How Trump Turns Postmodernist ‘Truth’ Against Itself

In a rally following the Biden-Trump presidential debate last week, Jill Biden famously and patronizingly gave her husband this backhanded compliment: “Joe, you did such a great job; you answered every question.”

She spoke in the same tone she might use to praise him for eating his prunes. As the president stood there grinning with childlike satisfaction, Mrs. (sorry, Doctor!) Biden turned to the audience and asked, “What did Trump do?” In good Pavlovian fashion, she and crowd shouted in unison, “Lie!”

This ritual calling out of the right for “lying” is a favorite obsession of the left. Trump is despised for rejecting the new morality of wokeness, yet by attacking him for his alleged misconduct in sexual and business matters, he’s held to the standards of the old morality—which evidently apply only to him. The same trick is at work with regard to lying. Educated liberals long ago abandoned the idea of permanent standards of truth and morality, derived from God or nature. Yet Trump is uniquely held to a standard of truthfulness that, in private, intellectuals dismiss as naïve and outmoded.

The Associated Press was quick to publish a list of Trump’s alleged falsehoods. The very first item on AP’s list shows just how ridiculous this exercise is:

TRUMP: “They talk about a relatively small number of people that went to the Capitol and in many cases were ushered in by the police.”

THE FACTS: That’s false. The attack on the U.S. Capitol was the deadliest assault on the seat of American power in over 200 years. As thoroughly documented by video, photographs and people who were there, thousands of people descended on Capitol Hill in what became a brutal scene of hand-to-hand combat with police.

In an internal memo on March 7, 2023, U.S. Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said that the allegation that “our officers helped the rioters and acted as ‘tour guides’” is “outrageous and false.” A Capitol Police spokesperson confirmed the memo’s authenticity to The Associated Press. More than 1,400 people have been charged with federal crimes stemming from the riot. More than 850 people have pleaded guilty to crimes, and 200 others have been convicted at trial.

What sort of “facts” are these? Haven’t we all seen the videos of Capitol Police holding the doors open for the Jan. 6 protestors? How was Trump’s statement “outrageous and false”? As for the assault being “deadly,” the only fatalities were inflicted by Capitol Hill security forces, not the protestors: Ashli Babbitt was shot by officer Michael Byrd, and Rosanne Boyland died after being trampled by the crowd and apparently beaten by police. (The other deaths were due to accidents or medical conditions, unrelated to any violence.)

How is a political leader like Trump, who wants to return America to political sanity, supposed to speak and act in this environment, when fact-checkers spread falsehoods, and every organ of official opinion is in the grip of a pathological denial of reality? To understand the left’s obsession with “Trump’s lies,” we have to consider the weird intellectual assumptions of their political framework, which may seem strange even to rank-and-file Democrat voters.

For the last 50 years, our elite universities have been promoting the postmodernist ideology that holds truth as entirely subjective, a function of power. Whoever controls the levers of authority sets the ruling “narrative.” Of course, there will always be dissenters, but acceptable or legitimate opinion is determined by those who establish the official orthodoxy.

The French postmodernist Michel Foucault was probably the most influential thinker to promote the doctrine that power creates truth. But if this dogma is how the intellectual ruling class understands truth, the very notion of lying takes on a new meaning. It does not mean—as it did in the old-fashioned or common sense understanding—saying something contrary to the facts. “Lying” instead means opposing the official narrative of the regime. When Jill Biden accuses Trump of lies, she means that his opinions, and the opinions of his MAGA supporters, are illegitimate because they are contrary to the establishment orthodoxy. This is the attitude behind the government’s Orwellian campaign against “misinformation.”

Bill Clinton famously showed the world how the ruling class understands truth when he declared, in relation to his affair with Monica Lewinsky, “It depends what the meaning of the word is is.” Perhaps it is not a coincidence that this question—what is means, or what it means for something to be—preoccupied Foucault’s teacher, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who was the intellectual grandfather of postmodernism. Heidegger understood in a deeply philosophical way something that Trump seems to sense intuitively. Reality itself—Being, which Heidegger sometimes equated with nature—has become hidden or obscured by the various ideological assumptions that characterize modern life.

In his book Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger suggests that the modern version of “rationalism”—the “truth” as determined by self-appointed experts—had become indistinguishable from irrationalism. This blurring of rationalism and irrationalism,

is playing itself out to this very day, in all possible disguises and under the most contradictory titles. Irrationalism is only the weakness and utter failure of rationalism become apparent [and] only gets us stuck still farther in rationalism.

The left-wing ruling class masks its moral nihilism behind its claims of scientific expertise, but as Heidegger points out, this simply means “it plays its games more dangerously, because it plays them covertly and in a manner less vulnerable to interference.”

In our postmodern and post-constitutional regime—where facts are indistinguishable from propaganda—truth can only be reached by trying to get back to Being, to reality itself. When common sense observations about things we already know, or can see with our eyes (such as video of police opening the doors of the Capitol), are dismissed as lies by the ruling orthodoxy, then speaking the truth will look distorted or exaggerated. The real truth, as opposed to the official narrative of the regime, has to be rescued, recovered from our neglect and forgetfulness. Heidegger’s term for this deeper meaning of truth was the “unconcealing” of Being or nature.

Which brings me back to Trump, and an incisive remark I heard from one of my students after the recent presidential debate. I was in Southern California teaching in the Claremont Institute’s Publius Fellows program, and we all watched the debate together. After Biden shuffled off the stage and we heard the commentators launch into their predictable complaints about Trump’s “lies,” one student who had studied German philosophy mentioned that Trump’s overblown exaggerations were simply a version of Heidegger’s unconcealment.

This is not to suggest, obviously, that Trump had read Heidegger and was engaged in any kind of philosophical investigation into Being (although, back when it was still funny, Saturday Night Live could have done a great skit on this). But the remark expressed an important insight about the way Trump consistently challenges the official narrative—not only on various policy issues, but especially on broader questions about whether it is the people or the ruling class that is sovereign, and whether the older idea of America represented something good and worth cherishing.

From this perspective, Trump’s bombastic candor is actually a deeper form of truth-telling. The secret of his appeal, which the left finds both baffling and infuriating, is found precisely in those sweeping overstatements that are not only legitimate but necessary in our present circumstances. Trump exaggerates because he needs to overcorrect for, and thereby overcome, the daily barrage of official orthodoxy that suffocates our common sense. Ordinary Americans seem to grasp that he amplifies, simplifies, and clarifies because it’s the only way to pierce the relentless propaganda of the establishment.

His bombast is exactly what allows Trump to beat the left at their own game, which drives them crazy, and which will—in all likelihood—send him back to the White House. Let the unconcealing commence!

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