There is a cold war going on in the world between those who believe that truth is important and those who don’t care if their leaders lie.
Donald Trump’s followers are examples of the latter, but their equivalents exist in all continents. The divide is very similar to that existing in political ideologies before the fall of the Berlin Wall and between religions where belonging to the tribe was more important than arguments in their favour.
‘Populism’ is a word used so often in so many situations and contexts that it ends up losing definition, like an old penny. However, I like the simple formula which a fellow English journalist coined. Populism, he wrote, is when voters are willing to listen to lies.
There are no shortage of examples, but the one we have most at hand this week is that of Donald Trump and the farce of his impeachment trial in the Senate. Although the President of the United States behaved like a mafia godfather with Ukraine, demanding electoral help in exchange for military aid, he was acquitted of all sin. As demonstrated by the recording of his conversation with the Ukrainian leader, not to mention so much other evidence, Trump made him an offer he could not refuse. He was Don Corleone with the bakery owner: you do me a favour or I deny you protection against your enemies – in this case – the Russians.
The trial was closed down in a blink. The Republican majority in the Senate made sure of this by prohibiting the presentation of evidence by witnesses alleging criminal activity by the president. There are also echoes here of the movie Godfather II in the trial against Michael Corleone when at the last moment the main witness is persuaded to shut his mouth.
When an exultant Trump reacted on Thursday denouncing ‘a witch hunt’ and describing the process of ‘impeachment’ as ‘bullshit’ – his devotees believed it. Or they wanted to believe it. They want to be lied to, and the proof of this is that at the beginning of the process in October the polls showed that Trump had the support of 39% of US citizens, and today he has 49%. Among Republican voters, the figure rises to 94%, a new record for him and six points more than a month ago.
Since a similar percentage of half the population that supports the Democratic party hates Trump, what is happening today in the political world of the United States (as in the United Kingdom, Spain and Argentina, limiting myself to countries where I have a special interest) is a cold civil war. They are not killing each other yet, but the chasm reminds us of the two great ideologies before the fall of the Berlin wall. And since ideologies are religions by other means, what we are talking about here is a secular variant of the old conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, and the permanent one between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Reason, or what we might call objective truth (if it exists outside of mathematics), does not come into play. For millions of Americans, Trump is a Messiah, an idea as old as ‘fake news’. To his faithful, he represents the chosen people, the pure against a Pharisaic elite. He is the redeeming figure that will defeat the enemies of authentic Americans, not the impostors who read the New York Times, hate guns, employ Mexican cleaning ladies, possess passports, travel to Europe, like to talk about wines, eat olives, hummus and croissants and drink coffee not in mugs but in small cups that are held with two fingers.
This species has a name in France, a country despicably effeminate in the imagination of the Trump fan. They call them (they call us) ‘idiots’: bourgeois bohemians. They represent for Trump voters the cosmopolitan cult that they both despise and fear. Trump has said he ‘loves’ those who have not received a good education, and they love him because his message is based not on the knowledge of despised ‘experts’ but on ignorance. That their commander in chief is ignorant is not a factor against him, it is a plus. He will lie and lie, and they will believe everything, happily, even if they are not entirely sure that he tells the truth.
The problem is not that people are confused. It doesn’t matter how irrefutable are the arguments against populist leaders, the most obvious example being Trump, because they do not have the slightest impact on the voting intentions of their hard core followers.
I am not the only scribbler who has solemnly stated more than once that today we need good journalism more than ever. But I wonder if I fool myself – if I lie – to myself. Good journalism, understood as honest journalism that seeks to stick to the truth, will not influence the blind faith of the Trump followers, a species that exists not only in the United States but on all continents. No matter how virtuous I might think I am by being on the ‘idiot’ side, that means that I belong to the enemy religion, and everything I say will be contaminated in their eyes.
A ‘super idiot’ died this week at age 90. His name was George Steiner and he was spectacularly scholarly, polyglot and bright. In one of his books he tells the little story of a rabbi who finds God sitting in a dark corner of a synagogue. The rabbi throws himself on the ground and asks, ‘Lord God, what are you doing here?’ God answers in a low voice, ‘I am tired, rabbi, tired to death.’ Steiner explains the parable like this: ‘God was becoming tired of the savagery of Man.’
It is likely that shortly before his death Steiner had suggested that God would also be tired of human stupidity. In his last published interview, Steiner said: ‘At this moment, first of all, I try to understand why the distance that separates me from modern irrationalism … from the dominant vulgarity, is growing … I think we are going through an increasingly difficult period.’ I hope he is wrong. My impulse is to answer that it was always like this, that since the time of Socrates writers like Steiner have come to the autumn of their lives consumed by the feeling that the world is going to pot. I suspect that, as lucid as he was, Steiner was not immune to the pessimism into which old men have forever fallen. But maybe what I want to believe is a lie.
John Carlin is a journalist, author and columnist for both English and Spanish language newspapers. His main areas of interest are international and national affairs, food and football. He is the author of a number of books about Nelson Mandela, and writes regular columns for La Vanguardia and Clarín, (Argentina). This column appeared in Clarín, Argentina, on 8 February 2020, and is translated by Kieran Tapsell, https://www.clarin.com/opinion/guerra-civil-fria_0_i5dZvFa5.html
Politics, International Affairs