Donald Trump’s presidency marked such a breach from governing norms of American politics that—in the same way that you would notice a rug as it was yanked out from under you—it drew attention to the unspoken moral preconceptions that had held up the system before Trump came along. One of these preconceptions was an expectation of civic virtue—the idea that the public should have some basic level of trust in the moral character of its leaders, their barest ability to tell right from wrong. Another was the centrality of truth to political life.
Politics in the United States, like everywhere else, is populated by liars. But Trump’s strained relationship with honesty—his willingness not just to lie, but to navigate through life without any attention whatsoever paid to the facts—made clear how important the truth really is.
Truth and politics, Hannah Arendt argues in her essay of the same title, “are on rather bad terms with each other.” The notion of a single immovable truth, in Arendt’s view, sits uncomfortably with the concept of governance by a democratic community, where ideas are debated among citizens who share different ideas and perspectives. She builds her vision of politics around human unpredictability and the capacity for change, a fluidity to which the “coercive” force of unchangeable facts is necessarily opposed. At the same time, Arendt argues that the existence of democratic politics is dependent on assent between citizens on the facts that make up their shared world. If we have no common understanding of how things work, we won’t be able to come to agreement—and without the possibility of mutual consent, the only option is for one group to compel agreement through force. For this reason, Arendt’s view is less that truth and politics are incompatible, and more that they exist in tension with one another. They may be on bad terms, but they remain speaking.
Arendt’s project, she writes, is “to look upon politics from the perspective of truth.” But looking at truth from the perspective of politics, the relationship remains similarly strained. Even the most conscientious politician struggles under the weight of what Max Weber, in his essay “Politics as a Vocation,” calls “the ethical irrationality of the world”—the fact that morally good actions can bring about catastrophe, and morally bad actions can be necessary to achieve good political ends. This includes lying.
Consider, for example, a minor political controversy that took place in 2015 over President Obama’s views on gay marriage. Obama’s longtime aide, David Axelrod, wrote in a memoir published that year that Obama had lied during his 2008 presidential campaign about his position on the issue: The candidate believed that same-sex couples should be able to marry, Axelrod wrote, but publicly opposed those unions until 2012, when public opinion tipped in favor of gay marriage for the first time. According to Axelrod, Obama misled the public about his position in order to win the election, which then allowed him to support policies in favor of gay marriage years later. Should he instead have been honest and perhaps lost the election?
The conscientious politician still has to lie to get things done, but those lies are told with anguish.
The political theorist Michael Walzer terms this “the problem of dirty hands,” and it has been a dilemma of political life since Machiavelli argued that “a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest.” Weber’s solution to this ethical irrationality relies on the interior life of the politician. He wants his principled leaders to compromise—to lie—when necessary, but he also wants them to feel the moral pain of those lies and to recognize when telling falsehoods would take them over a line they refuse to cross. The conscientious politician still has to lie to get things done, but those lies are told with anguish.
It is not saying anything controversial to state that Weber’s scheme depends on a level of moral decency utterly lacking in Donald Trump. The former president remains unburdened by the self-reflection that Weber seeks. His lies are so free of anguish, in fact, that they might not even be lies at all. They’re closer to what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt deems “bullshit,” statements to which the truth is not just opposed but irrelevant. As a Frankfurtian bullshitter, Trump lacks not only the keen sense of right and wrong that guides Weber’s politician but also the level of care that Weber seeks. Trump is careless, in the sense of being sloppy but also in the sense of being unconcerned with the existence of a common world shared between him and other people—the tending of which, in coordination with others, is the work of democracy.
Unlike the totalitarian leaders whom Arendt saw as eradicating truth through violence, Trump lacked the strength of will or the capacity for follow-through. But his lack of care for facts was a powerful enough current that it still set the United States adrift. Today, many of the suggestions made for reanchoring American politics in truth focus on cultivating habits of good citizenship: Americans should argue, but respectfully; they should trust one another more, but not so much they believe everything they see; they should peel themselves away from their screens and engage as productive members of society who seek to flourish in their common life. Likewise, political leaders need civic virtue in order to navigate the necessity of lying without getting morally lost.
The problem, of course, is that virtue—like truth—sometimes sounds best in the abstract. Who defines it, and for whom? Plato, notoriously, advocated a system of maintaining and cultivating virtue that depended on the city’s leaders telling their people a lie. The experience of the Trump presidency has shown how thoroughly preferable it is to have a leader who lies and is pained by it than it is to be governed by someone who will tell falsehoods for any reason at all. But that is a low bar. And the trouble with moral qualms as a qualification for governance is that it’s impossible to confirm whether politicians are really suffering or not in departing from the truth. Are they anguished by the necessity of lying to get things done? Or are they just, well, lying?
Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare.