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Deception, Self-Deception and Self-Governance

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Soundings

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A Note to Readers

Dear readers,

Today’s Soundings marks the 300th essay in a commentary series that began publication on January 17, 2010. I certainly did not imagine then that I would be writing these articles more than 10 years later or that a share of them would comprise a published book. Nor did I anticipate that the period in which I published them would see the United States enter into a severe governance crisis, and now, with the current pandemic, a social and economic emergency, as well. In fact, as I write, we know neither how this global health crisis will end, nor whether the current, and thus far, successful, decades-long assault on our democratic institutions and social fabric by a share of our public officials will resolve. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that our general population will find a way to salvage and reinvigorate its collective devotion to democracy, human rights and freedom for all. No issue could be more important to the American people, as on its determination all of our nation’s future governance efforts will unfold.

I am deeply grateful to those who encouraged me to begin and continue this series and who have offered reactions to my essays during these years. I have surely learned a great deal along the way and believe myself deeply privileged to have undertaken this journey. So, this special juncture finds me both very appreciative for what has been an amazing opportunity and still curious about shining what light I can on facets of our nation’s evolving democratic experiment. I share these thoughts with sincere thanks for the decade of possibility represented by this body of work. On reflection, it does indeed represent the fruits of my pursuit of an irreplaceable opportunity.

Deception, Self-Deception and Self-Governance

As the nation has addressed the deepening COVID-19 crisis, President Trump has been holding daily media events in lieu of his favored rallies before supporters, which have been suspended for the nonce, during which he purportedly provides updates to the American people concerning containment efforts and ongoing challenges related to the current pandemic. I say “purportedly” because he has done no such thing. Rather, he has consistently told this nation’s residents that, without any relevant education or training, he knows more than medical researchers, epidemiologists and physicians about this virus than do those experts.[1] More specifically, he has suggested that there will shortly be a vaccine (there will not), and/or that existing treatments for other ailments will prove antidotes to this disease’s potency (these do not exist), and, worse, that the virus is a hoax or not worth worrying about.[2] In short, the difficulty with virtually all he has said while supposedly briefing the nation’s citizens on the evolution and spread of a disease now affecting the entire world, is that very little of it has been true.

Most recently, Trump has begun arguing, contrary to professional medical advice, that he is considering encouraging the reopening of the economy, or substantial parts of it. He has offered no substantive rationale for his assertion that such would be appropriate other than his personal hunch that it would be apt, or that American lives are not as important as the stock market or retail sales,

‘Our country wasn’t built to be shut down,’ Mr. Trump said during a briefing at the White House. ‘America will, again, and soon, be open for business. Very soon. A lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. Lot sooner. We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.’[3]

More, he has offered these assertions in the face of evidence that reopening businesses in the face of this pandemic can be dangerous:

The recent rise of cases in Hong Kong, after there had been an easing of the spread of the virus, is something of an object lesson about how ending strict measures too soon can have dangerous consequences. Yet places like China, which took the idea of lockdown to the extreme, have managed to flatten the curve.

‘You can’t call off the best weapon we have, which is social isolation, even out of economic desperation, unless you’re willing to be responsible for a mountain of deaths,’ said Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at NYU Langone Medical Center. ‘Thirty days makes more sense than 15 days. Can’t we try to put people’s lives first for at least a month?’[4]

Soon after his comments above on March 23, Trump asserted he would like to end the national effort to slow the virus by April 12. Many experts believe that this latest example of Trump’s policy by personal fiat is deeply cynical, short-sighted and guided by little more than concern for what the developing economic slowdown might mean for his reelection prospects.

As I have pondered this scenario, I have reread philosopher Hannah Arendt’s 1971 New York Review of Books essay on what the Pentagon Papers revealed about the roots of the deception United States officials practiced for years concerning the Vietnam War.[5] In Trump, we have a President who cannot seem to speak without lying and whose narcissism daily convinces him that he knows more concerning every subject than anyone else, irrespective of how wise or learned they may be or, how little he may know about their areas of expertise. In Trump, we have a chief executive who lies and deceives both himself and others as an integral part of all he undertakes. He is an almost perfect example of a combination of breathtaking arrogance and ignorance and his conceit blinds him to any material reflection that exceeds the bounds of his ego and the present moment.

Arendt probed the causes of government leaders’ long-term deceit of the American people regarding the Vietnam conflict and offered a complex argument concerning its roots. I here highlight only a share of the key insights in her subtle analysis and suggest their importance for understanding Trump’s actions and those of his party throughout his presidency and certainly for the duration of the present public health emergency.

Arendt reminded her readers that “the ability to lie, the deliberate denial of factual truth, and the capacity to change facts, the ability to act, are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source: imagination.” [6] As such, and as historians often remind us,

the whole texture of facts … is always in danger of being perforated by lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods, or simply allowed to fall into oblivion. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs.[7]

Trump and other GOP leaders daily assault, deny and distort reality to suit their claims or to feed the fears or desires of their principal constituents. Nowhere has this been more evident than during the present crisis, with Trump and other party officials decrying health data and experts in favor of their own short-term political agendas. One lesson here seems to be how difficult it is today, with social media sites and major media networks willing to spread disinformation, to ensure what Arendt memorably dubbed the necessary “testimony” for truth. This scenario also points up how critical it is that our nation’s elected leaders possess some measure of statesmanship and concern for the common good apart from their desire to maintain power or to support favored constituencies or groups for perceived electoral gain. Indeed, the current pandemic has raised clearly whether the major share of the GOP can any longer imagine its role in such terms in governance.

Interestingly, Alexander Hamilton was well aware of this concern and commented in The Federalist Papers on the implications of such a turn for possible impeachment inquiries, a timely topic to be sure, given Trump’s recent impeachment trial:

The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself. The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.[8]

Hamilton seemed to glean that our current situation of a corrupt executive and political party might one day obtain and perhaps even color the possibility of any genuine inquiry of abuse of the public trust. And, so it was with the GOP arguing all manner of wild implausibilities to excuse Trump’s behavior during his recent impeachment. More to the point here, Republican officials attacked the facts of Trump’s violations of the public trust in an attempt to obscure, confuse and finally to surround all possible judgments with little besides chaotic cacophony, a perfect realization of Hamilton’s concern.[9]

Arendt noted that deception always serves such purposes, and in so doing, contributes to the undoing of the institutions on which it paradoxically relies for legitimacy. She also highlighted another form of duplicity employed by American officials during the Vietnam War that has also characterized Trump’s presidency, the importance of creating and sustaining an adopted image of reality at all costs, rather than acknowledging reality itself. As she described the attitudes and actions of the architects of America’s Vietnam policies as those were revealed in The Pentagon Papers, Arendt observed:

But the point is that they lied not so much for their country [as many convinced themselves they were doing], certainly not for their country’s survival, which was never at stake, as for its image. In spite of their undoubted intelligence. … They also believed that politics is but a variety of public relations and were taken in by all of the bizarre psychological premises underlying this belief.[10] 

If this malady was obvious in the Vietnam era, it is still more so with Trump and the GOP today, as both are prepared to lie on any scale and about anything, believing that such justifies their central and abiding goal: remaining in power. They also appear to be convinced that managing image will allow them to do so. Trump daily seeks to shape reality to his liking by scapegoating one or another group for any issues that might tar his self-image as incontrovertibly correct in all things. So it is, for example, that he has gone so far as to seek to “other” the Coronavirus itself by labeling it the Chinese virus and has stirred up hatred against Chinese Americans in so doing.[11]

Finally, Arendt argued that the Pentagon Papers revealed a certain arrogance among the authors of United States Vietnam policy born of their belief that they could sculpt events to their liking. They were simultaneously willing to bend history to their preferred point-of-view as well, even when that meant reinventing their supposed aims and the arc of events. As Arendt suggested,

Unlike the natural scientist who deals with matters, which , whatever their origin, are not man-made or man-enacted, and which therefore can be observed, understood, and eventually even changed only through the most meticulous loyalty to factual, given reality, the … politician deals with human affairs which owe their existence to man’s capacity to act, to the extent that they feel themselves to be the masters of their own futures, will forever be tempted to make themselves masters of the past as well. In so far as they have the appetite for action and also are in love with theories, … they will be tempted to fit their [facts] reality—which, after all, was man-made to begin with and thus could have been otherwise—into their theory, thus mentally getting rid of its disconcerting contingency.[12]           

Trump and the GOP persistently reveal this propensity by declaring their own facts, as Trump has done with the Coronavirus, and by acting on the unreal, as Trump did by dispatching troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent an “invasion” that was never in prospect or ending treaties on grounds of their breach when no such thing was occurring. Trump and his party have also insisted on stiffening voting restrictions to address an empirically non-existent voter fraud crisis. These examples suggest that Trump and the GOP are more than content to redefine reality to their predisposition and then to argue flatly that their deceitful claim is reality and must dispositively stand against all ambiguity and contingency that otherwise might obtain. With this form of deception, the deceived and deceiver alike are asked to give credence to the fantastic and to act as if that substitute for the real is genuine. The lie reigns supreme.

Arendt contended that ultimately those who practice deception and self-deception in this way not only diminish themselves, but also reach a point in which their organized lying cannot be sustained unless the facts they seek to conceal or remake are wholly removed from the world; that is, destroyed. And, as she noted, “In the political domain, such destruction would have to be wholesale. Needless to say, there never existed on any level of government such a will to wholesale destruction.”[13] Perhaps today’s GOP would cause Arendt to reflect afresh on how deeply this penchant has become rooted in that party’s adherents, but her analysis remains sound.  Neither Trump nor any of his would-be acolytes or cultists have complete control of the facts they daily seek to recast. Citizens can and are able to access the truth. And while supporters may offer their huzzahs for what Arendt called “defactualization” on the basis of a complex admixture of perceived power, profit, desired protection or ideological disposition, the truth is never so easily controlled or concealed.[14]

One may therefore hope that those individuals desiring a return to the nation’s governing principles will triumph in the public square and that our nation will soon return to a politics rooted in reality, however contentious its controversies and debates. One test of whether this will occur any time soon is, of course, how the President’s lies and deception concerning the present health emergency are perceived by the body politic. A second test will occur in November with voters’ verdict on whether Trump’s presidency should continue. Abiding faith in democratic possibility always counsels hope and I am indeed hopeful that this fresh episode of arrogant and fantastical deception by the President and among a share of other leading government officials will soon be brought to a close. I take heart in Arendt’s insight, further to Shakespeare’s famous adage, that, ultimately, the truth will out.

Notes

[1] Cilizza, Chris. “The 25 Most Concerning Lines from Donald Trump’s CDC Visit,” The Point, CNN, March 9, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/09/politics/trump-cdc-coronavirus/index.html, Accessed March 24, 2020.

[2] Facher, Lev. “Trump says his belief in one potential coronavirus drug is ‘just a feeling,’” Stat, March 20, 2020, https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/20/trump-coronavirus-drug-just-a-feeling/, Accessed March 25, 2020.

[3] Tankersley, Jim, Maggie Haberman and Roni Caryn Rabin. “Trump Considers Reopening Economy, Over Health Experts’ Objections.” The New York Times, March 23, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/business/trump-coronavirus-economy.html, Accessed March 23, 2020. 

[4] Tankersley, Haberman and Rabin, “Trump Considers Reopening Economy.”

[5] Arendt, Hannah. “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers,” The New York Review of Books, November 18, 1971, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/11/18/lying-in-politics-reflections-on-the-pentagon-pape/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=NYR%20Longread%20Hannah%20Arendt&utm_content=NYR%20Longread%20Hannah%20Arendt+CID_ea2b041440737a3895299f105f613b3d&utm_source=Newsletter&utm_term=Keep%20Reading, Accessed March 22, 2020. 

[6] Arendt, Hannah. “Lying in Politics.”

[7] Arendt, Hannah. “Lying in Politics.”

[8] Hamilton, Alexander. “A Further View of the Constitution of the Senate in Relation to its Capacity as a Court for the Trial of Impeachments,” (No. 65), in The Federalist Papers, Ed. Clinton Rossiter, New York: The New American Library of World Literature, 1961, pp.396-397.

[9] Cardona, Maria. “This is How to Hold a Corrupt President Accountable,” The Hill, December 3, 2019, https://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/472817-this-is-how-to-hold-a-corrupt-president-accountable, Accessed March 24, 2020.

[10] Arendt, Hannah. “Lying in Politics.”.

[11] Lederman, Josh. “U.S. Insisting that the U.N. Call Out Chinese Origins of Virus,” NBC News, March 25, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/u-s-insisting-u-n-call-out-chinese-origins-coronavirus-n1169111, Accessed March 25, 2020; Lee, Bruce. “How COVID-19 Coronavirus is Uncovering Anti-Asian Racism,” Forbes, February 18, 2020, Accessed March 15, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2020/02/18/how-covid-19-coronavirus-is-uncovering-anti-asian-racism/#793907de29a6.

[12] Arendt, Hannah. “Lying in Politics.”

[13] Arendt, Hannah. “Lying in Politics.”

[14] Arendt, Hannah. “Lying in Politics.”

Publication Date

March 30, 2020

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