Why Do They Lie? America, Poland, and the Danger of Political Myth
The Senate has now confirmed Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the optics — determined men of power refusing to accept the demands of “no” from frightened women concerned about agency over their own bodies — uncomfortably redolent of the very account Dr. Christine Blasey Ford alleged disqualified Kavanaugh in the first place. What was most striking about l’affaire Kavanaugh was, perhaps, that ultimately the spectacle signified virtually nothing. Kavanaugh was likely to be confirmed because he represented the naked exercise of partisan power, and so he was. Dr. Ford willingly made herself a sacrifice on the alter of civic discourse, yet few discerning observers of the broken rhythms of the Senate believed that her efforts would matter. A depressing hearing and a desultory investigation later, none of it had.
We cannot know, perhaps, the full truth of a summer’s night in 1982. What we do know is that no one tried particularly hard to uncover any such truth, treating it as an obstacle to be surmounted rather than a virtue to be attained. In this, Justice Kavanaugh’s elevation follows perfectly the trends of the recent past. Power used to follow truth, but now it swats veracity away with the shameless flick of a tribal wrist. On the very day that Kavanaugh was confirmed, President Trump stated that “Every single Democrat in the U.S. Senate has signed up for the open borders — and it’s a bill. And it’s called The Open Borders Bill. What’s going on? And it’s written by — guess who — Dianne Feinstein.” That no such bill exists, let alone was written by Senator Feinstein, apparently does not matter to the Chief executive nor, more tellingly, to his fellow travelers in Republican government, terrified of telling voters that the Emperor has no clothes. Yet ours is a nation created expressly to force power through channels of fact. The lasting question of the Kavanaugh hearings, indeed of the post-Obama era entirely is this: when truth is no longer the coin of the political realm, what happens to the government upon which it depends?
Women, at least, should be historically unsurprised. Carved into the façade of Town Hall, the New York landmark on West 44th Street, is the Biblical intonation, spoken through the ages in John 8:32: And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. The generalized belief was immortalized in stone by the League for Political Education, a group founded in 1894 by suffragists dedicated to the proposition that educating the populace on important issues of the day was an essential prerequisite for the exercise of mass democratic freedoms, not least of which was women seeking political equality. It was a propitious strategy: a century ago, truth drove the creation of mass democratic policies in opposition to organized wealth and succeeded in everything from trust-busting to suffrage itself.
Suffice it to say that our era appears quite different. A Geiger counter attuned to the flat-out lies of Donald Trump would have long since shaken itself to impotence. The website Polifact rates some 69% of Trump’s utterances false, meaning that when the President of the United States speaks, more than two out of every three statements are dishonest. Some hold onto the hope that when supporters feel the lash of reality, when facts gain the revenge of reality, even those who were deluded earlier will recognize the truth, and it shall set them free from the straightjacket of mental misapprehension. After all, once even Trumpists realize the factories aren’t coming back, that made-up bills don’t exist, that tax cuts aren’t trickling down, that the lies of the administration will stand naked in the light of day, surely, they will repent and use newfound wisdom to prize evidence once more.
Yet in the era of “alternative facts” or as Rudy Guiliani so aptly put it, “truth isn’t truth” — what the administration lacks in dignity, it makes up for in doublespeak- — even the failure of the Trumpist lies which are provable, obvious, and harm his supporters, such as the lie during the UN press conference that 8 new steel plants were underway in the US (actual number zero) — seem to have no impact on his popularity. Those of us left within the walls of reality surely recognize that facts have become as powerful as a strawberry fired into the broadside of a battleship.
It is time to disenthrall ourselves from the notion that the revenge of reality will save us. No, the truth shall not set them free, as none are as blind as those who wish not to see. Whatever his profound ignorance, it is Trump who understands that particular reality better than most. For those waiting for the Godot of a lightbulb moment of supporters realizing they’ve been lied to, the bitter taste of disappointment will continue to be washed down with a large helping of incredulity. The failure to understand the psychological allure of Trumpism has bedeviled the opposition since his infamous ride down the escalator. Now that it has infested both Congress and the Courts- witness both Senators and Kavanaugh himself succumbing to blaming the Clintons or other Democrats for organic protests- understanding it becomes even more important. Unless we confront it, we will fail to overcome its most malign effects. Fact-based democracy cannot rise again without understanding why lies are attractive and what must be done to overwhelm them.
Through his lies, Trump and his acolytes telegraph who matters — whites and the instruments which preserve institutional power. It is not for nothing that some of the most spectacular of Trumpist lies — that thousands of Muslim-Americans cheered on September 11 in New Jersey, that the thousands dead in Puerto Rico simply do not exist, that the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh were a “hoax”- permit the recipient to simply ignore facts which challenge the eschatology of white male Christian redemption. Trumpism is at its heart a resistance movement against political and social change that drains, or is perceived to drain, power, from white Americans not otherwise tied into international capital flows. So long as Trump can craft a fable of success, of inclusion, of importance for a specific caste, individuals who would otherwise look with a jaundiced eye on the details instead envelop themselves willingly in the myth of mistruth. In communities ravaged by Oxy, the comforting lies of Trumpism supply a cultural narcotic of alluring potency.
Right-wing populism has thus created out of a pastiche of lies an all-enveloping creation story which gives enormous psychological comfort no matter upon how many lies it stands. Despondency of white Americans is the prerequisite for accepting the story, and here is a familiar story. Whether racial anxiety over demographic change, economic concern, or a combination thereof, Americans by the tens of millions have lost hope for a better world, for themselves, and their children. From hopelessness comes resentment, and from resentment comes the search for redemption.
And that is the secret of Trumpism. Trump has done what the Democrats, with their focus on facts and policies, cannot: he has painted a wide mural of modern American life, with a clear villain responsible for suffering and a politics of redemptive meaning for those within the inclusive walls of his myth. Believe this- believe me- Trump offers, and you’ll feel the effect of renewed relevance. That the fable is a myth, a placebo of no consequence in the light of reality, that it conceals with gimlet eyes the plunder of plutocracy, is of no matter. Trump creates a cocoon of veiled ignorance within which those who accept his Faustian bargain can enmesh themselves in a fabricated reality. Accepting lies at face value is the entry price of the fable, and whites by the millions remain willing to pay it.
The fable chosen is not necessarily a positive one: at its heart, it posits an America besieged by the unworthy and the malign. Mexicans are swamping our borders, terrorists are killing our children, and the American economy has narrowly been saved from destruction at the hands of neo-communists in sheep’s clothing. It is trite to observe that none of these fables bear the ring of truth. No matter the falsity or the darkness proffered: within this fable, the individual has a role. His — and this is a fable uniquely suited to “his” — role is to defend, to resuscitate the virtue of a far off time when America was “Great”, and to once again defend the ramparts of western civilization from an enemy poised to destroy it.
Trumpism gives the suffering a true alpha enemy and a role to play in opposition. Yes, the Mexicans and terrorists and Chinese are harming us, but what did you expect? They have help, after all. It’s the enemy within, which strangles America, who hates you, which must be confronted. Paranoia is a necessary part of the Trumpist fable. It has long been a part of the American right, under the surface but occasionally breaching through in often spectacular explosions of fury, only to return below the waves of elite gatekeepers once again. Writing in 1961, Richard Hofstader stated :
“The modern right wing…feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. “
The words singe with recognition of today. The small lies of Trumpism, no matter how ridiculous, are permitted because they supply evidence for the Big Lie: that elite, America-hating liberals are in league with enemies within and without to destroy the power of God-fearing White Americans. This is why the lies about the Russia investigation are swallowed whole. This is why the President can dismiss protestors as “paid by Soros” and not have such a blatant anti-Semitic lie trashed as the garbage it is. It is the liberal “elites” and “globalists” who are the fascistic enemy, the alpha and omega of anti-Americanism; anything that helps keep them out of office, no matter how transparently anti-American itself, can and will be believed. Recall always that Trump’s rise began with a disproved lie woven of racism and elite conspiracy: that Barack Obama wasn’t a native born American. Birtherism was a test case, simultaneously communicating the other-ness of a liberal elite and testing just how far white citizens would go in accepting it. The results have been less than encouraging.
The entire edifice of the West is built on the value of truth over conspiracy. Vaclav Havel, the intellectual godfather of the movement which toppled the Berlin Wall, immortalized himself in the history of dissidence by proclaiming that individuals trapped behind the Iron Curtain could nevertheless refuse to accept the lies of the regime, and rather, in his timeless phrase, “live within the truth.” Havel’s great insight in the Power of the Powerless was that ordinary citizens refusing to accept the state’s version of truth can liberate themselves from official mandated culture. The theoretical underpinnings of the anti-Communist revolution were built on this foundation, which, at its core, posits that humans yearn for a positive truth above all else and that together, building on each other, truth can and will indeed set not only individuals, but societies free.
Right-wing populism is the first movement since the fall of the Berlin Wall to challenge the world Havel built. What if living within the lie is preferable to the truth? For the search for truth has met its Waterloo in single combat: the search for meaning. Humans have an ingrained need to belong, to be part of something bigger than themselves, and above all, to matter. We have discussed before the pervasive loneliness of American life, and its relation to our economic modalities. Perhaps no less demeaning, no less destructive, is the reduction of the individual to an essentially irrelevant actor in the national life. As mechanization and international trade flows have accelerated, the Western rank-and-file citizen has been confronted with his increasing insignificance. He thought he was a proud Civis Americanus, a citizen of the world’s greatest civilization. Instead, he is a debit on the wrong side of the ledger, a burden in the nation’s economic life and, as our civic institutions have faltered, adrift from the social channels of his forefathers. His vote is irrelevant; studies have shown conclusively that it is only the issues of the wealthy which are addressed by “our” legislators. The forlorn American does not seek small-bore policy solutions to his economic plight, job retraining for jobs that don’t exist. Above all he seeks to matter again, as he once did, or at minimum, expected to. Being told that within stands a great enemy, that the strongman will protect the righteous from threats abroad but the downcast citizen must play a role in standing against the enemy within, is an allure that swamps the need for truth in details big and small.
Against this need truth is subsumed beneath the waves of existential hunger. And once truth falls from the pedestal, spread by the ease of modern conduits of communication, Trumpism not only challenges for power within the system, it challenges the very existence of the system itself. Left untreated, democracy flat-out cannot survive in such a cauldron; the post-truth world is also the proto-fascist one. Trumpism’s big lie necessarily means that loyal opposition is neither- -it is rather malignant treason to oppose the keepers of the one true faith. Once accepted, fables are remarkably durable. One need only view the retained popularity of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to know that when the fable meets the harsh light of fact, sometimes, even in hunger and despair, people hold onto fable. Yet even more seemingly functional democracies show the extraordinary danger of fable run wild. Look no further than Poland’s slide for a chilling portent of our future if we cannot stop the slide to right-wing anti-fact paranoia.
Poland was the great story of the democratic restoration in Eastern Europe, emerging into democracy through the efforts of the Solidarity movement. Nearly 10 million Poles joined Solidarity by the end of its first year, 1981, and through the leadership of Lech Walesa, Solidarity fashioned itself as a broad movement for social change. In 1989, months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Solidarity won virtually every seat in the Polish parliament in the first free elections ever held in a Warsaw Pact nation. Yet the transition to post-Communism was, under the surface, uneven. In a historical eyeblink the average Pole went from a foot soldier on the front lines against a historical demon to an economic unit in a neoliberal economy. Solidarity insiders were able to take advantage of the privatization process of the early 1990s to buy up state assets — and the liberal intellectuals newly installed in high office were seen as accessories to their corruption. In 1995, the new constitution was passed, which enshrined the rights of non-believers in law and denied the Catholic church legal primacy in public life, angering the more rural, religious element of the populace.
Still, Poland appeared to be a healthy, multiparty parliamentary democracy with a real separation of powers. From the early part of the century, two parties generally dominated- the center-left Civic Platform, which held parliament from 2007 to 2015, and the rightist Law and Justice (“Pis” in Polish nomenclature), which took power in 2015. Civic Platform drew from Eurocentric urbanites and liberal intellectuals committed to the forms of democratic governance; PiS had its strongholds outside of the cities and more cosmopolitan North and West.
While Civic Platform dedicated itself to the rule of law and constitutionalism, PiS increasingly defined itself in ominously antistatist terms. The failure of the more rustic parts of the country to keep up with Polish urban economic development coupled with unease at the changing, more secular Europeanization of Polish culture gave wide opening for PiS to exploit. Like his American counterpart, the Polish citizen of that particular social class had begun to feel resentment at the widening income gaps and pretension of advancement of their urban counterparts — some might say “elites.” Already, PiS began to hearken back to the era of Solidarity, when the average Polish citizen — Lech Walesa was an electrician, after all — had an outsized role to play in the struggle for the Polish nation. PiS began to cast itself as the sole and exclusive guardian of the Polish “nation,” itself a more mystical and romantic concept than that of the actual polity. It was but a short step to declare PiS the sole heir to Solidarity, and to cast Civic Platform as the heirs to the Communists who betrayed the nation. PiS did so by spinning conspiracy theories and lies to denigrate Civic Platform as illegitimate.
Fake News was pioneered by PiS in opposition. Law and Justice’s strongman Jarosław Kaczyńsk’s bete noire has been encouraging Poles to view their nation as subject to the shadowy controls of foreigners and malign newcomers. Conspiracy found its highest form after the April, 2010 plane crash of Kacyznski’s brother, Jaroslaw, then the Polish president. Despite clear evidence of a simple accident, Jaroslaw created a fabricated story implicating everyone from Russians to Polish elites. Kaczynski has had a remarkably easy time of convincing Poles that they are gripped by conspiracy, living in the penumbra of shadows which purposely sap the lifeblood of the Polish nation. Conspirators range from the European Union to Russia, from homosexuals to Jews, from Muslims to international financiers. The conspiracy itself is consistent only in its inconsistency. What is consistent is that it is the left, led by Civic Platform, which encourages the draining of the guts of the Polish nation. Once the people accept the story, they are remarkably malleable to intrusions into democratic norms in the name of saving the nation.
When PiS returned to power in 2015, having numbed the societal muscle of resistance with wild conspiracy theories, it moved methodically to dismantle crucial elements of Polish democracy. First it stripped the Constitutional Court of its ability to assess the constitutionality of legislation. When the Court objected, PiS simply ignored it. When challenged that their acts were anti-Constitutional, PiS resorted to what sociologist David Ost referred to as its customary style: “to deride rather than refute arguments, charge critics with ill will, and accuse opponents of the transgressions they themselves carry out.” The parallels are obvious.
Two days after neutering the Constitutional Court, PiS passed a law giving the governing party complete control of civil service and the public media. There was no pretense as to why: PiS’s deputy leader Ryszard Terlecki stated “If the media imagine that they’re going to take up Polish people’s time with criticsm of our reforms, then it’s time to put a stop to that.” Later, when opponents protested at Parliament, the PiS controlled National Broadcasting Council fined a TV station millions for its reporting, couched as “encouraging illegal activities and behavior that threatened public security.” Without a Constitutional Court to review the constitutionality of these actions, they were legitimized. PiS then passed a law permitting only journalists of approved media to access Parliament. Mass protests against PiS were reported by “public “ television as “attempts to destabilize the state.”
Having neutered the Constitutional Court, PiS then attacked the Supreme Court, key as that court is tasked with confirming that election results are not rigged. In 2017, PiS sought to remove the entirety of the Supreme Court, but “settled” for dismissing 40% of judges, expanding the seats on the Court, and granting parliament- where PiS has full control- the right to appoint them. A number of other changes permit re-opening final cases going back 20 years on dubious grounds of “social justice.” Parliament then created a new chamber in the Supreme Court to oversee electoral cases, with members elected indirectly by the PiS directed parliament. Unconstitutional each of these bills were, but constitutionalism is just love of liberty, and when it dies in the hearts of the citizenry, no words on parchment can resuscitate it. PiS’s supporters hadn’t voted for soft authoritarianism, hadn’t necessarily sought the decimation of the rule of law, but gripped in the pathos of myth and hatred for the treasonous left, made no attempt to protect the pllars of separation of powers and constitutional government.
PiS’s supporters at each progressive intrusion into democracy ignored or worse, cheered the denigration of the rule of law. They did so because PiS had spun an all-encompassing fable that the Polish citizen, no longer part of a Solidarity-led counteroffensive against a superpower, wanted desperately to believe. PiS’s illiberalism, its attack on otherwise legitimate elements of the polity, only heartened its supporters. Speaking in 2006, Kaczyński told an interviewer that, if necessary, “we can take a certain decision” that would “ensure we do not lose power. Whether or not we take that decision depends solely on our view of what will be good for Poland.” PiS created a view for itself as the “real” Poland, invited its supporters to partake in warming springs of inclusion within the fable, and floated to power on a raft of conspiracy and lies. All that is required for inclusion is to see shadowy conspiracy everywhere, to see Polish liberals aiding and abetting whatever crime offends the “true” Polish patriot, and to surrender power to the hands of the men who recognize the need for prompt action.
Poland (and others, Hungary and Brazil most ominously) is a warning shot across the bow of an embattled America. Lies, conspiracy theories, and the Big Lie of opposition illegitimacy is the solvent within which the functions of democracy, the rule of law, and separation of powers dissolve, and quite quickly at that. But the Polish fall into feverish illiberalism does provide some guidance. Democrats here must learn that camouflaging the lack of big ideas under a raft of smaller ones cannot compete with the easy embraceability of an origin story. To compete, to fight against lies, the Democratic Party needs its own thematic consistency which embraces the role of individuals to partake in a worthy struggle. The politics of individual meaning motivate voters as citizens. Poland shows us just how easy it is to topple the gatekeepers of fair play when a counternarrative of demonization, lies, and fake news is injected into the political bloodstream, when individual citizens feel no connection to a worthy past and a viable future. Economic growth alone is simply not sufficient: Poland avoided the worst of the 2009 financial crisis and has been growing robustly since. Such growth did not save Polish democracy, and it won’t save ours either.
Democrats must cease bringing facts to a culture war, but the
party cannot, as some argue, abandon truth entirely to simply hit back. Lies corrode democracy, and the one party left which esteems it yet cannot defend the republic and suborn it simultaneously. To get there, to return to a politics of fact and legitimacy, we need a politics of meaning. Ennobling the people with big, consistent, themes can be the elixir which defeats the germ of falsity sickening us today. Indeed, it may be the only thing that can.