“Napoleon Is Always Right”: Trump, Truth, and the Origins of Totalitarianism

“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… 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.” —Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Let’s start with an absolutely unoriginal observation: Donald Trump started his presidency by contesting two easily verifiable facts with absolutely no evidence and for no apparent reason. First, he asserted, without a shred of support, that he only lost the popular vote because three million aliens voted illegally. Then (also without even referring to any evidence) he rejected media estimates of the crowd at his inauguration and tried to compel the National Park Service to issue a different number.

In just asserting things with no support, Trump is not making an argument; he is barely even lying. He is, rather, mounting a frontal assault on  he very nature of truth.
Michael Austin
Most people were either annoyed or amused by the fact that Trump became the first politician in history to contest an election that he had won. He became the subject of social media ridicule for the week, and the phrase “alternate facts” appears to have entered the lexicon as a fancy political way to talk about lying. And all politicians lie, of course, so what’s the big deal?

This levity, I think, is a mistake. It assumes that we are dealing with a garden variety of political dishonesty. But we aren’t. Politicians usually lie for specific reasons, to advance an agenda or avoid taking responsibility for something. They offer evidence in defense of their lies, and they expect to be believed.

What strikes me as so insidious about Trump’s inaugural dishonesty is that none of this is the case. He is not actually making arguments about what is true or not true. By definition, an argument is an assertion followed by some kind of support. In just asserting things with no support, Trump is not making an argument; he is barely even lying. He is, rather, mounting a frontal assault on the very nature of truth.

Most of Trump’s easily falsifiable assertions come with attacks on the methods by which assertions can be falsified. Reporters are dishonest liars, scientists are ignorant and biased, historians are untrustworthy liberals, the CIA is incompetent, and so on. When every possible source of disproof has been delegitimized, then all that we have left is an assertion justified by the fact that a very powerful person has made it. It is power, rather than evidence, that proves the statement true.

So let’s talk about totalitarianism, a political model that begins and ends with what very powerful people say and do. In a totalitarian state, only one thing matters. Every important question–about what is right and wrong, good and evil, true and false—is decided by the exercise of power, which, in the end, must prove only that it is powerful. Nothing is more important to the totalitarian state than the ability to declare something true with no other evidence than the fact that it has done so.

We aren’t there yet. But we are getting perilously close. This has become increasingly clear in the debates now surrounding the Trump Administration’s travel ban on current visa holders from seven Muslim countries. We need the ban, the administration assures us, because the current vetting process that grants visas in these countries is broken and allows bad people into our country.

And all of this has been asserted without the slightest bit of evidence that the current vetting processes are broken. Not only have Trump and Bannon declined to support the claim upon which the entire ban is based—they have marshaled the coercive powers of the state to attack those who disagree with either the need for, or the legality of, the ban. The record is plain:

  • Before even taking office, Trump called the CIA and the FBI (who might normally be expected to have something to say about current vetting processes) incompetent when they uncovered evidence of Russian interference in his election. Neither appears to have been consulted about the ban.
  • When the Secretary of Homeland Security exempted current green-card holders from the ban, Steve Bannon showed up in his office to demand that he reverse his decision, not because Bannon had evidence of any danger posed by current green-card holders, or even any authority to make the request, but because he had power.
  • When the attorney general refused to defend the order because she believed it to be illegal, Trump fired her.
  • When 1000 State Department Employees (the people who actually do the vetting for Visas) condemned the order, administration officials told them to fall in line or look elsewhere for a job.
  • When a Federal judge stayed the travel ban because of serious questions about its constitutionality, Trump took to Twitter to call him a “so-called judge” and to complain about the fact that the United States still operates under a separation of powers doctrine.

And through all of this, nobody—not Congress, not the Department of Homeland Security, not the intelligence community, and certainly not the American people—has been presented with one scrap of evidence that the vetting processes already in place in these countries are not working or that anybody let into the country with a valid visa poses a danger to citizens of the United States. The only support for this assertion that we have seen is the fact that it has been asserted, combined with an exhibit of negative consequences for those who decline to agree that it is true.

These are the first steps towards a place that none of us should ever want to go.