Read an Excerpt: THE DEATH OF TRUTH by Michiko Kakutani
About The Death of Truth
From Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michiko Kakutani comes an impassioned critique of America’s retreat from reason
We live in a time when the very idea of objective truth is mocked and discounted by the occupants of the White House. Discredited conspiracy theories and ideologies have resurfaced, proven science is once more up for debate, and Russian propaganda floods our screens. The wisdom of the crowd has usurped research and expertise, and we are each left clinging to the beliefs that best confirm our biases.
How did truth become an endangered species in contemporary America? This decline began decades ago, and in The Death of Truth, former New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani takes a penetrating look at the cultural forces that contributed to this gathering storm. In social media and literature, television, academia, and politics, Kakutani identifies the trends—originating on both the right and the left—that have combined to elevate subjectivity over factuality, science, and common values. And she returns us to the words of the great critics of authoritarianism, writers like George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, whose work is newly and eerily relevant.
With remarkable erudition and insight, Kakutani offers a provocative diagnosis of our current condition and points toward a new path for our truth-challenged times.
The Decline and Fall of Reason
This is an apple.
Some people might try to tell you that it’s a banana.
They might scream “Banana, banana, banana” over and over and over again.
They might put BANANA in all caps.
You might even start to believe that this is a banana.
But it’s not.
This is an apple.
—CNN commercial, showing a photograph of an apple
In his 1838 Lyceum Address, a young Abraham Lincoln spoke to his concern that as memories of the Revolution receded into the past, the nation’s liberty was threatened by a disregard for the government’s institutions, which protect the civil and religious liberties bequeathed by the founders. To preserve the rule of law and prevent the rise of a would-be tyrant who might “spring up amongst us,” sober reason—“cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason”—would be required. To remain “free to the last,” he exhorted his audience, reason must be embraced by the American people, along with “sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.”
As Lincoln well knew, the founders of America established the young republic on the Enlightenment principles of reason, liberty, progress, and religious tolerance. And the constitutional architecture they crafted was based on a rational system of checks and balances to guard against the possibility, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, of “a man unprincipled in private life” and “bold in his temper” one day arising who might “mount the hobby horse of popularity” and “flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day” in order to embarrass the government and “throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’ ”
The system was far from perfect, but it has endured for more than two centuries thanks to its resilience and capacity to accommodate essential change. Leaders like Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama viewed America as a work in progress—a country in the process of perfecting itself. And they tried to speed that work, mindful, in the words of Dr. King, that “progress is neither automatic nor inevitable” but requiring of continuous dedication and struggle. What had been achieved since the Civil War and the civil rights movement was a reminder of all the work yet to be done, but also a testament to President Obama’s faith that Americans “can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams,” and the Enlightenment faith in what George Washington called the great “experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
Alongside this optimistic vision of America as a nation that could become a shining “city upon a hill,” there’s also been a dark, irrational counter-theme in U.S. history, which has now reasserted itself with a vengeance—to the point where reason not only is being undermined but seems to have been tossed out the window, along with facts, informed debate, and deliberative policy making. Science is under attack, and so is expertise of every sort—be it expertise in foreign policy, national security, economics, or education.
Philip Roth called this counter-narrative “the indigenous American berserk,” and the historian Richard Hofstadter famously described it as “the paranoid style”—an outlook animated by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” and focused on perceived threats to “a nation, a culture, a way of life.” Hofstadter’s 1964 essay was spurred by Barry Goldwater’s campaign and the right-wing movement around it, just as his 1963 book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, was conceived in response to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious witch hunts and the larger political and social backdrop of the 1950s.
Goldwater lost his presidential bid, and McCarthyism burned itself out after a lawyer for the U.S. Army, Joseph Welch, had the courage to stand up to McCarthy. “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Welch asked. “Have you left no sense of decency?”
The venomous McCarthy, who hurled accusations of disloyalty throughout Washington (“the State Department harbors a nest of Communists and Communist sympathizers,” he warned President Truman in 1950), was rebuked by the Senate in 1954, and with the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik in 1957 the menacing anti-rationalism of the day began to recede, giving way to the space race and a concerted effort to improve the nation’s science programs.
Hofstadter observed that the paranoid style tends to occur in “episodic waves.” The anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party reached its height in 1855, with forty-three members of Congress openly avowing their allegiance. Its power quickly began to dissipate the following year, after the party split along sectional lines, though the intolerance it embodied would remain, like a virus, in the political system, waiting to reemerge.
In the case of the modern right wing, Hofstadter argued that it tended to be mobilized by a sense of grievance and dispossession. “America has been largely taken away from them,” he wrote, and they may feel that “they have no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions.”
In the case of millennial-era America (and much of western Europe, too), these were grievances exacerbated by changing demographics and changing social mores that had made some members of the white working class feel increasingly marginalized; by growing income inequalities accelerated by the financial crisis of 2008; and by forces like globalization and technology that were stealing manufacturing jobs and injecting daily life with a new uncertainty and angst.
Trump and nationalist, anti-immigrant leaders on the right in Europe like Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Matteo Salvini in Italy would inflame these feelings of fear and anger and disenfranchisement, offering scapegoats instead of solutions; while liberals and conservatives, worried about the rise of nativism and the politics of prejudice, warned that democratic institutions were coming under growing threat. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” written in 1919, amid the wreckage of World War I, experienced a huge revival in 2016—quoted, in news articles, more in the first half of that year than it had been in three decades as commentators of all political persuasions invoked its famous lines: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
The assault on truth and reason that reached fever pitch in America during the first year of the Trump presidency had been incubating for years on the fringe right. Clinton haters who were manufacturing nutty accusations about the death of Vince Foster in the 1990s and Tea Party paranoids who claimed that environmentalists wanted to control the temperature of your home and the color of cars you can buy hooked up, during the 2016 campaign, with Breitbart bloggers and alt-right trolls. And with Trump’s winning of the Republican nomination and the presidency, the extremist views of his most radical supporters—their racial and religious intolerance, their detestation of government, and their embrace of conspiracy thinking and misinformation—went mainstream.
According to a 2017 survey by The Washington Post, 47 percent of Republicans erroneously believe that Trump won the popular vote, 68 percent believe that millions of illegal immigrants voted in 2016, and more than half of Republicans say they would be okay with postponing the 2020 presidential election until such problems with illegal voting can be fixed. Another study conducted by political scientists at the University of Chicago showed that 25 percent of Americans believe that the 2008 crash was secretly orchestrated by a small cabal of bankers, 19 percent believe that the U.S. government had a hand in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and 11 percent even believe a theory made up by the researchers—that compact fluorescent lightbulbs were part of a government plot to make people more passive and easy to control.
Trump, who launched his political career by shamelessly promoting birtherism and who has spoken approvingly of the conspiracy theorist and shock jock Alex Jones, presided over an administration that became, in its first year, the very embodiment of anti-Enlightenment principles, repudiating the values of rationalism, tolerance, and empiricism in both its policies and its modus operandi—a reflection of the commander in chief’s erratic, impulsive decision-making style based not on knowledge but on instinct, whim, and preconceived (and often delusional) notions of how the world operates.
Trump made no effort to rectify his ignorance of domestic and foreign policy when he moved into the White House. His former chief strategist Stephen Bannon has said that Trump only “reads to reinforce”; and the president has remained determined to deny, diminish, or downplay intelligence concerning Russian interference in the 2016 election. Because such mentions tend to draw his ire and can disrupt his intelligence briefings, officials told The Washington Post that they sometimes included this material only in written versions of the president’s daily brief, which he reportedly rarely if ever reads.
Instead, the president seems to prefer getting his information from Fox News—in particular, the sycophantic morning show Fox & Friends—and from sources like Breitbart News and the National Enquirer. He reportedly spends as much as eight hours a day watching television—a habit that could not help but remind many readers of Chauncey Gardiner, the TV-addicted gardener who becomes a celebrity and rising political star in Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novel, Being There. Vice News also reported that Trump received a folder, twice a day, filled with flattering clips including “admiring tweets, transcripts of fawning TV interviews, praise-filled news stories, and sometimes just pictures of Trump on TV looking powerful.”
Such absurd details are unnerving rather than merely comical because this is not simply a Twilight Zone case of one fantasist living in a big white house in Washington, D.C. Trump’s proclivity for chaos has not been contained by those around him but has instead infected his entire administration. He asserts that “I’m the only one that matters” when it comes to policy making, and given his disdain for institutional knowledge he frequently ignores the advice of cabinet members and agencies, when he isn’t cutting them out of the loop entirely.
Ironically, the dysfunction that these habits fuel tends to ratify his supporters’ mistrust of Washington (one of the main reasons they voted for Trump in the first place), creating a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, which, in turn, breeds further cynicism and a reluctance to participate in the political process. A growing number of voters feel there is a gross disconnect between their views and government policies. Commonsense policies like mandatory background checks for gun purchases, supported by more than nine out of ten Americans, have been stymied by Congress, which is filled with members who rely on donations from the NRA. Eighty-seven percent of Americans said in a 2018 poll that they believe Dreamers should be allowed to stay in the States, and yet DACA has remained a political football. And 83 percent of Americans (including 75 percent of Republicans) say they support net neutrality, which was overturned by Trump’s FCC.
The declining role of rational discourse—and the diminished role of common sense and fact-based policy—hardly started with Donald J. Trump. Rather, he represents the culmination of trends diagnosed in prescient books by Al Gore, Farhad Manjoo, and Susan Jacoby, published nearly a decade before he took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Among the causes of this decline, Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason) cited an “addiction to infotainment,” the continuing strength of religious fundamentalism, “the popular equation of intellectualism with a liberalism supposedly at odds with traditional American values,” and an education system that “does a poor job of teaching not only basic skills but the logic underlying those skills.”
As for Gore (The Assault on Reason), he underscored the ailing condition of America as a participatory democracy (low voter turnout, an ill-informed electorate, campaigns dominated by money, and media manipulation) and “the persistent and sustained reliance on falsehoods as the basis of policy, even in the face of massive and well-understood evidence to the contrary.”
At the forefront of Gore’s thinking was the Bush administration’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq and its cynical selling of that war to the public, distorting “America’s political reality by creating a new fear of Iraq that was hugely disproportionate to the actual danger” posed by a country that did not attack the United States on 9/11 and lacked the terrifying weapons of mass destruction that administration hawks scared Americans into thinking it possessed.
Indeed, the Iraq war remains a lesson in the calamities that can result when momentous decisions that affect the entire world are not made through a rational policy-making process and the judicious weighing of information and expert analysis, but are instead fueled by ideological certainty and the cherry picking of intelligence to support preconceived idées fixes.
From the start, administration hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pressed for “forward-leaning” intelligence that would help make the case for war. A shadowy operation called the Office of Special Plans was even set up at the Defense Department; its mission, according to a Pentagon adviser quoted by Seymour M. Hersh in The New Yorker, was to find evidence of what Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz already believed to be true—that Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaeda and that Iraq possessed a huge arsenal of biological, chemical, and possibly nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, planning for the war on the ground ignored sober warnings from experts, like the army chief of staff, Eric K. Shinseki, who testified that postwar Iraq would require “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers.” His recommendation was quickly shot down, as were reports from the Rand Corporation and the Army War College, both of which also warned that postwar security and reconstruction in Iraq would require a large number of troops for an extended period of time. These assessments went unheeded—with fateful consequences—because they did not mesh with the administration’s willfully optimistic promises that the Iraqi people would welcome American troops as liberators and that resistance on the ground would be limited. “A cakewalk,” as one Rumsfeld ally put it.
The failure to send enough troops to secure the country and restore law and order; the sidelining of the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project (because of tensions with the Pentagon); the ad hoc decisions to dissolve the Iraqi army and to ban all senior members of the Baath Party: such disastrous and avoidable screwups resulted in a bungled American occupation that one soldier, assigned to the Coalition Provisional Authority, memorably described as “pasting feathers together, hoping for a duck.” In fact, the Iraq war would prove to be one of the young century’s most catastrophic events, exploding the geopolitics of the region and giving birth to ISIS and a still unspooling set of disasters for the people of Iraq, the region, and the world.
Although Trump frequently criticized the decision to invade Iraq during the 2016 campaign, his White House has learned nothing from the Bush administration’s handling of that unnecessary and tragic war. Instead, it has doubled down on reverse-engineered policy making and the repudiation of experts.
For instance, the State Department has been hollowed out as a result of Steve Bannon’s vow to fight for the “deconstruction of the administrative state” and the White House’s suspicion of “deep state” professionals. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a thirty-six-year-old real-estate developer with no government experience, was handed the Middle East portfolio, while the shrinking State Department was increasingly sidelined. Many important positions stood unfilled at the end of Trump’s first year in office. This was partly because of downsizing and dereliction of duty, partly because of a reluctance to appoint diplomats who expressed reservations about the president’s policies (as in the case of the crucial role of ambassador to South Korea), and partly because of the exodus of foreign service talent from an agency that, under new management, no longer valued their skills at diplomacy, policy knowledge, or experience in far-flung regions of the world. Combined with Trump’s subversion of longtime alliances and trade accords and his steady undermining of democratic ideals, the carelessness with which his administration treated foreign policy led to world confidence in U.S. leadership plummeting in 2017 to a new low of 30 percent (below China and just above Russia), according to a Gallup poll.