians have to agree beforehand on two discordant, unpleasant facts such as those above, and then earnestly discuss what the consequences might be. Instead of bombarding each other with allegations and lies as in most of the discussions. I think that such a talk show could really turn out to be quite edifying, we might even feel touched.

What the political discourse needs in any case is not necessarily fewer lies, but more facts that are agreed upon. A world without commonly-held facts becomes pretty disturbing, and nowhere is this better illustrated than at Mr. Trump’s campaign events. Large crowds there dream the sweet dream of lies, of a wall between the United States and Mexico, of a terror-free America that bombs the Islamic State and is finally great again. Mr. Trump, the top sandman, has understood that his voters do not, under any circumstances, wish to be disturbed in their slumber. From a stage in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mr. Trump recently gifted his supporters with his greatest, his best and most beautiful lie so far:

 “I will always tell you the truth.”

This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: redaktion@zeit.de

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