Sunday, June 5, 2016

Trump and the global Hydra

Justin E. H. Smith's piece in the Stone is worth reading and thinking about:
The degeneration of which Mr. Trump is a symptom is by no means limited to American political life. If Trump is not a reincarnation of Hitler, he is most certainly one head of the same global Hydra that has already given us Vladimir V. Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Narendra Modi. For all of them, the past is not something to study and to attend to, but something to sculpt.
Smith contrasts this with Leopold von Ranke's view of the goal of doing history as recounting "how it actually was".
History has always been prone to such deformations. In the 16th century the Spanish Jesuit Jerónimo Román de la Higuera forged a cache of documents meant to prove the antiquity of Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula. Far from falling into notoriety when his inventions were uncovered, he instead went on to even greater fame as the author of the “falsos cronicones,” the false chronicles, which were only the more glorious in that the claims they made were not dependent on mere factual truths of history, but spoke of a “higher truth,” coming directly from God. There is a long tradition in fact of the so-called pia fraus: the pious fraud.
Mr. Trump is banking on the American public’s willingness to revert to such a conception of truth that does not require any basis in fact. And it is here that a bit of von Ranke’s hardheadedness can serve as a corrective. We can worry later about drawing significant lessons from history, about finding meaning for our lives in the past. For now what is crucial is to insist that the past can be known — that Mr. Obama was not born in Kenya, that climate change was not made up by the Chinese and that anyone who pretends the opposite, as part of a larger plan to make America great again, is, as a matter of simple historical fact, an impious fraud and a liar.
The task that faces American voters at the present moment is enormous: to save the United States from the same post-democratic order to which parts of Europe and most of Asia has already fallen. Our relationship to history will play no small role in this. History may be rooted in storytelling, but we can summon it to be something more — the arbiter of truth against lies told in pursuit of power.
Mr. Trump himself appears indifferent to history, as well as to the grave significance of the comparisons of him to Hitler. It’s true that Donald Trump is not Hitler. But the fact that the comparison has any traction at all, that it is a recognizable part of our new political dialogue, and that the man at its center is not actively seeking to prove it wrong, shows how severe the current crisis is, and hints at how dark the future might get.
Smith suggests that we can usefully find patterns in history, identify types with similar characteristics,and it is hard to argue against that. I agree with Smith that we are seeing a "global Hydra", a multi-headed beast emerging all over the world's polities, some clownish versions (Berlusconi), some thuggish (Rodrigo Duterte), some hyper-butch (Putin). Trump is a token of this type, more Berlusconi, in my view, than Putin; one who discovered, as against Berlusconi, that you don't have to own the media in order to control it.

Would following Smith's advice and insisting on distinguishing fact from fantasy be worthwhile? In some ways, yes, first to salvage our own sanity and second, to show respect for old fashioned things like truth and knowledge or at least their semblance.But will repetition of truth in the face of lies told by fabulists help defeat the hydra? Here I am not so sure. Researchers have shown that debunking false beliefs can end up reinforcing them: a "backfire effect", so correcting our neighbors' Trumpian twisted beliefs might be worse than futile. But it might help them from spreading to those as of yet unconvinced. And, as I said, truth saying helps protect our own sanity and integrity.

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