'The Politics of Lies': Rhetoric and the Post-Truth Age

'And if governmentalization is indeed this movement through which individuals are subjugated in the reality of a social practice through mechanisms of power that adhere to truth, well, then! I will say that critique is the movement by which the subject gives himself the right to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth.'
Foucault, Michel. "What is Critique?". The Politics of Truth. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007. p. 47.
Don’t believe the biased and phony media quoting people who work for my campaign. The only quote that matters is a quote from me!' 
Donald Trump (realDonaldTrump). 28 May 2016, 2:33 p.m. Tweet. 

          In the opening of Eugene O'Neill's play The Iceman Cometh, two fishermen drunkenly discuss the value of the truth. "To hell with the truth!" one of them exclaims, "It's irrelevant and immaterial, as the lawyers say. The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober." (1) In the wake of the events of the recent presidential election cycle, these words seem darkly prescient and echo the newfound cynicism of many who woke up on the morning of November 9th in what appeared to be a 'post-fact' world, betrayed by a belief in the power of truth to prevail in our national political life.

          Yet, the world that confronted them was not a new one, as it appeared to be, but merely one that had decided to brazenly reveal its actual, rotten form. For the praxis of politics has never hinged on the truth, indeed, it has often been focussed on perfecting the skillful handling of the opposite. The jarring reality of this year's presidential campaign has been that process of perfection reaching its zenith and, in doing so, rendering both its subject and its very existence obsolete - collapsing in upon itself in the manner of a dying star becoming a black hole. The man who appeared to be the supernova in question was Donald J. Trump, although this may not be the correct cosmological metaphor to describe our situation at all. As is often the case, the reality is far more complicated - what has preceded has been more akin to the slow drift of certain parts of our society toward the event horizon of a black hole that already existed, and our collective societal passage beyond it, into a realm where all norms are destroyed, yet the evidence of their gradual destruction seems impossible to detect for those of us who believe we still cling to the space before the breach.

          We are now, therefore, faced with two monumental tasks of understanding. If we still place value in 'mechanisms of power that adhere to truth', we must trace how the expressions of these mechanisms in their rhetoric have become detached from the truth and which structures have permitted them to do so. We shall have to understand, at least in part, the value of the truth altogether in campaign rhetoric - whether it is still a relevant touchstone for critiquing those who seek power and, even more disturbingly, whether it is even a desirable one - considering the manner in which the mechanisms of power have taken hold of it. The first task is one of genealogy; the second, of morality. The stakes are as fundamental as our basic understanding of political realities, and our ability to use words to mould them. The urgency of these tasks could not be more fierce, as we stare into an unthinkable breach, the rope of reality falling to tatters in our hands.

Towards a Post-Truth Politics

          To understand political speech, one must conceive of it as a 'space of seduction,' (2) wherein gains are made by mastering appearances - that is to say, it is a practice concerned primarily with the aesthetics of an idea, rather than the substance contained within. This rubric naturally places it somewhat parallel (if not entirely in opposition) to reality; indeed, it has every interest in manipulating perceptions of the real in order to accomplish its aims. Therefore, there is very little insight into the rotting of truth to be gained from an analysis based purely on political speech itself, for it is, in its very intent, a rotting mechanism. Instead, we must discover how the rot has permeated to the core of the body politic, and how mechanisms put in place to defend this have failed or been overcome. We can describe these mechanisms as 'norms' - standards of conduct that are unenforced by law, but maintained by a pre-supposed common interest in upholding consistent practices immune to ideological manipulation. The current state of affairs is a result of the steady and accepted undermining of three of these norms: the reliability of cause and effect, the existence of a common political language and the maintenance of a relatively dispassionate demos. The culpability for undoing these norms does not lie solely with any one political party (though one party is more responsible than the other), is not constrained to campaigns or to government (though more damage has been done by governments) and is not solely a phenomenon of our time (though a confluence of all these events at once is largely unprecedented).

          Facts are essential in politics as a way of determining culpability for an undesired effect in society. In the traditional mode of enquiry, they can be used to trace the source of an ill to a specific policy, or lack of policy and attribute the poor thinking or lack of care to a responsible party, who will then suffer the electoral consequences. The reliability of this standard model of cause and effect is an essential component part of a functioning democracy. It is true that political rhetoric has been deployed to manipulate the logic chain of this norm in various different ways, and that politicians dodging blame for problems is hardly a new phenomenon. However, what is relatively new is the manner in which this model has been completely co-opted and separated from its basis in facts, deployed as a purely rhetorical device that disguises lies as truth under the guise of logic. Take, for example, a case in which a state governor overturns regulations on shale gas exploration, reducing the number of safety inspectors in the state. Under the normative mode of politics, any accident that results from a company taking shortcuts on safety could reasonably be deduced to be partially the result of the rollback of regulations and therefore the responsibility of the Governor - this would be an acceptable, normative mode of political attack for their opponents to deploy, even if there is an element of post hoc reasoning that might not meet the legal standard of culpability. However, this norm has been manipulated to a point where no standard of fact whatsoever need apply. Take, for example, Mr. Trump's claim that President Obama and Secretary Clinton were the 'founder and co-founder of ISIS' respectively. The claim was so outlandish and disconnected from reality that even reliable surrogate Hugh Hewitt felt compelled to repeatedly offer the candidate a path out during a radio interview, which Trump promptly rejected, sticking to a doggedly literal interpretation:

"HH: Last night, you said the President was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.
DT: No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most  valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.
HH: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.
DT: I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?
HH: But by using the term founder, they’re hitting with you on this again. Mistake?
DT: No, it’s no mistake. Everyone’s liking it. [...] If he would have done things properly, you wouldn’t have had ISIS.
HH: That’s true.
DT: Therefore, he was the founder of ISIS." (3)

          The forced divorce of a norm of political reasoning from a basis in fact, and its subsequent use as a device of political rhetoric is a stunningly damaging tactic in the context of maintaining the fabric of truth in politics. By clothing itself in the norms of discourse and maintaining the classical logic chain of political attack, the attack gains the guise of acceptability, though completely devoid of proof and easily rebutted, it does not seem to the casual member of the demos to be subversive or abnormal, as it is presented in a structure that appears normal. This appearance of normality, and therefore, the possibility of its credibility is not only immune to, but facilitated by, critical engagement. In response to this accusation, Secretary Clinton tweeted: "No, Barack Obama is not the founder of ISIS," (4) which, while appearing to be a curt statement of fact and an attempt to point out the absurdity of Trump's accusation, also serves the purpose of implying that the accusation merited refuting in the first place, that it was therefore in line with a normative political attack. The true source of scandal was not that Trump had lied, but that he had openly deemed the truth to be entirely dispensable altogether, so long as his version of reality was one that 'everyone liked'. Indeed, many did like it. As soon as the accusation became the subject of a debunking process in the national media largely reminiscent of that used for traditional 'cause and effect' political attacks, it became normalized, and therefore simply another facet of the hyper-partisan discourse worthy of debate rather than the unprecedented demolition of truth that it represented. Trump's repetition of the line at NBC's 'Commander-in-Chief' forum two months later, along with articles in even the mainstream right-wing press that seemed to give credence to what was once considered an insane conspiracy theory (5) confirmed that it now resided in the normative morass of political spin.

          This dénouement of cause and effect was presaged by a series of bad actors and bad rhetoric. When the Bush administration decided to allow the creation of the illusion of a connection between the events of 9/11 and the regime of Saddam Hussein, despite knowing that no such connection existed, they abandoned any pretension to facts in pursuing a political expediency. While not as explicit as Trump's contempt for reality in the face of creating useful public opinion, it was an equally, if not even more successful a tactic - at the time of the invasion, 70% of Americans believed that there was a link between Iraq and 9/11. (6) The Left, too, has been guilty of separating fact from the process of cause and effect reasoning, especially in rhetoric. Hillary Clinton's exhortation that "America is great because America is good" represented a form of logic devoid of factual basis, and one that actually enables those who would use that perception of normative "goodness" as cover for their own nefarious actions.

          By weakening and ultimately destroying this norm, political rhetoric has denied the demos a vital mechanism of determining and utilizing the truth. When a critical analysis of causation and divination of blame based on fact is considered at the same level as conspiratorial connection and intrigue, it loses its power and, along with the facts it contains, becomes subject to the distortion and spin of base political rhetoric. It has fallen victim to 'the strategy of seduction' that intents to 'bring things to a state of pure appearance, to make them radiate and wear themselves out in the game of appearances.' (7)

          In order for a viable and useful debate to take place, there must exist an agreed lexicon, in  which the stated meaning of applied terms is understood and rationalized. This 'materiality' (8) of language is the manner in which the external reality of the world is reconciled with its expression in worlds in a relative sense. We cannot begin to have an argument on the acceptable uses for a spoon if we cannot agree upon what a spoon is in the first place, or if what you describe as a spoon is what I believe to be a fork. Equally, we cannot debate the rights of a citizen to deny service to someone based on their sexual orientation if you choose to define that debate as one exclusively concerning 'religious freedom'.  Cross-spectral political engagement becomes impossible if the participants do not share the same understanding of the definition of the terms being used. This norm, which is supposed to make political speech useful, has, in fact, been drastically eroded by it.

          One of the great (but by all means not good) examples of this distortion of definitions is in the naming of so-called "Right-to-Work" laws passed by several states. Prima facie, there are few people who would oppose a law that appears to have the intention of guaranteeing the right to work for all. Yet, the actual measures that these laws enact "make it illegal for a group of unionized workers to negotiate a contract that requires each employee who enjoys the benefits of the contract terms to pay his or her share of costs for negotiating and policing the contract," (9) which is seems in direct contradiction of the belief in a right to work. Through this masterful act of bare-faced lying, proponents of this legislation can sell their plans as a universal good on face value alone, and paint opponents and unions as 'anti-work,' which is not generally a politically popular position. Despite the partisan merits of using this name, its deliberate deceptiveness immediately stifles debate and prevents the discourse surrounding the legislation from taking place on an even playing field where facts can be deployed in its defense or destruction. It transforms the praxis of legislating into one of pure poetics, where the truth is smothered by a cloud of buzzwords before it has a chance to come into play in a way that a bill with a less deceptive name would not. (10)

          The power of definitions in politics is far from a recent discovery. Donald Rumsfeld was noted for his obsession with the subject during his time as Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration, where he was tasked with 'selling' the Iraq War to the American people. His most famous rhetorical manhandling of the truth came at a Pentagon press conference February of 2002, when asked what evidence he had for the claim that Iraq was supplying terrorists with weapons of mass destruction:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. (11)

Here, Rumsfeld is attempting to obfuscate the definition of evidence, seemingly coming to the conclusion that, as anything is possible, even that which cannot be rationally imagined, everything is potentially true, and therefore, evidence is not necessary to support a narrative. In other words, if something is merely possible, it is true, and vice-versa. This rationale disempowers the value of facts in relation to truth, and empowers a reality where 'believing' something is true is evidence enough to make it so. It is not hard to draw a line from this rhetorical framing of facts to the assertion in Donald Trump's convention speech that violent crime is at its highest level in decades (12) (despite the fact that it is actually at its lowest rate in three decades (13) ) - the visibility and 'feeling' that it has increased is enough to make its existence a reality to many.

          When government is engaged in the obliteration of a common political language, and uses the mechanisms of power to enable that destruction, discourse issues predicated on a normative understanding of facts is impossible. If the bedrock of reality is abandoned in political rhetoric at its most fundamental level, then the possibility of common ground is extinguished because the two sides of that debate cannot even agree upon what the definition of 'ground' is. We therefore enter a sphere in which the disconnection of language and truth is complete, and its materiality collapses completely, rendering it disempowered and useless as anything more than a tool of base persuasion and a vessel for partisan maneuvering.

          In the conclusion of his remarks upon the role that constructions of reality played in psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud offered a prophetic and powerful aside. Mankind "as a whole", he suggested, "has developed delusions which are inaccessible to logical criticism and which contradict reality." (14) It was no accident that he was writing as fascism was beginning to rise to prominence in Europe on the back of falsehoods and old animosities. His analysis is one that describes the fall of the most fundamental of all political norms and the greatest guard of democracy itself: the desire of the demos to engage critically and realistically with reality in their political decision making, and is a chilling reflection of the situation that appears to exist in present day America. Kant was equally wary of the decline of "the public use of reason,"  an absence of which, he declared, renders men "domestic cattle" in the control of authoritarian figures. (15) As I stated earlier, political language deals primarily in the construction of reality, and it is this public use of reason that traditionally moderates its effect on the socio-political fabric. However, when modern American life is defined by constructed reality - ironically personified in the election of a reality television star as President - this process of moderation becomes moot, as the 'filter' of reality has become detached from the real and the objective, replaced by a spectacle that is defined by prejudice, innuendo and logical fallacy.

          Historicization is easily replaced by exhortations to 'Make America Great Again!' (16) devoid of any declaration of which time 'again' represents, but sinisterly imbued with the suggestion, fueled by demagoguery and ancient resentments, that it is simply a totem for a time when racial equilibriums were slightly less favorable to repressed classes than they are in the present. Economics are deployed in a manner that connects unemployment to immigration, shifting blame from the hard realities of an agenda of globalization to an easier target: those whose faces are not the same color as one's own, or whose first language is not the same as one's own. Division and recrimination become the default recourse of the demos, as reality becomes too complicated and entangled to reason with objectively. It is not the purpose of this paper to address the educational and societal causes of this breakdown of critical thinking (multifarious and pivotal though they may be), but to tackle the manner in which political speech has contributed to, and reflected its erosion. This task is one which requires little expert knowledge - one must merely witness the long history of 'dog whistling' in politics of every stripe, the subtle pleas to the worse devils of our nature in the name of garnering votes, to understand how, piece by piece, the bedrock of rational normative respectability has been chipped away, leaving a void of delusional conspiracies in its wake.

          Truth is only worth what the demos values it at, and, as the public have declined in their ability to reason with the complex problems of our time, it has been subsumed in favor of the nebulous rhetoric of fear that is intrinsically opposed to critical thinking - rendered worthless in the face of a linguistic currency of conspiratorial belief. The parties to blame for the current state of affairs are numerous, yet, we must come to terms with a truth that can be found in the lines of another play: "The fault, my dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." (17)

Away From a Post-Truth Politics

          This is the point at which we now find ourselves: facing a shattered mirror of political reality that bears the imprint of destruction by our own hand. The question now at hand is whether or not it can be put back together and, if it can, the method by which this rebuilding must take place. In this matter, there is, ironically, hope to be found in the ease with which the process of destruction was carried out. It is a testament to the power of language that such pivotal norms were eroded primarily through the use of words, and proof that that same mechanism is sufficient to also be the primary tool of their renewal.

          To re-establish the power of cause and effect in political discourse, we must become be conscious of amplification. Though there is a natural temptation for beings who value rationality and truth to forcefully rebuke those who transpose falsehoods onto established modes of discourse, we must resist it as much as possible, as doing so normalizes these distortions and implicitly raises them to a level they do not deserve. We must deprive these argumentations of even a casual pretense to rationality, consigning them to an echo chamber of irrelevance where we can and, where a lack of engagement is impossible or irresponsible, they must be criticized not on the grounds that they are false, but that they are knowingly so - that they are representative of an attack on an informed public, a traitorous subversion of democratic ideals in the name of partisan political gain.

          The response to the distortion of definitions is a little more complicated. The simple solution would seem to be to simply refuse to argue using a partisanized lexicon, but, in doing so, there is the inherent problem of merely widening the perception of a mutual unintelligibility. Instead, a course that argues through and beyond these linguistic constructions must be charted - one that has the value of wide understanding but which bears an indivisible challenge to it. This means that a great deal of 'yes, but...' argumentation will need to be utilized, where an unashamed deconstruction of the falsehood surrounding the word become so connected to its utterance, that the false-naming becomes a political vulnerability rather than an asset.

          Most fundamental of all is the task in re-establishing the connection of the demos to reality. Doing so will require making the counter-narrative (that of reality) appealing and inspiring to a greater number of people than those who have chosen to reject it. Education and information are vital tools in this endeavor, but so is inspiration. It should be a source of great comfort that, in the moments of national peril, Americans have largely chosen to heed a message of optimism and unity rather than one of division and despair in a way that other nations rarely have with such regularity.  The practice of what José Muñoz calls "educated hope," (18) an optimistic non-conformism to the imposed un-reality of the current moment, empowered by a critical deconstruction of the forces that conspire to maintain it and a linguistic modality that inspires revolutionary conceptions unconstrained by those oppressive structures will be vital in building a resistance that is inclusive, self-reflective and enduring. It must be a practice that communes with history without being confined by it, that is willing to see both possibility and problems in our past; viewing our moment as one that must be overcome and surmounted, rather than simply endured or accepted. It must never fall victim to the cynical abandonment of enlightened truth in the name of a short-term political gain, even though it must be willing to subvert normative declarations of what is true, and fight in ways that reflect an inherent cynicism of the sources of those declarations and the mechanisms of power that seek to perpetuate them. Though we are now faced with a difficult and uncertain reality, the hammer of truth is still there to be reclaimed and wielded in the fight for desubjugation - all we require is a forceful battery of words, and a common will to deploy them.

The author wishes to note his previous employment as a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton's 2016 Presidential campaign, and accepts the resulting biases and points of view that, in spite of his best efforts to the contrary, may naturally inform parts of this paper as a result.


1. O'Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh. Act I, Sc. I. London: Faber and Faber, 1978. p.12.

2. Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1987. p. 54.

3. "Donald Trump Makes A Return Visit". The Hugh Hewitt Show. 11 August, 2016. Radio.

4. Hillary Clinton (HillaryClinton). 11 August 2016, 6.15pm. Tweet.

5. Hemingway, Mariel. "6 Problems With the Media's Hysterical Reaction to Trump's ISIS Comments". The Federalist. 12 August, 2016. http://thefederalist.com/2016/08/12/6-problems-with-medias-hysterical-reaction-to-trumps-isis-comments/

6. "Poll: 70% believe Saddam, 9-11 link". USA Today. March 6, 2003. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/2003-03-06-poll-iraq_x.htm

7. Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. p. 55.

8. Kristeva, Julia. Language: The Unknown. Trans. Anne Menke. New York: Columbia, 1989. p. 36.

9. Gould, Elise and Shierholz, Heidi. "The compensation penalty of "right-to-work" laws". Economic Policy Institute. Briefing Paper, 299. February 17, 2011. p. 1.

10. Earlier labor-related legislation, such as the 'Taft-Hartley Act', were seemingly unhindered by their generic names and passed without needing to distort their intent from the outset.

11. Rumsfeld, Donald. Secretary of Defense's Press Briefing. February 12, 2002, Washington, D.C., United States Department of Defense.

12. Trump, Donald. Speech to the Republican National Convention. Cleveland, Ohio, July 21, 2016.

13. Moraff, Christopher. "Violent Crime is Up, but Donald Trump is Still Wrong". The Daily Beast. September 21, 2016. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/09/26/violent-crime-is-up-but-donald-trump-is-still-wrong.html

14. Freud, Sigmund. "Constructions in Analysis". Collected Papers. Trans. James Strachey. London: Vintage, 2001. p. 371.

15. Kant, Immanuel. "Was ist Aufklärung?". The Politics of Truth. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007. pp. 29-30.

16. It should not go unnoticed that this slogan was a carbon copy of Ronald Reagan's in 1980, albeit with an exclamation point attached to imbue it with a declarative, rage-filled dimension.

17. Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Act I, Sc. II. London: Folio, 2001. pp. 140-141.

18. Duggan, Lisa and Muñoz, José. "Hope and Hopelessness: A dialogue". Women and Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 19:2, 2010. pp. 275-283.