Can American democracy survive Donald Trump?

 Illustration by Sebastien Thibault.
Illustration by Sebastien Thibault.
Illustration by Sebastien Thibault.

Lying, paranoia and conspiracy are defining features of a totalitarian society. What hope is there for a brand new era, in the aftermath of an administration that has relied on all three?

Last modified on Sat 21 Nov 2020 10.39 GMT

“I WON THE ELECTION!” Donald Trump tweeted in the early hours of 16 November 2020, 10 days after he lost the election. At the same time, Atlantic magazine announced an interview with Barack Obama, in which he warns that the US is “entering into an epistemological crisis” – a crisis of knowing. “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false,” Obama explains, “by definition our democracy doesn’t work.” I saw the two assertions juxtaposed on Twitter as I was finishing writing this essay, and together they demonstrate its proposition: that American democracy is facing not merely a crisis in trust, but in knowledge itself, largely because language has become increasingly untethered from reality, as we find ourselves in a swirling maelstrom of lies, disinformation, paranoia and conspiracy theories.

The problem is exemplified by Trump’s utterance, which bears only the most tenuous relation to reality: Trump participated in an election, giving his declaration some contextual force, but he had not won the election, rendering the claim farcical to those who reject it. The capital letters make it even funnier, a failed tyrant trying to exert mastery through typography. But it stops being funny when we acknowledge that millions of people accept this lie as a decree. Their sheer volume creates a crisis in knowing, because truth-claims largely depend on consensual agreement. This is why the debates about the US’s alarming political situation have orbited so magnetically around language itself. For months, American political and historical commentators have disputed whether the Trump administration can be properly called “fascist”, whether in refusing to concede he is trying to effect a “coup”. Are these the right words to use to describe reality? Not knowing reflects a crisis of knowledge, which derives in part from a crisis in authority.

However, the very fact that we need to ask this question helps answer it – for lying, paranoia and conspiracy are also defining features of the totalitarian societies to which American society’s resemblance is being so hotly contested. As Federico Finchelstein maintained in his recent A Brief History of Fascist Lies: “As facts are presented as ‘fake news’ and ideas originating among those who deny the facts become government policy, we must remember that current talk about ‘post-truth’ has a political and intellectual lineage: the history of fascist lying.” Both George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, two of history’s most acute observers of totalitarianism, situated lying squarely at the heart of the totalitarian project. Not just the Hitlerian big lie of propaganda, but a culture of pervasive lying, what Arendt called “lying as a way of life” and “lying on principle”, systematic dishonesty that destroys the collective space of historical-factual reality. Orwell similarly insisted that lying is “integral to totalitarianism”: indeed, for Orwell, totalitarianism probably “demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth”. And as Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, both the Nazis and the Soviets created markedly paranoid societies, in which the capillary action of conspiratorial fictions did as much work as ideological infrastructure.

Trump supporters in Las Vegas protest the election result.
Trump supporters in Las Vegas protest the election result on 8 November. Photograph: John Locher/AP

“A society becomes totalitarian,” Orwell warned in his 1946 essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial: that is, when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud.” The flagrancy is part of the point. At present, that flagrantly artificial power in the US depends on a president who refuses to concede, an administration that repudiates the results of an election that was transparently fair (as corroborated by independent international election observers), the Republican leadership complicitly silent or actively encouraging these falsehoods and surrogates who flatly lie about the election outcome. The result is that some 70% of Republican voters currently believe that Biden’s win was “rigged” – although they don’t explain how a Republican Senate was returned in this same “rigged” election. The Republican party, funded by vastly wealthy donors, has turned itself into America’s ruling class, clinging to fraudulent power by refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of its opponents, withholding the consent of the loser that is necessary for democracy to function.

There is a simple reason for this: minority rule. As Fintan O’Toole recently argued in the New York Review of Books: “The logic is not that a permanently minority party may move toward authoritarianism but that it must. Holding power against the wishes of most citizens is an innately despotic act.” Abraham Lincoln pointed out the same thing in his first inaugural address in 1861, a month before America plunged into a civil war: “A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.” The Republicans need to establish the rule of a minority as a permanent arrangement, or they must concede not Trump’s inevitable defeat by the majority, but their own. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator who was re-elected last week in an election whose results he disputes in self-cancelling terms, put it clearly: “If we don’t challenge and change the US election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again. President Trump should not concede.”

This is not news to the Republican leadership. It’s why for decades they have engaged in wholesale repudiation of facts and reality, replacing evidence and history with lies and paranoia. Part of what upholds a flagrantly artificial power structure is fraudulent history: “From the totalitarian point of view,” as Orwell noted, “history is something to be created rather than learned.” We are watching the Republican party create such a fraudulent history in real time. This is not merely doctrinal, although in part it reflects a leadership coterie that has spent decades building deep partisan loyalty to itself per se, rather than to any specific policies or values it might uphold. Republicanism in America today has become its own ideology. But as Arendt observed, it was not ideological “indoctrination” that defined totalitarian lies, but rather “the incapacity or unwillingness to distinguish altogether between fact and opinion”. The same night that Trump tweeted he had won the election, Fox News host Jesse Watters told a guest he believed “that Joe Biden was installed … I can’t prove this allegation. It’s a gut feeling.” The big lie provides a substitute for unsatisfactory reality, a collective delusion that fills in the gaps between power and comprehension. It is not content with attacking individual facts, but seeks to create an alternative social fantasy that placates its believers while empowering the liars. As historian Robert Paxton observed: “Feelings propel fascism more than thought does.”

These fraudulent histories and distorted conspiracies rely on misinformation and “gut feeling”. In a recent interview, Tommy Tuberville, the incoming Republican senator from Alabama, declared that a Biden presidency worried him because his father, a soldier, fought in the second world war to “free Europe of socialism”. Meanwhile incoming Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene subscribes to QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory claiming that a cabal of Satan-worshiping, paedophiliac sex-trafficking Democrats has been plotting against Trump. As the New York Times reported last year: “At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic party and its supporters are routinely described as ‘demonic’ and associated with ‘rulers of the darkness’.” Republicans no longer oppose Democrats politically: they are opposing them existentially.

As Arendt understood, in its attempt to change the record, lying “is a form of action”. In this sense, lies are what the linguist JL Austin called “performative” utterances, statements that can transform social reality instead of merely describing it – but only under rigidly defined circumstances. When a judge says “guilty as charged”, the defendant’s life changes, but only if they’re both in a courtroom under the ritualised conditions of “due process”. If a judge says it at home watching a legal drama, the statement has no effect. This is why it was so absurd when Trump tweeted during the election, “I hereby claim Massachusetts” – because none of the conditions that would give that statement performative force had been met. He was just an old man shouting at clouds. But when he pronounces “I WON THE ELECTION!” he is trying to imbue his claim performatively with the symbolic authority of his office. That authority depends entirely on collective recognition. It matters that most world leaders have now “recognised” Joe Biden as America’s president-elect: society’s acceptance is what gives language performative power.


•••

In 1964 the historian Richard Hofstadter identified what he called the “paranoid style in American politics”, a perspective that shaped the stories Americans too often told themselves. Paranoia offers a master trope for interpreting “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” in American political narratives, from 18th-century Illuminati paranoia to the Papist conspiracies of 19th-century nativism, to the enduring anti-communist hysterias of the 20th century. Hofstadter predicted that paranoid energies would periodically be released in America when “historical catastrophes or frustrations” exacerbated the religious traditions and social structures that fostered those energies, catalysing them into “mass movements or political parties”.

Half a century later America produced a president who embodies the paranoid style, proclaiming at every turn that investigations into his allegedly criminal activity are “witch-hunts”, that elections are “rigged” against him, while spinning false conspiracy theories as camouflage, so that none of them seem real, or all of them do. As Arendt observed, in an unstable, incomprehensible world, people arrive at the point “where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true”.

Conspiracy theories are the authoritarian answer to paranoia; everything is equally possible, but an authority remains in control. This makes conspiracy more comforting than contingency, especially if you find authority reassuring. Conspiracy and paranoia insist there is always a plot, and every plot has an author: someone is always in charge, even if it’s a person you don’t like. Especially if it’s a person you don’t like, because then you have someone to blame.

Paranoid narratives are inherently narcissistic as well as authoritarian. Paranoia rejects the proportionality of pluralism, in which the world’s indifference to you is a sign of its multiplicity, and interprets that indifference as malice. The world is not unmoved by your existence, but upholds your central importance: even your refrigerator is spying on you. A paranoid system confirms that your powerlessness is only because the game is rigged against you– and that the world cares enough to bother disempowering you.

A sign of anti-Trump sentiment in Racine, Wisconsin.
A sign of anti-Trump sentiment in Racine, Wisconsin. Photograph: Mark Hertzberg/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Some of the “religious traditions” Hofstadter identified feed into this paranoia. Orwell detected a strong family resemblance between totalitarianism and theocracy: “A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible.” Paintings of Trump in the hands of Jesus that circulated during his presidency struck non-believers as absurd, not least because of the profanely immoral life he leads, but were admired in all seriousness by the devout. Mike Pence is hailed by rightwing Christian leaders as the “model” of an “evangelical politician”, a label that controverts the constitution’s establishing separation of church and state. Trump’s attorney general William Barr is a crusading religious zealot, avowing the centrality of Christian nationalism to American life. He has said the “moral order” of the United States can only be based on “a transcendent Supreme Being”, a belief that leads naturally to an authoritarian politics.

Trump has spent four years exerting political power to make reality conform to his every assertion. This is both a theocratic performance, and a totalitarian one. The more deranged the assertion, the better it served his purpose: the statements had to be wildly detached from reality, so as to make clear his power to bend reality toward his word. Godlike Trump pronounced, and people scrambled to make it real – or to appear real. That was the essence of “Sharpiegate”, for example, when a weather map did not conform to Trump’s description of Hurricane Dorian’s path. Having crudely altered the map with a Sharpie pen, Trump insisted that official records be altered to conform to his claims. As philosophers of language have pointed out, the crudity was not an error, it was the point. Trump was not aiming to deceive, he was performing divine fiat: make it so. This is precisely the process of “rectifying” official records that Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four; in “The Prevention of Literature” two years earlier he’d noted that “totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past”.

For Elias Canetti, paranoid and totalitarian systems created conspiratorial fictions reflecting “a disease of power”, a narcissistic, compulsive need to destroy the world as proof of that power: “To be the last man to remain alive is the deepest urge of every seeker after power … Once he feels himself threatened his passionate desire to see everyone lying dead before him can scarcely be mastered by his reason.” “Mastery” here is critical: the strongman has to perform his strength not merely over his opponents, but over language and narrative, so that he can alter reality at will.

Canetti was writing about a German judge named Daniel Schreber, who became Freud’s most famous case study for paranoia. In his 1997 study of Schreber, My Own Private Germany, Eric Santner argued that paranoia derives from a symbolic crisis in authority, and described the ways in which Schreber’s paranoia seemed to anticipate the paranoid culture of Nazi Germany. “Where there is a culture of paranoia,” Santner concluded, “fascism of one kind or another may not be far behind.”

•••

Over the last four years, many have acknowledged, however reluctantly, the ways in which Trump’s presidency is symptomatic of entrenched maladies in the American body politic: his divisiveness, rage, dishonesty, greed, double-dealing, dishonour, puerility, truculence, fragility, narcissism and paranoia, all characterise American society today. Trump’s exceptionalism is also American: the rules apply to everyone but him. Trump is all of America’s worst qualities, the nation’s id come to roaring life.

If Trump is symptomatic of America’s diseases of power, then his compulsive dishonesty might be the most revealing pathology of all. The US is a chronically untruthful country, deceit written into its very framework. The constitution contains explicit protections of slavery but never uses the word “slavery”, a deeply mendacious deception that eventually became a collective self-deception. The declaration “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” was written by a man who enslaved men he did not consider his equal, and became the foundation of a country that incessantly declared its belief in truth and justice while enslaving and oppressing much of its population.

Like many Americans, I have spent four years struggling against a pathological liar in the White House, only to realise, belatedly, that American culture fetishises the truth for a reason. “We hold these truths”, “truth, justice, and the American way”, the fable of the boy George Washington insisting he cannot tell a lie, “Honest Abe” Lincoln: this is a society protesting too much. American history is riddled with lies: that we talk about truth so much is just a tell.

After the civil war freed the slaves, the white south immediately passed laws to disenfranchise black Americans, and then wrote stories – historical fiction and “histories” that were fiction – to justify its betrayals of the laws it had ostensibly passed. That fiction even had a title – “The Lost Cause” – which it acquired from the novels of Sir Walter Scott. The Lost Cause was perhaps the most powerful conspiracy theory of all, spinning a consoling, coherent romance out of a brutally incoherent historical reality. The Lost Cause was designed to offer a way for the white south to save face after its humiliating defeat, maintaining that the north was to blame for the civil war, which wasn’t really fought to defend slavery. This self-serving myth has had profound consequences, deepening the divisions over which the war was fought, rather than healing them.

‘This is not who we are’ … President-elect Joe Biden.
‘This is not who we are’ … President-elect Joe Biden. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Now the US appears set to repeat exactly the same mistake, enabling Trump voters – and Trump himself – to create a fiction claiming they didn’t actually lose the 2020 election. “The legal operation is designed for Trump to save face,” a White House source reportedly said: “It’s meant to give him an avenue to leave in the best possible way.”

It has often been said that America had to imagine itself into existence; less often remarked is the corollary, that America is, in a very real sense, merely a story the nation tells itself. That makes the US singularly subject to the meanings of words, to the fetishised language of the founding documents. But now it is a country arguing that a constitutional amendment beginning with the words “well-regulated” prohibits regulation, one whose supreme court ruled that a corporation is the same as an individual. This is Humpty Dumpty through the looking glass, proclaiming that words mean whatever he says they mean. “The question,” as Humpty tells Alice, is “which is to be master – that’s all.”

When we lose track of whose version of a story to trust, paranoia ensues. It seems no coincidence that we find ourselves in an epistemological crisis several years into what is frequently described as a “crisis in the humanities”, the very subjects that devote themselves to epistemological systems: language, literature, history, philosophy. The destruction of epistemological foundations creates the crisis in knowledge.

For Arendt, imagination is where politics lives: the capacity to imagine ourselves as other than we are is the predicate both for lying and for political action. Democracy is the politics of the possible, rather than of the inevitable or coercive. Political and cultural rhetoric creates the conditions for its own realisation: thus we can only save ourselves if we tell the truth. Democracy relies on foundations of shared truths, because the social contract depends on mutual trust. “This is not who we are,” Joe Biden repeated throughout his campaign. To a certain extent we are what we do, not who we say we are (“action is character,” as F Scott Fitzgerald once observed). But performative language complicates that distinction. In insisting “This is not who we are”, Biden also creates the conditions to change who we are, to become who we say we wish to be.