It is not by lying, but by being caught lying, that the politician of today can claim to be challenging the status quo. Why the modern political lie, as defined by Hannah Arendt, now functions only as a deconstruction of itself.

The moment Donald Trump assumed the presidency of the United States, journalists began counting his lies. According to The Washington Post they numbered no less than 4229 by the end of Summer 2018. Paradoxically, however, Trump is a president with high ‘truth-capital’. He is not a liar, according to his voters, but someone who tells truths no other politician has the courage to utter. With each lie exposed, Trump’s ‘truth-capital’, rather than devaluing, seems to grow.

When debating ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and political lies, we tend to forget that lies and secrets have always been part of the political game. The Latin concept arcana imperii, for instance, refers to political power as something that hides and conceals itself. However, we also tend to forget that, in political contexts, truth and truthfulness are not necessarily the same as facts — if we by facts mean truths that concern states of affairs. Lying, concealing, distorting and denying facts have always been political tools. Though it may sound amoral, being a ‘true’ politician does not necessarily entail sticking to the facts. ‘Let us remember’, Hannah Arendt suggested, ‘that the lie did not creep into politics by some accident of human sinfulness. Moral outrage, for this reason alone, is not likely to make it disappear.’

Arendt defines political action as birth, beginning and initiative. Political actions are actions that change the record of history in unexpected ways, and as such are the unforeseen beginnings of something new — beginnings that cannot be fully explained by events that precede them. However, action in the sense of birth and beginning does not take place in a vacuum: action is not beginning ex nihilo, from nothing, but always situated in a given historical and political context. In order to make room for our actions, ‘something that was there before must be removed or destroyed, and things as they were before changed’. This would be impossible unless we were able to imagine a different world, to remove ourselves in our minds from the reality in which we are situated. According to Arendt, if we were unable to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ — not only to statements about the world, but to reality itself, ‘to things as they are given, beyond agreement or disagreement, to our organs of perception and cognition’, action would be impossible. And action, Arendt suggests, is ‘the very stuff politics are made of’. 

Our capacity to lie and our ability to act politically have the same source: what Kant called our imagination. This conviction led Arendt to see fascism as having introduced an unexpected innovation in the history of the political lie. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she analyzed totalitarian regimes not as ideology, or as a specific, authoritarian form of government, but as what she calls the ‘modern political lie’. 

The modern political lie is not the same as a falsehood, nor is it a deliberate withholding, distortion or denial of fact. It cannot even be understood — as lies usually are — as the opposite of truth. Although Arendt never herself formulated it thus, the modern political lie is a way in which truth is put to play in politics, and a way in which politics invests in truth. Understood in this sense, Arendt’s concept of the political lie can be used to shed light on why, today, some politicians are able to strengthen their image as truth-tellers — by lying.

Fabricating reality

Arendt raised the question of lying in the opening chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism, referring to ‘the very insecure position of truth in the world’. She defined the modern lie by tracing a difference between ancient and modern sophistry. Whereas the ancient sophist was content with a ‘passing victory of the argument at the expense of truth’, the modern sophist sought ‘a more lasting victory at the expense of reality itself’. The ancient sophist denied particular facts, the modern sophist attempts to transform the lie into a fictive world. This, Arendt suggested, was what characterized fascism. The hallmark of fascist propaganda was ‘that it was not satisfied with lying but deliberately proposed to transform its lies into reality … For such a fabrication of a lying reality no one was prepared.’ 

The content of fascist ideology and propaganda was no novelty. However, the ‘totalitarian organization’, which transforms lies into a fictive, but functioning and lasting reality, was something completely unexpected:

The forms of totalitarian organization, as distinguished from their ideological content and propaganda slogans, are completely new. They are designed to translate the propaganda lies of the movement, woven around a central fiction — the conspiracy of the Jews, or the Trotskyites, or 300 families etc. — into a functioning reality, to build up, even under non-totalitarian circumstances, a society whose members act and react according to the rules of a fictitious world.

Totalitarian organization is a device that translates lies into an organized fictive world, an alternative reality. One example she often returned to is the camp. In totalitarian states, the camp was invented as a ‘laboratory’, an ‘experiment with or rather against reality’, showing ‘supreme contempt for all facts and all reality’. The camps created isolated zones beyond the contradictory, uncontrollable and unstable world of spontaneous interaction and communication. In these zones, the regime’s policies and predictions become true and the regime is legitimized: the inhabitants of the camp were soon transformed into living verifications of the propaganda.

Totalitarianism, Arendt argued, exploited the traditional western conception of truth as adaequatio rei et intellectus — as the correspondence between thought and thing — to the point where the sense of truth was lost, and where no distinction could be made between truth and falsity in the political domain. According to adaequatio rei intellectus, a judgment or thought is true in so far as it discloses reality as it is. From this insight, totalitarianism came to the following conclusion:

that we can fabricate truth insofar as we can fabricate reality; that we do not have to wait until reality unveils itself and shows us its true face, but can bring into being a reality whose structures will be known to us from the beginning because the whole thing is our product. In other words, it is the underlying conviction of any totalitarian transformation of ideology into reality that it will become true whether it is true or not.

For this reason, Arendt argued, it was senseless to think that fascism could be refuted by rational debate, by confronting its proponents with their lies. A modern liar does not operate with the logics of thought, but through actions which cause politics to become true. The liar, Arendt writes, ‘is an actor by nature’. He exploits the close affinity of our capacity to act, i.e. to change the world, ‘with this mysterious faculty of ours that enable us to say, “The sun is shining”, when it is raining cats and dogs.’ The modern lie is a speech act, and as such more than denial of facts. It is an act that transforms history.

The danger of the modern lie is not, therefore, that it distorts historical facts, but that, in erasing the entire factual fabric, it replaces a history of political beginnings with an alternative history that destroys them. The historical fabric that grows spontaneously ‘between’ humans is replaced by an organized, fictive reality: ‘The difference between the traditional lie and the modern lie will more often than not amount to the difference between hiding and destroying reality.’ 

The art of the modern lie is this exchange – to a point where the historical memory of political beginnings is lost and erased. As such, the modern lie is a feature not only of totalitarian regimes, operating through violence and fear. It appears also in democratic contexts. One of Arendt’s examples, discussed in the 1971 ‘essay Lying in Politics’, is the

‘Pentagon papers’, which document the presence of the US in Indochina during from the end of World War II to 1968. The papers were leaked to The New York Times in 1971, at the height of the Vietnam war. Although they revealed no secrets, they caused an explosive debate that eventually led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. The documents were shocking not so much because of the content of the lies they exposed, but because the lies were no accidental or secondary means within a more general political strategy. Lying was revealed to be at the heart of the strategy itself, constituting its very infrastructure and art.

Arendt refers to this version of the modern lie as ‘image-making’ and ‘problem-solving’. The image-makers were PR-agents, rooted in advertising and called to Washington from Madison Avenue. The problem-solvers, on the other hand, were professional game-theorists and system-analysts, recruited into government from universities and think tanks. The PR-agents were assigned the task of creating images — such as the image of the US as a benevolent ‘doctor’ reaching out to friends and allies in their struggle against evil communists — in order to ‘sell’ the war to American voters. The problem-solvers, meanwhile, were tasked with sustaining these images through the war. What the ‘Pentagon papers’ revealed was how facts about the war were systematically erased and replaced with images, and how scenarios were created that made these images true — in turn making them easier to sell as ‘facts’. The modern, political lie can be understood as a laboratory, a device, through which politics become true — by systematically erasing facts and truths.

Truth-telling as political action

What is modern-truth telling in this situation? In the sphere of politics, Arendt suggests, the liar has a great advantage. As a person of action, as someone intending to change the record of history, the liar is always already situated firmly within the political sphere. To tell the truth, however, is to assume a completely different position: it is to point to the world as it is. Truth-telling, Arendt writes, ‘has never been counted among the political virtues, because it has little to contribute to that change of the world and of circumstances which is among the most legitimate political activities.’ 

However, with the modern lie, the situation is different. Since the modern lie creates fictive worlds, modern truth-telling is to bear witness from within the lie. What is at stake is not singular facts, but shared historical reality. Truth-telling itself becomes an explosive, political action. As Arendt writes: ‘Where everybody lies about everything of importance, the truth-teller, whether he knows it or not, has begun to act; he, too, has engaged himself in political business, for, in the unlikely event that he survives, he has made a start towards changing the world.’ 

To introduce truth into a situation in which it has been erased becomes a political action, no matter how unpolitical the witness is. But it is an action that comes with great risk. Liars are free to model their facts according to political interests and expectations, and because of that they appear more credible than truth-tellers, who are perceived as liars.

Reality as spectacle

In what sense can the concept of the modern lie shed light on the contemporary political situation? It is important to see that the modern lie is something that constantly reinvents itself anew. ‘I pack him and sell him as an outsider’, explains Roger Stone — one of the brains behind Trump’s election campaign and the inventor of the slogan ‘The truth can be suppressed no longer! Lock her up! Lock her up!’ In what kind of reality does the lie about Trump as outsider become true? When reality is turned into circus, carnival and spectacle. ‘Politics is show business for ugly people’, Stone suggests — the lobbyist who wanted to become an actor, and is described as ‘the prince of darkness’ by his enemies, not so much because he ‘has no soul’, but because he knows something about the secrets of governing.

What Stone knows is how to sell an over-indebted candidate — someone whose casinos have been filed for bankruptcy — as someone willing to take risks. He knows how to create a liar in order to free ‘truth-capital’, in a political context dominated by mass-media. It is not by lying, but by being caught lying, that Trump becomes true — or in the words of Stone, becomes the only candidate ‘challenging the status quo’. If someone should know, it is Stone, one of the young brains behind Nixon’s re-election campaign; the very Nixon whose fall began with the ‘Pentagon papers’. If the lie revealed by the ‘Pentagon papers’ was a mechanism replacing facts with image, an image that was easier to sell, Stone knows that when reality is image, it is the truth-teller, speaking beyond images directly to the people via Twitter, that can be packed and sold. ‘I was a jockey looking for a horse. You can’t win the race if you don’t have a horse,’ Stone commented.

The political horse he finally found is a winner in a world in which it constantly appears as the one willing to take the risk –a world in which reality is transformed into a gambling house. ‘Do you think voters, non-sophisticates, make a difference between entertainment and politics?’ Stone asks — and proves his reasoning by realizing the axiom: ‘It is better to be infamous than never to be famous at all’. When the empire is about to fall, it can — at least for a moment — be validated as spectacle and pure entertainment.

Truth constitutes an outside with respect to politics — an outside that cannot be fully controlled. It can validate political interests, strategies and actors; but it also threatens to destroy their political influence. In Sophocles’ drama, it is by searching for truth that Oedipus seeks to legitimize his power. Yet what he finds is something that not only loses him power, but that tears apart the world over which he ruled. According to Gilles Deleuze, truth is something that we do not want, that we do not seek — but that we must accommodate, against our will. For Socrates, truth was the touchstone of politics, which it must rub against in order to test and preserve its reality.

Anna-Karin Selberg is a Political philosopher, Södertörn University, Sweden. This post was originally published by Eurozine.