This article was written on 01 Dec 2018, and is filled under Actualities, Media, Politics, Theory.

How Trump’s Followers Construct Alt-Truth from Lies, Part 2: Daemonic Invention

Commentators describe Trump as a leader who thinks he is telling the truth but who in fact lies constantly to followers, followers who know he lies but believe he does so intentionally in order to ironically convey the “deep” truth that they understand but others do not. Unfortunately, this isn’t the plot of a “Twilight Zone” episode. At the risk of sounding ironic myself, I think that we’re in a situation similar to that depicted in Plato’s myth of the cave, except that, for Trump’s followers, he is outside in the light, and they once were in the light, and the rest of us poor souls are and have always been in the cave. They interpret his language in the context of their vision of how things really are, of their own view of what’s wrong with the country, a view established before he came along, their deep story. For his followers, their deep story, the one they won’t repeat aloud to the rest of us, is that their world was better when they didn’t have to compete with women, minorities, immigrants, or gays for jobs, when they could assume the values they were taught in their churches were the right values, when they could be “be themselves” and insult and denigrate others without being judged. It was a world in which they could goof off and play games all through school and still expect to make a decent living. They know Trump can’t say these things explicitly, but they believe that he believes them, too. They embrace Trump’s big lie, the lie that this lost world can be restored.

Nietzsche, in On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, said that what people hate about liars “is not so much being defrauded as it is being harmed by means of fraud. . . . [What] they hate is basically not deception itself, but rather the unpleasant, hated consequences of certain sorts of deception.”1 In the case of Trump’s followers, it’s not the lie but what the rest of the world calls the truth that has the “unpleasant, hated consequences.” This may be why Trump’s followers interpret his falsehoods as if he were intentionally saying one thing to us in order to say something else to them, something which to them is deeply and ironically true, when, to the rest of us, he just stupidly and overtly lies.

To account for the phenomenon of Trump’s supporters continuing to follow him despite his pervasive lying, we need to turn to a concept of irony that can account for their global, uncritical acceptance: the concept of “transcendental irony,” first defined by Friedrich Schlegel. As Frederick Burwick summarizes, for Schlegel, “Rhetorical irony . . . is incidental and governs only a particular turn of phrase or juxtaposition of ideas. Transcendental irony, by contrast, pervades the entire exposition.”2 For Schlegel, both philosophical and poetic discourse operate in the mode of transcendental irony. Philosophic dialogue “sustains opposing versions of the truth,” and the same kind of tension is sustained in poetic expression “by the external appearance of an earnest mimesis accompanied by an internal awareness of the art and artifice of the whole endeavor.”3 For Trump, his political discourse sustains opposing versions of political reality—one of the America into which the country has progressed toward social and economic equality and one of the America that will be what it was before, after he has made it “great again.”

Donald Trump is not intentionally producing transcendentally ironic discourse, of course; rather, Trump’s followers are making a serious “genre mistake,” imposing onto Trump’s gibberish what Hans Jauss has called the “horizon of expectation inherent in genres”4 —in this case the horizon appropriate to transcendental irony. As Jauss says, “The new text [in this case, Trump’s tweets and other pronouncements] evokes for the reader (listener) the horizon of expectations and ‘rules of the game’ familiar to him from earlier texts. . . .5 Thus, when Trump’s followers interpret his speech as “authentic,” or term him a “non-politician,” or claim that his lies are “taken out of context” and that he is a “victim” of an adversarial media, they do not infer this from his discourse. Instead, they have, before he ever speaks or tweets, elevated his words to the realm of transcendental irony, and they interpret his words using the “rules of the game” familiar to them from other, inappropriate, contexts.

But how is this possible? After all, transcendental irony is a very sophisticated, complex technique, and although Trump’s followers have been labeled by many adjectives, “sophisticated” and “complex” are not among them. Trump’s followers are employing a sophisticated technique in an unsophisticated way. The door to the realm of transcendental irony is remarkably easy to open. The interpretation of a literal lie as a transcendentally ironic truth has, historically, required only that the interpreter adopt an attitude in which he or she perceives the speaker as someone who does not or cannot lie. When a speaker who cannot lie—a “plain speaker” in this case—seems to lie, the only possible conclusion must be that the interpreter has misunderstood the speaker. The reader then is responsible for finding a way to interpret the speaker’s apparently false words as true, and the usual way is to read the apparent lie as a figure of speech. Western culture, particularly, has through its religious and educational institutions encouraged the global application of such attitudes to its intellectual, sacred, and literary texts.

Exercising such global attitudes has been recognized as essential to understanding transcendental irony at least since Plato. Critics often describe so-called “Socratic irony” as the pretense of ignorance speakers use to draw an opponent into contradiction. The irony is said to reside in the revelation that the one presumably ignorant is actually wiser than the one presumably knowledgeable. But transcendental irony serves as the basis of Socrates’ rhetorical irony, and it is pervasive. In many of the dialogues, such as the Phaedrus and the Apology, Plato has his character Socrates remind the readers of his personal “little god,” his “daemon” who never tells him anything positively true but who prevents him from ever telling an untruth:

You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me. . . . This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of my being a politician.6

Their acceptance of the presence of the daemon authorizes Socrates’ listeners to read Socrates’ literal falsehoods—such as his claims about trees that talk and souls that are charioteers with wings—as figuratively true descriptions of the metaphysical realm, a transcendent reality that lies beyond the apparent and experienceable world. This is a rhetorical trick—one that authorizes his claim, like Trump’s claim, that he is not a politician—but Socrates’ followers submit to this trick voluntarily, and once they do, with a little interpretive effort, they can hear everything Socrates’ says as being perfectly coherent and true.

Similarly, in the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo encouraged Christians to adopt a transcendental attitude when reading the Bible. Before his conversion, Augustine, as a professional rhetorician, had found the Bible to be a stylistically and factually flawed text. After his conversion, it was as if he read a different book. He attributed that change to a change in his attitude toward the text. One must, he said, read the Bible in the light of charity. Augustine said that when in reading scripture we run across a passage that is literally false or apparently cruel we should apply the rule of charity and consider whether one of two things may have happened: (1) either that the writer is using a sign in an unfamiliar way or (2) the signs are being used in a transferred (figurative) sense. Ultimately, Augustine’s theory of interpretation shifts the burden of proof from the Biblical text itself to its readers. It claims that to properly interpret Scripture, one should “seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.” 7 In other words, readers should not infer claims from the text’s language and then determine whether they are true or good, but they should assume the text reveals truth and goodness, and then reconstruct how the language must be conveying that truth and goodness. For Augustine, any time one reads scripture in a way that makes it seem false or unloving, one is misinterpreting.

In the centuries after Augustine, many writers will assert that certain texts must be assumed to reveal truth and goodness or beauty, and that it’s the reader’s responsibility to find a way to read them so. Dante said that his readers must determine not only The Divine Comedy’s literal sense, but also its allegorical, moral, or anagogical sense8; Sir Philip Sidney said that that the reader who “cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry” must have “so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry9; Samuel Taylor Coleridge demanded of his readers a “willing suspension of disbelief”10 if they were to understand his poetry’s deeper meanings. By the time we get to the twentieth century, Picasso’s claim that “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth23 is a commonplace.

I repeat, then: When Trump’s followers interpret his speech as “authentic,” or term him a “non-politician,” or claim that his lies are “taken out of context” and that he is a “victim” of an adversarial media, they are not concluding this by way of inferences from his discourse. Instead, before he ever speaks or tweets, they have elevated him to the rank of a speaker who does not or cannot lie—much like a Socrates, a Jesus, a Shakespeare, or Forrest Gump. By doing so they elevate his words to the realm of transcendental irony, and when he speaks or tweets, they interpret his political speech using the “rules of the game” familiar to them from some other, inappropriate, genre.

So, essentially, to claim as I do that Trump speaks falsehoods and gibberish and not ironic truths is to claim that those who believe him are making a genre mistake. A grave, terrible mistake having profound consequences for us all. It’s a mistake I don’t know how to correct, because when we point out to Trump’s followers that his claims are lies, we simply give them further proof that we don’t “get it” at all.

Nothing, it appears, can disillusion Trump’s followers of his “integrity.” More frightening is that Trump may be able to expand his base, even though currently it seems to be shrinking.26 This is because Trump’s success depends upon having followers who read his lies figuratively in relation to an apocalyptic vision they already accept, and it is possible that many of Trump’s actions are preparing those who do not now accept it to do so. A global attitude shift like that required for transcendental irony is a kind of conversion. Like Augustine’s religious conversion, any conversion must occur before one receives the ability to see coherence in what one once saw as incoherence. As I once argued, the conversion process requires converts to shift their attention from one set of objects and relations to another set of objects and relations.11 And as I also argued, such radical shifts, although they happen, as it were, all at once, require an enormous amount of preparatory work. “Language” alone cannot induce conversion because the relations that comprise the new ethical field emerge only through prior interactions, or “practice,” and the convert must apprehend these relations before signs can indicate them. This is why, for instance, Protestant theologians describe, often quite extensively, the preparatory work, the prior Christian practice, necessary to bring a “sinner” to the moment of conversion. . . . 12

The “preparatory work” in Trump’s case is usually referred to in the press as “the normalization of Trump.”13 Through his incessant barrage of insults, lies, and undecipherable tweets; his rapid pace of destructive executive orders; his systematic criminalization of the innocent; and his open racism and misogyny, we are becoming indoctrinated to a “new normal.” Step-by-step our world comes closer to the “deep story” Hochschild describes. We must recognize, however, that this “preparatory work” had begun long before Trump, after 9/11. With the security measures at airports, fears of the foreign and the different were legitimized as we submitted subserviently to pat-downs and baggage checks in the name of national security. Today, the “wall,” the “Muslim ban,” the separation of children from the immigrant parents, and even tariffs against Canada are being accepted in the name of “national security.”14 Such words and actions may now seem to most citizens random and aberrant marks and smudges on the picture of our national scene, but with enough persistence and repetition, Trump’s White House will make it inevitable that more will come to see the anomalous background as the nation’s expected foreground. Through his gibberish and persistent lies and through his dismantling of regulations, pardoning of the guilty, quarreling with allies, and colluding with enemies, Trump is “proving” that our government isn’t what we thought it was, that it doesn’t work, that our perception of the relationships among the branches of government has been wrong-headed. As with Jastrow’s famous duck-rabbit sketch15, for some—especially those who never had a clear vision of what a duck is—what they once loved as a democratic duck they may come to love as an authoritarian rabbit, and when that happens rational arguments about whether the duck is a mallard or a canvasback (read Democratic or Republican) will seem utter nonsense. In other words, as the dismantling of America continues, some may come to believe that, if the rest of us would only perceive America rightly, we would see that, ironically, America is really and always has been an authoritarian rabbit. For Trump’s “base,” this is Trump’s transcendental “alt-truth.”

One Comment

  1. Henry Sussman
    December 3, 2018

    In this post, Stephen Yarbrough, drawing on the likes of Plato, St. Augustine, Sir Philip Sidney, and Friedrich Schlegel, debunks the acceptance of Donald Trump’s persistent prevarication by his followers. Appealing to “plain speech” or Socratic irony simply doesn’t pass the muster of justifying the liberties that Mr. Trump takes with either the facts or the truth.