Recently, Donald Trump sent a set of infographics to his 10 million Twitter followers that said 81 percent of all white murder victims were killed by black perpetrators. As a source, he named the “Crime Statistics Bureau of San Francisco.” Such an institute, however, does not exist. In fact, according to official FBI figures, 80 percent of all murdered whites fell victim to white perpetrators.
Trump is not the only one lying. Last December, The New York Times published a table with the quota of falsehoods issued by American politicians. Ben Carson, then still in the race as a Republican presidential candidate, takes the cake: 84 percent of his political statements were half, predominantly or completely untrue. Next to that, Trump followed with 76 percent; only 7 percent of his statements were true or predominantly true.
The out-of-control practice of lying is not just the domain of American politicians. The battle of opinions surrounding the Brexit referendum was virtually a lesson for the role of political false statements. The charismatic leader of the Brexit camp, Boris Johnson, proved to be the master of blatant dishonesty.
However, not all fact checkers are themselves as reliable as they purport to be. The project “Faktzoom,” in which the Cologne School of Journalism put politicians’ talk show statements under a magnifying glass, came to the conclusion that on average, every seventh assertion there was false. Yet, under investigation by the website uebermedien.de, this study itself abounded with “mistakes, inaccuracies and inconsistencies.”
Social Media Choose Their Own Realm of Truth
One can quote and insinuate falsely – but the effect remains. Social media choose their own realm of truth. At the same time, it is indisputable that fact checks in these media contribute a lot to expose these lies in real time. More than a few observers believe that we just look more precisely these days, and thus the erroneous impression arises that politicians are manipulating the truth more than ever.
In spite of this, could it be that lies don’t travel far because of this new constant scrutiny, but all the same, the drive to spread political untruths is becoming greater?
The example of Brexit illustrates that it is worth getting to the bottom of this presumption. The sly lie about the false net payments to the European Union was publicly invoked up to the end, although it was disproved repeatedly. This refutation remained especially ineffectual because the Brexit proponents focused on a truth-resistant slogan – “take back control.” For these slogans such facts are irrelevant.
Naturally questions of truth in every political system stand in a charged relationship to questions of values. Programmatic goals like empire, national glory, democracy, justice, Europe or some other political vision rise above bare facts, even if they cannot completely detach themselves from reality. Conversely, modern epistemology teaches us that even “pure” statements of fact are not free from subjective pre-assumptions and interpretations. But in spite of this unavoidable dark field between fact and value judgment in past times, one knew to distinguish political lies from opinion or fallacy.
The Lie as a Dangerous Abuse of Power
Lies aim for getting an intentionally precipitated error in the recipient’s perception. If knowledge is power, then a lie is the abuse of power. It only functions if the recipient relies on the truthfulness of his counterpart. St. Augustine once said, “In order to be successful, a lie must presuppose a trust in human speech, that it at the same time destroys.”
And in democracies, the political lie destroys the truth of public speech. Democracy with all of its ideal values is probably more greatly based on reality than any other political system. No one knows how to exploit that better than the lying representative of the people.
What, then, are the reasons why political lies are the fashion in the Western world at the moment? If it were just the usual swindling for personal gain a la Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg or Petra Hinz or just the usual traditional election campaign lies, one could merely lament the ineradicably negative human virtues.
The corruption of truthfulness by money, political career and power accompanies politics through all periods. But it is not such egotistical lies (that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Angela Merkel are guilty of) that especially trouble us these days, but instead the unselfish lies, the lies for the protection and the good of the nation. Their immunity to truth is very much higher and very much more dangerous.
In the '90s, the new catchphrase “Post-Reality Politics” came about. It became manifest among the Republicans under George W. Bush. A presidential aide described it to The New York Times in 2004, not without contempt for “naïve” realists: "[You] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
That was said by a government that attacked Iraq on the basis of the lie about “Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction” and, in fact, created a new reality. From then until today, that new reality became a continuing disaster for the entire region. In any case, the boastful tone with which one celebrated the entry into the post-reality age was suspicious. “Dominion over reality” in 2004 has long since sounded like whistling in the dark. The events of 9/11 gripped one to the marrow, and the Iraq war has already horribly slipped from the grasp of Washington’s intervention optimists. No wonder that the presumptuous disdain for reality has quickly transformed into a fear-laden denial of reality.
The rest of the world has also followed the same pattern. Since the prevailing mood has been weighed down by the horrors of terror that have become endemic, the financial and euro crises, the downsides of globalization and other transnational miseries, the forced migration and migration from poverty, the new Cold War, escapism from reality and denial of reality gain more and more weight. Fear, even if it is partially justified, can be stoked; realism cannot. That is the strategic disadvantage of all objectivity.
Block Out, Suppress, Eliminate
The extremely dismal picture of America that Donald Trump recently drew in his keynote speech at the Republican National Convention is exemplary; distorted, exaggerated, manipulative and untrue, but viewed as rhetoric about threats from all sides, all the more effective. With a similar will for a pieced together dramatization of reality, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Frauke Petry, Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński and their consorts paint terrifying scenarios of danger for their respective homelands in which the “Monster EU” on the old continent is added as a further threat.
However, political lies do not only thrive in the field of hysterical, often exaggerated to the point of paranoia, scenarios of doom. To a greater degree, the logic of the lie continues in the vision of rescue that one invokes as the solution. Rescue is only possible, announce the new demagogues, if the nation disenfranchised by terror, immigration, globalization and the EU wins back its national capacity to act. “Take back control” is not only the motto of Brexit, but also of all neo-nationalists worldwide.
All the higher is the worldwide price to be paid for the loss of truth. Everywhere today, where one wants to reclaim a rigorous political autocracy against the international world invading through all channels, one must block out, suppress and eliminate considerable dimensions of political and social reality.
Reality Either Confirms One’s Own Delusion – or Exposes It
As trivial and palpable as it is in all corners today, the fact that all political practice and interpretation is influenced by third, foreign and outside worlds makes the wish for nationalistic sovereignty clearly more than an illusion: It is a delusion. The first and most important reason why nationalistic politicians tend to lie is therefore their self-delusion.
And it also explains why the lies of these politicians to the public are often so aggressive and adamant. Nothing is defended more vigorously tooth and nail than life-lies. It is no coincidence that an American commentator used the concept of “war on reality” in an analogy to the infamous “war on terror.” The power-drunk people around George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld countered unpopular reality with disdain. But if it does not fit their image, the new nationalists counter it with hostility.