Trump, as we’ve all noticed, has an “interesting” relationship with facts and falsehoods. Going above and beyond the usual ball-playing and misreading of statistics to political ends, Trump is non-pareil within recent American politics for his willingness to spit out easily falsifiable lies, stick by them through their falsification, and then go so far as to demand apologies from or threaten litigation against those responsible for debunking him. It seems like heads were spinning down at the Washington Post as they tried to enumerate all the fat tales in his RNC acceptance speech; fact-checkers have been working overtime for most of his primary run. However, as outrageous as it is, I don’t think this is entirely unique to Donald Trump. Falsehoods perform different functions in the political discourse of authoritarianism, and this is the promise that The Donald, would-be presidential strongman, offers his voters: for them to see, at long last, the emergence of a strident American authoritarianism. “I am the law and order candidate.”
First of all, Trump’s speeches, interviews and debates are one hundred percent performative and zero percent informative. He is not trying to “make his case” or forward a platform or policy. A strongman does not take the stage in order to persuade, but in order to demonstrate his dominance. He’s tapping into those ancient political instincts that view leadership or chieftaincy as spoils proper to victory or conquest. Lapsing into persuasion might even be taken as a sign of weakness: why after all would “real power” need to persuade or seek consent? In this sense, Trump is not merely lying. In the performative flagrancy of his lies, he is carving out a state of exception with respect to truth and falsity, signaling to the whole of Trump Nation that he’s above the truth. Or maybe more accurately that, as a “deal-maker,” as a person with name and career always evocative of gambling, he can successfully bluff his way through any problem or impasse.
In order to thwart Trump, I think we have to appreciate these surprising, authoritarian, alternative uses of untruth. Bouncing off points made by Boris Groys in the Total Art of Stalinism, propaganda within totalitarianism is not directly comparable to advertising. For however insidious and subliminal it may seem at times, advertising still functions as a form of persuasion. But persuasion is unnecessary without the possibility of dissent. What functions then does it perform in circumstances such as Stalinism or modern-day North Korea? One is as a model of orthopraxy, of course, illustrating in films or giant murals the proper mode of conduct in the DPRK or the Stalinist state. Another, especially as authority becomes total and its propaganda becomes increasingly preposterous, is as a loyalty test: a critical— or even cool— reception helps identify your political enemies. Those who will enthusiastically embrace and relay your claims, even at their most absurd or self-contradictory— these are the party faithful.
Continually testing his public with wilder and wilder claims, Trump also uses preposterousness to sieve his friends from his enemies— the only real distinction for Trump. If you’re struggling to understand the RNC’s attempted reconciliation of Christian fundamentalism and LGBT rights, corporate interests with anti-corporate rhetoric, civic inclusivity with white ethnonationalism, “free speech” with media suppression, I think it’s helpful to bear in mind how bracingly belief-free the mind and politics of Donald Trump really are. We’re talking about a man who ran a political ad that did nothing but state the amount of applause he received during his terrifying and unbelievably vile acceptance speech. The man is pure political symptom, running through all the most familiar pages in the authoritarian playbook.
And while Trump’s ideas are deeply and indisputably racist— the wall with Mexico, the ban of the movement of Muslims, you name it— I don’t even think his racism is particularly doctrinaire; it merely fits the classic, failproof form of ethnic scapegoating that has proven so effective in the past. It’s absolutely necessary to counter the ludicrous claims and terrifying proposals of the Trump campaign at every sentence, with plenty of citations and historical examples but equally important is snapping the better half of his would-be voters out of the atavistic and anti-democratic impulses that are pulling us toward this cartoonishly-recognizable form of authoritarianism, for they know not what they do.