Question: What is the connection between the American TV actress (and now princess!) Meghan Markle and the legendary German American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt?
Answer: Donald J. Trump.
On Saturday, in an interview with the British tabloid The Sun, ahead of his three-day state visit to the United Kingdom, the president of the United States was told that Markle, who married Prince Harry in 2018, had denounced him as “misogynistic” and “divisive” during the 2016 presidential campaign.
His response? “I didn’t know that. What can I say? I didn’t know that she was nasty.”
On Sunday, after a predictable media uproar in the U.K. and beyond, Trump took to Twitter to deny he had called Markle “nasty”:
I never called Meghan Markle “nasty.” Made up by the Fake News Media, and they got caught cold! Will @CNN, @nytimes and others apologize? Doubt it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 2, 2019
He later told reporters: “I made no bad comment.”
You’ll be shocked to discover that Rupert Murdoch-owned The Sun did not fabricate a quote from the U.S. president. Neither did CNN nor the New York Times. Trump did say the word “nasty.” There is even an audio recording of it!
Yet he denied it. Flatly. Brazenly. Publicly. Proudly. Unashamedly.
We know that Trump is the gaslighter-in-chief. The Washington Post’s fact-checkers say he has made more than 10,000 “false or misleading claims” since entering the Oval Office. But he doesn’t just lie about big issues, such as the nuclear threat from North Korea, or the existence of climate change, or the contents of the Mueller report, or the laws on abortion. He lies about small issues, too: the weather on the day of his inauguration; the size of the crowd at his inauguration; a phone call from the Boy Scouts; the amount of television that he watches; the birthplace of his father … I could go on and on.
The Meghan Markle lie falls into this latter category of small lies. What is the point of it? Why does he try and get away with such blatant untruths on such trivial issues — and why should it matter so much to the rest of us?
Back in November 2016, days after the president-elect had ridiculously claimed in a tweet that he had “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” McGill University political theorist Jacob T. Levy published an essay entitled “Authoritarianism and Post-Truth Politics,” in which he offered an explanation for why Trump tells such lies, and for why they are so dangerous, by leaning on the works of “the great analysts of truth and speech under totalitarianism — George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel.”
They recognized, Levy said, that “a leader with authoritarian tendencies will lie in order to make others repeat his lie both as a way to demonstrate and strengthen his power over them.”
“Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them,” explained Levy. “It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism.”
Consider: Fox News published a supportive, 10-paragraph story on its website headlined “Donald Trump says he never called Meghan Markle ‘nasty,’ calls comments about Duchess ‘fake news.’” Only in the tenth and final paragraph did it concede that “there is an audio recording circulating of President Trump saying the exact quote about Duchess Meghan that had been reported.” The @trumpwarroom Twitter account, which claims to be affiliated with the Trump 2020 reelection campaign, shared the audio recording of Trump saying the word “nasty” while denying he said it:
Fake News CNN is at it again, falsely claiming President Trump called Meghan Markle "nasty." Here is what he actually said. Listen for yourself! pic.twitter.com/kLuPXBLMhf
— Trump War Room (@TrumpWarRoom) June 1, 2019
Reality does not matter to these people. It is irrelevant. In fact, Trump’s strategy, to quote Levy once more, is to “undermine the existence of shared belief in truth and facts.”
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule,” wrote Arendt in her 1951 classic “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” “is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” In a later interview, she went further: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
Per Arendt then, Trump isn’t just bullshitting or deflecting; he isn’t just demented or defensive; he is actively and consciously borrowing from the authoritarian’s playbook. He lies because he can — and because it serves his purpose. To control, to bully, to degrade those under him and around him. To both command and demonstrate unbending loyalty from his cultish base. This is who he is — and who he has always been. “His aim is never accuracy,” observes Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump’s 1987 memoir “The Art of the Deal.” As he notes, “it’s domination.”
Have we — the media, journalists, fact-checkers — fully reckoned with what Trump is doing and why he is doing it? Credit to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, who has sounded the alarm bell in his essential book on the Trump presidency, “An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics.”
“To a degree that defies comparison to other politicians,” writes Sargent, “Trump relentlessly appears to wield his dishonesty as a species of power, as an overt way of exercising maximum dominance.”
Whether big or small, the Trump lie is a power grab. A form of control and dominance. And it doesn’t matter whether the subject is North Korea or Meghan Markle. The end goal is the same.
“The brazenness and shamelessness of his lying is not just a by-product of an effort to mislead voters that Trump is merely taking to new levels,” argues Sargent. “Rather, the brazenness and shamelessness of the lying is central to his broader project of declaring for himself the power to say what reality is.”
Reality, of course, matters. Some well-meaning liberals have suggested that fact-checking Trump is a distraction; rebutting his avalanche of lies is a waste of time. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Insisting on the difference between truth and lies is itself a part of the defense of freedom,” observes Levy. Indeed, it may be all that is standing between us and a descent into full-blown fascism here in the United States.
As journalists, we cannot therefore tire of asking, again and again, the Marx Brothers question: Who you gonna believe? Trump, or your own lying eyes?