Forget Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, forget Hillary Clinton’s and James Comey’s ridiculously self-serving memoirs. Former chief book critic for The New York Times Michiko Kakutani has written the first great book of the Trump administration. The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump (out July 17th) is a fiery polemic against the president and should go down as essential reading.
In nine exquisitely crafted broadsides, the 63-year-old Pulitzer winner calls upon her vast knowledge of literature, philosophy and politics to serve up a damning state of the union. She cites those you might expect from the authoritarian cannon: George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Hannah Arendt, but easily pivots to David Foster Wallace, Spike Jonze and Tom Wolfe. She deftly traces the history of leftist postmodern academics who helped usher in relativism and led us away from objective truths, but saves some of her most withering attacks for the right-wing media (FOX News, Brietbart, et al) that set the stage for a dangerous demagogue like Trump.
It’s the fluidity and grace of her prose, however, that leave the reader amazed by Kakutani’s virtuoso talent and command. “Trump’s ridiculousness, his narcissistic ability to make everything about himself, the outrageousness of his lies, and the profundity of his ignorance,” she writes, “can easily distract attention from the more lasting implications of his story: how easily Republicans in Congress enabled him, undermining the whole concept of checks and balances set in place by the founders; how a third of the country passively accepted his assaults on the Constitution; how easily Russian disinformation took root in a culture where the teaching of history and civics had seriously atrophied.”
The Death of Truth is a clear-eyed, if dismal, blueprint for how we got here and why our society has been pushed to the very brink. Rolling Stone reached Kakutani by email for the following exchange:
What was the genesis of this book?
Like many people, I became increasingly alarmed during the 2016 campaign and the first year of the Trump administration by the full-on war being waged on the very idea of truth. The Washington Post estimated that President Trump emits nearly six false or misleading claims a day. And it’s not just the liar-in-chief who is spreading “alternative facts” and assailing reason and science; it’s also his political and media enablers, aided and abetted by Russian trolls. The consequences for our democracy are grave: The lies spewed forth by Trump and company are promoting division and discord in the country at large, inflaming bigotry and hatred and elevating partisanship and tribal politics over shared values and the democratic ideals embodied in the Constitution. With the erosion of truth, we are made susceptible to propaganda (from the Russians, the White House and the likes of the NRA), our institutions are undermined, and rational public discourse is imperiled.
One of the things I wanted to do in The Death of Truth was explore some of the larger social and political dynamics that fueled the rise of Trump and brought America to the point where a third of the country will casually shrug off hard facts about everything from the size of inaugural crowds to the crime rate among immigrants. Those broader dynamics include the toxic partisanship that increasingly afflicts our politics; the merging of news and politics with entertainment; the growing populist disdain for expertise; the embrace of subjectivity and relativism by both the right and left; the growth of online filter bubbles that segregate us into silos of like-minded users; and the viral spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories on the web. Trump is both a bizarro-world apotheosis of many larger trends undermining truth today, and a flame-thrower who is accelerating these alarming attitudes.
One of your last pieces for the Times was seen as comparing Trump to Hitler. This book takes that case further. Did you hesitate to go there?
There are personality traits in common – toxic narcissism, a fondness for superlatives, an instinct for lying, bullying and manipulation. And parallels can be drawn between Hitler’s ascent and the rise of Trump: from his translation of his own mendacity into a shameless propaganda machine, to his Machiavellian exploitation of his audiences’ fears and resentments, to other politicians’ craven failure to stand up to him.
This is not to draw a direct analogy between today’s circumstances and the overwhelming horrors of the World War II era, but to look at some of the conditions and attitudes – what Margaret Atwood has called the “danger flags” – that make a people susceptible to demagoguery, and nations easy prey for would-be autocrats. And to remind readers of the fragility of democracy – of how quickly the rule of law can be broken and how rapidly civil liberties can erode.
America is being bombarded with disinformation from the White House and its allies – designed, you write, to keep the population not only misled but paranoid and off-balance. Do you see any solutions or ways to combat this crisis?
The role of a free and independent press has never been more important, and investigative reporters – working for newspapers, magazines, online outlets, radio and television – have been doing vital, necessary work, trying to untangle Trump and his campaign’s relationship with Russia, and expose the culture of lying and corruption that has flourished under his administration, while sounding warning bells about the consequences of his assault on truth.
The problem is that such reports do not reach many of the president’s most ardent supporters, who live in Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting silos, and who shrug off any news that does not ratify their pre-existing beliefs. At the same time, the volume and velocity of Trump’s lies, his multiplying scandals and violations of norms threaten to overwhelm the public, resulting in numbness and cynicism – the very traits that autocrats (like Vladimir Putin) rely upon to sabotage dissent and strengthen their own hold on power.
Given the role that Facebook and Cambridge Analytica played in efforts to influence the 2016 election, it’s also imperative that Silicon Valley leaders and policy makers address the ways in which social media – and the manipulation and monetization of data – is spreading misinformation, conspiracy theories and out-and-out propaganda, while undermining transparency and accountability.
It’s important that communities support local, independent journalism, which many people rely upon for information relevant to their daily lives. At the same time, schools ought to add media literacy to their curriculums (teaching kids how to differentiate between facts and opinions, between the verifiable and the merely popular), while reviving lessons in civics, with an emphasis on the Constitution and the founders’ efforts to protect the American republic from those who, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, might “flatter and fall in with all the non sense 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.'”
Did the media fail in its most basic duty during the 2016 campaign?
In pursuit of the clicks and eyeballs that Trump generated, the media gave the former reality-TV star an estimated $5 billion in free campaign coverage. Many outlets paid more attention to scandals and questions of personality than to substantive matters of policy (like the consequences a Trump administration would have on, say, national security, health care, immigration, the budget), and more attention to Hillary Clinton’s emails than to the Trump campaign’s entanglements with Russia. Like James Comey, much of the press assumed that Clinton was going to win the election, and that assumption wasn’t only wrong – it also affected coverage.
H.L. Mencken wrote: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Isn’t that exactly what we are seeing with Trump? Is this our own reckoning of 50-odd years of partisan fighting and a failure of our political class?
Trump tapped into a lot of middle-class and working-class disillusion with the political establishment, and into economic worries and resentments that ballooned in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. His promises to “drain the swamp” and reduce taxes on the middle class, however, turned out to be lies: Since taking office, he has made the swamp deeper and wider than ever, presiding over an administration filled with grifters and dark money – an administration that’s delivered tax cuts not to ordinary people, but to corporations and the very rich. His surprise election blindsided the political and media establishment, which underestimated the anti-elitist sentiment in the country and the toxic efficacy of Trump’s fear-mongering, and which was also slow to recognize the dangerous levels of misinformation being spread by the alt-right and Russia on the web.
You compare the times we are living in to Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World – what other works served as your lodestar in writing this book?
Hannah Arendt was another touchstone. Her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism was not just a study of how Nazism and Stalinism took root in the 20th century, but a warning about the many factors that can contribute to the rise of totalitarianism, including social alienation and the rise of tribal politics; the use of propaganda appealing to people’s prejudices and resentments; and a widespread disregard for the truth, which makes individuals susceptible to the efforts of a leader or government to control reality.
Daniel Boorstin’s 1962 book The Image uncannily foresaw an America in which “pseudo-events” displace reality, celebrities replace genuine heroes, and verisimilitude takes the place of truth.
Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics was remarkably prescient about the wave of anger and irrationalism in the country, which Trump both embodies and foments – a recurring attitude in U.S. history characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” and focused on perceived threats to “a nation, a culture, a way of life.”
You take deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida to task for muddying language and helping to create a view, especially on the left, that there are no objective truths. Given that Trump doesn’t read, how did that sort of thinking reach the right and why were they so successful at weaponizing it?
Deconstruction and postmodernism were part of a larger relativism that swept through western culture in the wake of the 1960s, as society became increasingly fragmented and subjectivity (see Tom Wolfe’s “Me Decade” and Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism) grew ascendant. Grand narratives (like a belief in the Enlightenment values of progress and science that America was founded upon) gave way to smaller, more personal truths, and a Rashomon-like view of the world gained traction throughout the culture. FOX News and the planetary system of right-wing news sites that would orbit it and, later, Breitbart, were particularly adept at weaponizing such arguments and exploiting the increasingly partisan fervor animating the Republican base: They accused the media establishment of “liberal bias,” and substituted their own right-wing views as “fair and balanced” – a redefinition of terms that was a harbinger of Trump’s hijacking of “fake news” to refer not to alt-right conspiracy theories and Russian troll posts, but to real news that he perceived as inconvenient or a threat to himself.
George Orwell wrote almost 75 years ago, “The English language is in a bad way.” What do you think he would say today?
Orwell was incredibly prescient about so many things. He would be appalled but likely not all that surprised by the current state of the English language. In fact, 1984 and Animal Farm anticipate many of the linguistic and political sins committed by Donald Trump, from his reflexive lying, to his redefining of words and phrases to mean their opposite (i.e. “fake news,” “witch hunt”), to his efforts to deny objective reality. His bombast and juvenile insults demean the office of the presidency, not to mention common decency; and his own racist invective has mainstreamed the scurrilous use of bigoted language that only a few years ago was largely confined to the fringes in the national conversation.
Reading this book made me think that the country is hopelessly broken – do you see any reason for hope or optimism?
The Parkland kids and the anti-gun violence movement they’re leading are an inspiration – and a testament to the impact that young people are having on the national conversation, and to the power that a handful of dedicated individuals can exert when they take a stand and get out and organize. The Women’s March and the record number of women running for office are similarly signs that the Resistance is alive and well. And Silicon Valley insiders like Jaron Lanier, Pierre Omidyar and Roger McNamee are warning about the dangers of social media and algorithms designed to maximize clicks and ad revenue.
Principled members of the judiciary and law enforcement – most notably, Sally Yates, Preet Bharara and James Comey – refused to cave to Trump’s efforts to bend the rule of law, and private citizens are speaking out on the assault underway against the institutions that help safeguard our democracy. And as Robert Mueller and his prosecutorial dream team quietly continue their work, reporters are working 24-7 to hold Trump and company to account, producing journalism that is nothing less than essential.
Do you think truth can be resurrected?
All of the above are signs of hope. The last two years have made many of us realize that we cannot take the freedoms afforded by democracy for granted. As citizens, we must all insist on facts, accountability, rational policy-making and informed public discourse. We must reject the transactional cynicism that the Trump administration promotes, and refuse to normalize the falsehoods and rule-breaking that this president pelts us with every day.
It’s up to all of us to see that truth prevails.