This past weekend, Rudy Giuliani offered the opinion that, “the truth isn’t truth”. The mayor-turned-epistemologist was barely out of the NBC studio before his comment had produced several smug and unambitious takes on our “post-truth” era, including that from the Washington Post declaring this “is the Trump era’s epitaph”. Well, sure. But, this all depends on what your definition of “is” is, and just how it has previously functioned to kill the truth in US political life.
If you ask me, truth was devastated by the policy class long before Bill Clinton took the verb “To be” out for a stroll in its best blue dress twenty years ago last Friday. If you ask a majority of persons in western liberal democracies, they will likely say the same. Australian surveys consistently demonstrate that Australian voters wouldn’t trust a politician to lie straight in bed. Respondents interviewed in other OECD nations tend to say the same. Not that one needs a discussion paper to sniff what’s in front of our noses: conventional politics is dying along with the truth it has poisoned.
Local commentators often claim that what the local electorate truly craves is a return to some sort of sensible middle-ground. Waleed Aly has made the claim not only that left or right politics have now shed their meaning but they have “almost never been meaningful terms”. Tracey Spicer, apparently unaware of the failure of Third Way politics, predicts the emergence of “a radical centre”. Like their US counterparts, these writers believe in a truth that voters of the west are clearly beginning to reject.
You can hold for all you wish that political consensus can be true, or even useful, and you can say that it is possible to embrace left and right at once. What you cannot do is ignore the rise throughout Europe of actually fascist populism and almost socialist figures.
The “truth” with which an Aly or a Spicer or a US commentator decrying its disappearance holds is not evident to all. Yes, of course it is funny when Kellyanne Conway says that there are “alternative facts” and let us chortle as Giuliani strives to explain what is (let’s be honest) a pretty ordinary example of lawyer talk. What is not, in my view, funny is the abundant failure of media workers to see that “truth” is not even a question for many of us, these days. We simply accept that it has been stifled by decades of bullshit, if it ever was valued in the first place by the policy class at all.
It’s true that a nativist of the Trump sort makes openly untruthful claims. That our largely centrist media class cannot see that he is known, even by people who vote for him, as a bullshit artist confuses me no end. With “truth isn’t truth”, Giuliani accidentally offers an account of the present—one, again, in which very large numbers of people across the west have rejected the “radical centre” that never was. We know that the policy class is overwhelmingly peopled by liars and bullshitters. It should be no surprise that many prefer the latter category.
Your Aly-type is, in my view, a more refined type of “truther”. Sure, he and Spicer are not arguing that this magnet can cure your lumbar pain. They are, however, arguing for a hope just as imaginary: that everyday people see and respect the “truth”, as they do.
To claim in the context of political commentary that one has access to the “truth” is a falsehood. Aly or Spicer or the Washington Post hold that a market-friendly form of economic management should continue. They hold that it is true that one can maintain “respectful debate” against this background of neoliberal policy and no social movement will arise to contest it. They hold that it is true that Trump is an architect of a post-truth age and not its dutiful worker.
Truth is no longer truth and in knowing this, many voters chose a bullshit artist over a liar. A bullshit artist, at least, has a stable relationship with the truth: they ignore it.
This is not to claim a preference for nativist bullshit over polite lies. If I am honest with myself, I’d prefer the polite lies and brutal policy of Malcolm Turnbull to the vulgar “honesty” and identically brutal policy of Dutton. It is to say that, geez, people aren’t as truly thick as the refined truther truly believes.
For decades, we have heard from technocrats who have told us to believe that enterprise bargaining, privatisation, diminished social services and an unregulated finance sector will bring us “growth”. Now, we have newspaper columns who insist the same. They do not concede that their views come from ideology, but, like every ideologue, proclaim them to be true. Perhaps the truthers honestly believe their truth. Then again, maybe Dutton, Trump and all the garish showmen of the nativist right do too.
Either way, “truth” in politics is now as conceivable as faith in democracy. It’s not coming back. And when someone, even a fool, says “truth isn’t truth”, he tells a truth.