After 9/11 the American writer Jedediah Purdy travelled to the Middle East and other regions to gain clarity on how the United States was perceived abroad. In Egypt he discovered where conspiracy theories come from. Purdy’s resulting book, Being America (2003), recounted interviews with residents of Cairo who described Osama bin Laden as a “hero” for bringing down the Twin Towers. In the next breath however they insisted that 9/11 was actually an inside job carried out by the American or Israeli governments. What explains people’s capacity to believe such an inconsistent and conspiratorial view? Purdy noted that the Egyptian press was controlled by the state, then led by Hosni Mubarak, which rendered the public sphere a realm of propaganda. Its central function was to suggest that the government could not be blamed for the country’s economic and other problems, which were the handiwork of sinister anti-Egyptian forces. “Their theories of September 11 seem patently irrational, but Egyptians have learned that the official story is usually a lie,” he wrote. The more people experience the public sphere as devoid of truth, Purdy observed, the more receptive they become to alternative explanations of politics, up to and including conspiratorial ones.
Purdy’s observation captures something about life in the United States. Its public sphere may not be as monolithic and controlled as Egypt’s, but under Donald Trump it has become truth-deficient to an extreme degree. “In his first year as president, Trump made 2,140 false or misleading claims. Now, just six months later, he has almost doubled that total,” the Fact Checker unit of the Washington Post, which keeps a running tally of the president’s falsehoods, reported last month. An earlier Post article quoted the former president of the Hastings Center, an ethics institute, on Trump’s pathological disregard for veracity. “It’s extraordinary how he is completely indifferent to truth. There’s just no relationship between his statements—anything he utters—and the actual truth of the matter,” said Thomas Murray. “As far as I can tell, the best way to understand anything he says is what will best serve his interests in the moment. It’s irrespective to any version of the truth.”
The score of Trump’s disregard for veracity is depressingly familiar. At the same time however the sheer mendacity of the American public sphere may have one positive effect. Many Americans are now so alienated from it that they are willing to entertain progressive ideas that were once considered too far-out to deserve a hearing.
An irony of Trump’s ascendancy is that many of his supporters complain about the public sphere being dominated by left-wing lies. Fake news. Take the “red pill.” The “deep state.” These catch-phrases posit different actors—journalists, feminists, agents of a shadow government—propagating pernicious narratives that must be combated by “truthers” of various stripes. The most extreme proponent of such a view may be Alex Jones, whose Infowars program was recently removed from Facebook, Apple, Youtube, and Spotify. Jones’s many slanders against reality include the claim that the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting was “a giant hoax,” 9/11 was an inside job perpetrated by “globalists,” and Barack Obama is the leader of al-Qaeda.
Facebook said that Jones’s removal was not due to his Sandy Hook and 9/11 denialism but because his show glorified violence and employed dehumanizing language against transgender people, Muslims, and immigrants. It is not clear however that Jones’s conspiratorial cast of mind can be separated from his bigotry. Jones and other representatives of the far right are profoundly alienated from major aspects of U.S. society, whether those concern its abortion laws, rising demographic diversity, same-sex marriage, or Obamacare. They believe—falsely, but intensely—that many mainstream values are lies. In this way the conspiratorial right fits the pattern Purdy described, but for the fact that the “lies” they perceive as dominating the public sphere are not straightforward empirical falsehoods but widely shared value judgements that they cannot abide.
But if a truth-deficient public sphere naturally gives rise to alternative visions of reality, not all of those visions are rooted in conspiracy. Some are the edifying dreams of radicals. Consider in this regard the recent history of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). In 2015 the DSA was a fringe group with only 6,000 members. The Bernie Sanders campaign saw more people join, but what really caused DSA membership to explode was Trump’s inauguration. As one member put it, “A large portion of our members were radicalized by the election and the Democrats failing over and over again.” The DSA’s rolls recently reached 48,000, the largest for a radical left-wing American party.
New DSA members have joined a party that, for one thing, supports a single-payer healthcare system. Of course from a Canadian point of view single-payer is the status quo, the opposite of a radical idea. In the U.S. however it has long been considered too far-out to be respectable. Whereas Britain could introduce its own single-payer system in 1948, up until the 1950s southern Democrats opposed any reform that would desegregate health services. More recently the U.S. insurance industry has functioned as a major impediment to reform, one so powerful that both the Clinton and Obama administrations sought to introduce healthcare measures that stopped well short of “Medicare for all,” as single-payer is increasingly called in the U.S. (because it polls better).
It would be an exaggeration to say Donald Trump single-handedly made a Canadian-style health system respectable in the minds of many Americans. But Trump’s presidency, which has been defined by a systematic assault on truth, has coincided with new levels of support for a universal public system. One 2017 Harvard-Harris poll found that a bare majority of Americans favour single-payer, a once unimaginable result.
What does it mean to be radicalized? It involves adopting a point of view previously considered heretical, but also coming to that view in a spirit of opposition. In June for example Steve Schmidt, a prominent Republican strategist, made headlines by renouncing his party membership. The occasion of Schmidt’s announcement was the administration’s policy of separating children from their parents in immigration detention, but Schmidt also cited the president’s disregard for “objective truth.” Schmidt, a former advisor to Republican presidential nominee John McCain, said he would now support the Democrats as an independent. His experience recalls Sigmund Freud’s observation that our strongest affirmations are negations: we are often most committed when we have something to kick against. The current president and his falsehoods are distinctive for their ability to have such an effect on people. This would seem an inevitable response to a public sphere perceived as lacking some minimum level of truth. If one response is to embrace a hallucinatory vision of reality, another more encouraging one is to be guided by a vision of sweeping reform.
Of course millions of people are only too happy with the president’s falsehoods, which they either go along with or actually believe. The radicalization such lies have resulted in, however, should provide some consolation. When George W. Bush was president his administration was often accused of embracing the doctrine of the “noble lie.” On this view the president was to be feared for his ability to systematically deploy falsehoods, in Bush’s case, to justify a war. In Trump’s case his systematic falsehoods have energized an unprecedented opposition, one that now includes former members of Trump’s own party. Every regime of falsehood, let us hope, contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.