Compulsive liars shouldn’t frighten you. They can harm no one, if no one listens to them. Compulsive believers, on the other hand: they should terrify you. Believers are the liars’ enablers. Their votes give the demagogue his power. Their trust turns the charlatan into the president. Their credulity ensures that the propaganda of half-calculating and half-mad fanatics has the power to change the world.
How you see the believers determines how you fight them and seek to protect liberal society from its enemies. And I don’t just mean how you fight that object of liberal despair and conservative fantasies, the alternately despised and patronised white working class. Compulsive believers are not just rednecks. They include figures as elevated as the British prime minister and her cabinet. Before the EU referendum, a May administration would have responded to the hitherto unthinkable arrival of a US president who threatened Nato and indulged Putin by hugging Britain’s European allies close. But Brexit has thrown Britain’s European alliance into crisis. So English Conservative politicians must crush their doubts and believe with a desperate compulsion that the alleged “pragmatism” of Donald Trump will triumph over his undoubted extremism, a belief that to date has as much basis in fact as creationism.
Mainstream journalists are almost as credulous. After decades of imitating Jeremy Paxman and seizing on the trivial gaffes and small lies of largely harmless politicians, they are unable to cope with the fantastic lies of the new authoritarian movements. When confronted with men who lie so instinctively they believe their lies as they tell them, they can only insist on a fair hearing for the sake of “balance”. Their acceptance signals to the audience the unbelievable is worthy of belief.
“Rednecks” are also embarrassingly evident among Britain’s expensively educated conservative commentators, who cannot see how the world has changed. They say that of course they don’t support everything Trump does. Their throats cleared and backs covered, they insist that the real enemy is his “foaming” and “hysterical” critics whose opposition to the alt-right is not a legitimate protest by democratic citizens but an “elitist” denial of democracy itself.
Brecht wrote against the dangers of inertia in 1935 as Hitler was changing Germany beyond recognition :
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
As their old world is engulfed now, the sluggish reflexes and limited minds of too many conservatives compel them to cry out against liberal hypocrisy, as if it were all that mattered. There is more than enough hypocrisy to go round. I must confess to wondering about the sincerity of those who protest against the collective punishment of Trump’s ban on visitors from Muslim countries but remain silent when Arab countries deny all Israeli Jews admission. I too would like to know why there was so little protest when Obama gave Iran funds to spend on the devastation of Syria. But the greatest hypocrisy is always to divert attention from what is staring you in the face today and may be kicking you in the teeth tomorrow.
The temptation to think it a new totalitarianism is too strong for many to resist. Despite readers reaching for Hannah Arendt and George Orwell, strictly speaking, the comparison with fascism and communism isn’t true. When I floated it with the great historian of Nazism, Sir Richard Evans, he almost sighed. It’s not just that there aren’t the death camps and torture chambers, he said. The street violence that brought fascists to power in Italy and Germany and the communists to power in Russia is absent today..
The 21st-century’s model for a strongman is a leader who makes opposition as hard as possible, as Orbán is trying to do in Hungary, but does not actually declare a dictatorship, for not even Putin has done that.
To my mind, that does not make comparisons with the past fruitless, particularly in the case of the nihilistic and voraciously aggressive Trump. There are very few new ideas in politics. Parallels always illuminate. Aristotle warned of the “intemperance of demagogues”. Thucydides had the strutting Athenians sneer at the vanquished Melians that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Both the warning and the threat from classical Greece are as contemporary as ever. Hannah Arendt described leaders who knew their followers would “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”. She was describing Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. But her words apply as well to today’s Trump supporters, who gulp down incredible falsehoods and then dismiss the “crooked media” when the stories collapse.
We are not reliving the 20th century, for how could we? Rather, ideas from the past have melted and reformed into a postmodern fascistic style; a fascism with a wink in its eye and a bad-boy smirk on its face.
Conventional politicians and commentators are stranded because they were wholly unprepared for the new breed of leader who lies as a matter of policy as well as a matter of course. They are flailing around, and inventing phrases like “fake news” and “post-truth politics” to capture a state of affairs they think is entirely novel. Instead of saying that we are seeing something new, it is better to accept that something old and malignant has returned like foul water bubbling up from a drain.
Comparisons with 20th-century totalitarianism are not wholly exaggerated. With Trump, the lies are a dictatorial assertion of his will to power. “I am in control,” he says, in effect, as he conjures imaginary crowds at his inauguration or invents millions of illegal voters so he can pretend he won the popular vote. “You may know I am lying. But if you contradict me, I will make you pay.”
No one in the west has seen Trump’s kind of triumph in politics since the age of the dictators. But look around your workplace and perhaps you won’t be so surprised by their victories. If you are unlucky, you will see an authoritarian standing over you. The radical economist Chris Dillow once wrote that, while the fall of communism discredited the centrally planned economy, the centrally planned corporation, with the autocratic leader who tolerated no dissent, not only survived 1989, but blossomed.
Dillow is not alone in worrying about the harm the little Hitlers of the corporation might bring. Since the crash, economists have looked as a matter of urgency at how hierarchies encourage petty tyrants to brag their way to the top. They exhibit all the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder: a desire to dominate, overconfidence, a sense of entitlement, an inability to listen to others or allow others to speak and a passion for glory. If you want to know how they can win the votes of those around them, remember Fred Goodwin’s vainglorious decision to takeover ABN Amro. Perhaps the single worst decision in UK business history, whose consequences we are still paying for, was not opposed by a single member of the RBS board.
Narcissists in business are more likely to seek macho takeovers and less likely to engage in the hard work of innovating and creating profitable firms, the researchers found. They are more likely to cook the books to feed their cults of the personality and make, if not America, then themselves look great again. Academics from the University of California have asked the obvious question: why would rational companies let the fascism of the firm survive? Surely they ought to be protecting their businesses, as free market theory dictates, rather than allow dangerous and grasping men and women to risk their destruction.
They found what most of us instinctively know to be true: in the right circumstances, compulsive liars can create compulsive believers, as Trump has done. “Overconfident individuals attained status” because their peers believed the stories they told about themselves. It should not be a surprise that Donald Trump, Arron Banks and oligarchs backing the Russian and east European strongmen come from business. The age of the dictators never came to an end in the workplace.
Long before anyone worried about the death of truth, Trump was showing that he might have based his career on the Don DeLillo character in Underworld, who says: “Some people fake their death, I’m faking my life.” (A motto that applies as well to Boris Johnson.) Of all his lies, none to my mind is more revelatory or more ominous for the future than the lies he told when people assumed he was just another loudmouthed tycoon.
In 1989, a white investment banker called Trisha Meili was horribly beaten and raped in New York’s Central Park. She had lost three-quarters of her blood and gone into a coma by the time the police found her. The authorities arrested five juveniles, four black and one Hispanic. In one of his first moves from business into politics, Trump said death was the only punishment they deserved. He took out adverts in the New York press declaring: “Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancour should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”
Trump dealt with the accusations of racist scaremongering by rehearsing a self-pitying line that would serve him well in the future. Whites were the true underprivileged in American society, he told NBC television. “A well-educated black enjoys tremendous advantages over a well-educated white in terms of the job market. If I were starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black.”
You may oppose the death penalty. You may find Trump’s language reeked of the Munich beer hall. Cynical New Yorkers noted at the time that Trump was feuding with city bosses over tax abatements for his developments and was using the rape to attack a mayor who had damned him as “greedy”. For all that, you could think that this was still a legitimate response to a foul crime.
But mark the sequel. In 2002, a career criminal admitted to the rape and DNA evidence proved he was telling the truth. The police, it turned out, had forced confessions from their teenage suspects. The boys, now men, were released. But Trump refused to concede an inch of ground. He would not accept new evidence had put him in the wrong and the five were innocent. Even in 2014, when New York finally reached a compensation settlement with the victims of police abuse, Trump was still insisting that “settling doesn’t mean innocence” and the taxpayers of New York had been fleeced.
“It shows his character,” said Raymond Santana, one of the five Trump had smeared. So it does and, after that, nothing should surprise you. Connoisseurs of Don DeLillo’s American underworld will learn all they need to know about his character when they hear that Trump’s first lawyer was Roy Cohn, a grotesque figure from the McCarthy era of the 1950s. He persecuted real and imagined gays in public life who he claimed could be blackmailed. As so often with obsessive homophobes, Cohn gave every appearance of being a closet case and died of Aids in 1986. Before denying the human race the pleasure of his company, however, Cohn taught the young Trump to always attack and never conciliate. Whether Trump needed teaching is open to doubt.
This vision of life as a perpetual war you see so clearly in the Trisha Meili case is authentically totalitarian. Truth, reason, evidence, decency must all be sacrificed to the greater good of keeping the strongman looking strong. The weapons 21st-century technology provide for political warfare make me doubt that stopping Trump and his imitators will be easy. Just as Britain’s isolated Brexit government has no choice but to compulsively believe that Trump’s pragmatism will overwhelm his extremism, so Americans must hope that the checks and balances of the constitution will cage him. No one can see the future and both may be right. But, as I said, there is no evidence that they are. One reason for pessimism is that Trump’s character may make him worthless as a man but a success as a politician in our time of cyber-charlatanism.
After Trump’s victory, Hillary Clinton’s aide Ronald A Klain reflected with understandable shock on an election his candidate should never have lost. Trump tore up the rules of politics, Klain said, but still finished in the White House. The old wisdom was to apologise if you were in the wrong and move the conversation on with as much speed as you could manage. “If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” Ronald Reagan said, as he stated the commonsensical proposition that politicians should not dwell on their embarrassments.
But Trump understood that Twitter, Facebook and 24/7 news had changed the world. The modern chancer needed to stay with the scandal and arm his supporters with instant explanations. The Trump campaign would not apologise. When caught in a scandal, it doubled down within minutes. It knew its supporters wouldn’t care if the experts they despised as thoroughly as Michael Gove dismissed Trump’s explanations for refusing to release his tax returns or feminists said his advocacy of sexual assaults was something more than “locker-room talk”. “The point is,” Klain said, “Trump supporters were armed with an explanation that they accepted and could use to defend their candidate” on social media.
The same need to instil a party line and protect his supporters from reasonable doubt leads Trump and his sidekicks once again to imitate dictators and attack the whole of the free press. Not just opposition journalists, mark you, but the entire media. The reasoning is obvious. Every one of the many financial and political scandals Trump will surely generate will emerge in the media. Every media organisation must therefore be branded as lying and fake before they publish. Journalists need to learn, if they have not learned already, that no accommodation is possible with the alt-right because its ideology and tactics preclude it from wanting an accommodation. You cannot “balance” or appease such people – you can only expose them.
Unless Twitter bans him, which it should if Trump incites violence, the same tactics can be used against politicians. Republican legislators will think hard about exercising their constitutional right to check a president if they know that Trump can use social media to provoke their supporters back home to denounce and harry them.
I am sorry if I am being “hysterical”, but I cannot see how conservatives can argue in conscience that there is nothing monstrous about the 45th President of the United States. The Ku Klux Klan has endorsed him. He has brought Steve Bannon, a true postmodern fascist, to the centre of power. Bannon exemplifies the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s sinister ideal of a political leader who unites his supporters by creating enemies for them to hate. Bannon and the alt-right have made Islam – not al-Qaeda, Islamic State, or the Shia theocrats in Tehran but all Muslims – their enemy of choice. They unite their supporters on racial lines against blacks, Jews and Latinos too. As a former journalist on his Breitbart site explained, Bannon believes “in a nutshell that western culture is inseparable from European ethnicity”.
Nor, and even when all due deference has been paid to the learned objections of Richard Evans and other historians, is it a sign of hysteria to say that western democracies are seeing an increase in the indulgence of political violence that echoes the 1930s. Once, the apologetics were confined to the worst elements in the liberal-left. In the last decade, I could feel the thrill of satisfaction as they decided that the latest terrorist massacre was a just and righteous punishment for the wars of Tony Blair and George W Bush.
As late as 2015, an article for Jeremy Corbyn’s Stop the War was saying that the slaughter of civilians in Paris was “the result of deliberate policies and actions undertaken by the United States and its allies”, while the National Union of Students was deciding that it would be “Islamophobic” to criticise Islamic State. (A genuinely racist notion, incidentally, that implies, Bannon-style, that all followers of Islam welcome the mass murder of unbelievers and the sexual enslavement of captured women.)
Just as the far-left has moved from the fringe to take over the once mainstream British Labour party, so the far-right has moved in to take over America’s Republicans. Violence and fear are its fellow travellers. Look at Trump telling his supporters to “knock the crap” out of protesters at his rallies, or at the contempt with which the Daily Mail greeted the verdict and sentencing handed to the murderer of Jo Cox, or the loathing with which Nigel Farage treated her widower. Try, then, to put yourself in the place of a black or Muslim American and imagine how they feel about what is to come.
There are few reasons to be cheerful. But amid the despair, I hope I am not being naive in sensing new forces stirring and the will to fight back hardening. We are now at the beginnings of a new opposition movement, a liberal version of backlash politics, which feels the urgent need to drive the right from power.
It could all go wrong. Trump, Bannon, Farage and the Tory right want to polarise societies. They can look to the example of Bashar al-Assad and see a path to victory. The dictator won by shooting down the peaceful demonstrators of the Arab Spring and targeting moderate forces in the civil war that followed. By the time he was finished, there was no middle ground left. Assad could turn to the brutalised survivors and say: “See, it’s either me or Islamic State now. That’s your only choice. What’s it going to be?”
Understand the logic of polarisation and you will understand that Trump wants a violent reaction. He wants to be able to tell white Americans that his opponents are “professional anarchists”, as he said last week. He wants liberals to treat all his supporters as if they are as debased as he is. He can then turn to his base and say liberals hate them because they are white; that they see them as nothing more than stupid, deplorable bigots. Force me from power, he will conclude, and these hate-filled enemies will come for you and give the “tremendous advantages” he was pretending blacks enjoyed in the 1980s to their favoured minorities.
The alternative, and not only in America, is to go back to the despised and patronised working-class followers of the right. You should try to win them over in elections rather than march with the already converted at rallies. You should cordon off the true racists and fascists and listen to and argue with the rest with a modicum of respect. If that can happen, then perhaps the world will learn that the best way to end the power of compulsive liars is to break the compulsion of their followers to believe.