118. Trump and Nietzsche: Alternative Facts, Power, and Tyranny

Sometime between 1883 and 1888 the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made a startling observation: “No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations.” This view, which Nietzsche called perspectivism, has recently found an unparalleled analogue in American politics.

For example, on November 30, 2016 Trump’s surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes said this on The Diane Rhem Show: “And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” Nietzsche would be pleased.

And on January 22, 2017 Kellyanne Conway told Chuck Todd that press secretary Sean Spicer, rather than speaking a verifiable falsehood about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd, gave an “alternative fact”. With the label alternative fact one can magically transform something traditionally construed as false into a fact from a certain perspective. But this is just a misleading way of saying that facts, those states of affairs that exist independent of our perspectives that make our assertions true, have been removed leaving just interpretations. Again, Nietzsche would be pleased.

Trump himself has continued this assault on facts with a well-documented and astonishing output of groundless claims, lies, and attacks on the media as “fake news”. This output has contributed to what many are calling a “post-truth” political climate which asks, with an April 2017 Time cover, “Is Truth Dead?”

Now Nietzsche’s perspectivism is connected to his view that all our activities are determined by the will to power which is “a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm.” In such a world, every activity is a front for power. This theme of power, and the arbitrary abuse of it, has also been a central concern since Trump took office. I think Nietzsche’s related ideas shed light on how Trump’s power plays are related to his assault on facts.

We can see how if we return to Spicer’s comments about the inauguration. Spicer claimed the photos were “intentionally framed” to prevent viewers from seeing the size of the crowd. He attempted to brush aside the facts by telling us a will to power story: the so-called facts were nothing but fabricated perspectives of the left to gain power. The more Trump can convince people that truth claims are really power plays, the more he can succeed in establishing perspectivism or alternate facts. In doing so, he can hope to remove the constraints truth imposes on his power plays.

There is, however, a self-defeating logic that plagues both perspectivism and the will to power. If Nietzsche claims there are no facts then we can ask whether his statement that there are no facts itself represents a fact. If it does represent a fact then his claim that there are no facts is false. If it does not represent a fact then it is also false. And Nietzsche’s assertion that “This world is the will to power – and nothing besides!” would commit him to something besides power, namely, truth. After all, assertions are plausibly understood as truth claims that represent facts. Thus people who want to coherently deny facts must be selective in their denial. Ideally, team Trump would appear to care about the facts while the liberal media is “fake news”. The problem is that his efforts to reduce criticism to power are typically, like Spicer’s attempt, themselves transparent efforts to gain power. Thus Trump’s own team can’t escape his critique. As a result, plenty of Americans are aware of his machinations and his disapproval ratings continue to grow.

Yet recent polls have also shown that over 90% of Trump supporters have very few regrets and would vote for him again. This is not surprising given the substantial success of his fake news propaganda campaign. But it is disturbing when we realize that would-be tyrants must, as Robert Reich nicely put it, “Tell the public big lies, causing them to doubt the truth and to believe fictions that support the tyrants’ goals”. Here I am reminded of Plato’s prophetic comment in The Republic: “The tyrant and his comrades will be maintained by the common people which gave him birth.”

Luckily for us Truth is not dead. It can’t die because it is eternal. What can die is our democracy which thrives not on dogmatic allegiances and power but on shared inquiry into the facts. Without such inquiry tyrannical tendencies are a real threat. Now we might, given the public’s vigilance so far, conclude that it is unlikely a tyranny would be established. But that is what people who have experienced tyranny have typically said prior to being oppressed. So, in the meantime, we must stay vigilant and do our best to discover, articulate, share, and rationally defend the facts to ourselves and others. This will be difficult. After all, Nietzsche’s perspectivism contains an important grain of truth: we do always know from a perspective and every perspective is limited (including this post to be sure). Such limitations are not only spatial and temporal; they are also psychological, cultural, economic, political, sexual, racial, etc. But such limitations, rather than leading to a post-truth world, should encourage us to embrace our fallibility: we should realize that all our justifications for our truth claims can be mistaken. And this realization, as J. S. Mill argued in his classic book On Liberty, gives us a powerful reason to engage in shared inquiry rather than to avoid it: if we are fallible then those with whom we disagree may have the truth or a portion of it. To deny this, as Mill observed, “is to assume our own infallibility”. Thus it is desirable to, on the one hand, engage in open-minded inquiry with others and, on the other hand, support institutions that facilitate the free exchange of ideas. The more we do so, the more Truth has a chance to prevail over Power.

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