The Indispensability of Hannah Arendt in the Age of Trump

From the Weekly Standard:

One of my favorite stories about Winston Churchill goes like this.

Churchill: "Madam, would you sleep with me for 5 million pounds?" 
Socialite: "My goodness, Mr. Churchill ... Well, I suppose ...”
Churchill: "Would you sleep with me for 5 pounds?"
Socialite: "Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!"
Churchill: "Madam, we've already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.”

Unfortunately, the story is what we would now call fake news. The same anecdote has been attributed at various times to George Bernard Shaw, Groucho Marx, Mark Twain, W.C. Fields, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, and, implausibly, Woodrow Wilson.

In time, it will probably be ascribed to Donald Trump.

But the story came to mind last week, when the Washington Post’s Dan Balz asked, “Does it bother anyone that President Trump has been caught lying? Does it bother anyone that this is not new? Does it bother anyone that the president has been shown to be a liar?”

Stephen Hayes and I discussed the question on the Daily Standard podcast last week.

Of course, we pretty much know the answer. Many Americans, perhaps most, do indeed care. But in an age of tribal and transactional politics, a lot of folks frankly don’t, and are not afraid to say so:

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.) said Sunday that he believes Americans are more concerned with the economy than falsehoods from President Trump.
“I think people are much more concerned about the economy and job preparation,” Blunt told CNN’s “State of the Union,” adding that Trump's misstatements did not come up during a visit last week to his home state…

Blunt’s comments echoed USA Today’s report from a focus group of Trump supporters: “Yes, they think President Trump's lying about Stormy Daniels. And no, they really do not care.”

Americans who voted for the president say they don't believe his denial of the adult film star's claim that she had a 2006 affair with Trump, the same year that Melania Trump gave birth to their son Barron. But that hasn't tempered their sky-high support for the president.

This is no longer a bug. It is a feature, wherein the indifference to Trump’s mendacity has become as much a reflex as the right’s newfound moral relativism. We are no longer even haggling about the price.

At first (or second, or third) blush, this seems jarring. But, as Jonah Goldberg has written, conservatism has been beset with what he calls “Alinsky envy” for some time now. Since the left demonizes, slanders, and lies, he noted, a whole cottage industry on the right has been built around the insistence that “We should do it too!”

But this is where Hannah Arendt once again proves her indispensability. Trumpism’s blending of tribalism with transactionalism is also reflected in what Arendt identified as the “curiously varying mixture of gullibility and cynicism” in demagogic politics. In many ways the developments are parallel, as tribalism provides a mass political base that helps politicians and pundits alike rationalize the bargains they make. And the gullibility of voters who take their news from Gateway Pundit or Facebook groups provides the raw material for the cynical acceptance of untruth. Arendt explained the phenomenon this way:

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true...

This mixture of gullibility and world-weary cynicism, Arendt wrote, dispelled “the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds.”

Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.

The masters of this sort of propaganda understood that they could change their stories with impunity, because they would see their deceptions as a form of 8-dimensional chess.

The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness." 

Remarkably, she wrote that nearly 70 years ago, long before the rise of our own alternative reality media ecosystems. But Arendt understood the endgame here; a tsunami of lies isn’t aimed at getting people to believe what the propagandist is saying. Rather, it’s to induce chronic disbelief, or an indifferent shrug. Who knows what to believe? Who cares? What is truth?

“The result of a consistent and total substitution of lie, for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, “ wrote Arendt, “but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”