As his army blatantly annexed Crimea, Vladimir Putin went on TV and, with a smirk, told the world there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. He wasn’t lying so much as saying the truth doesn’t matter. And when Donald Trump makes up facts on a whim, claims that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Twin Towers coming down, or that the Mexican government purposefully sends ‘bad’ immigrants to the US, when fact-checking agencies rate 78% of his statements untrue but he still becomes a US Presidential candidate – then it appears that facts no longer matter much in the land of the free. When the Brexit campaign announces ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week’ and, on winning the referendum, the claim is shrugged off as a ‘mistake’ by one Brexit leader while another explains it as ‘an aspiration’, then it’s clear we are living in a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ world. Not merely a world where politicians and media lie – they have always lied – but one where they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not.
If all the facts say you have no economic future then why would you want to hear facts? If you live in a world where a small event in China leads to livelihoods lost in Lyon, where your government seems to have no control over what is going on, then trust in the old institutions of authority – politicians, academics, the media – buckles. Which has led to Brexit leader Michael Gove’s claim that British people ‘have had enough of experts’, Trump’s rants at the ‘lamestream’ media and the online flowering of ‘alternative news’ sites.
But for all their cynicism, the spin doctors and political technologists were, at this point, still trying to pull off an illusion of the truth. Their stories were meant to be coherent, even if they were low on facts. When reality caught up – the audience caught on to the illusion in Moscow and the stories about Iraq broke down and the stock market crashed – one reaction has been to double down, to deny that facts matter at all, to make a fetish out of not caring about them. This has many benefits for rulers – and is a relief for voters. Putin doesn’t need to have a more convincing story, he just has to make it clear that everybody lies, undermine the moral superiority of his enemies and convince his people there is no alternative to him. ‘When Putin lies brazenly he wants the West to point out that he lies’ says the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, ‘so he can point back and say, “but you lie too”’. And if everyone is lying then anything goes, whether it’s in your personal life or in invading foreign countries.
This is a (dark) joy. All the madness you feel, you can now let it out and it’s okay. The very point of Trump is to validate the pleasure of spouting shit, the joy of pure emotion, often anger, without any sense. And an audience which has already spent a decade living without facts can now indulge in a full, anarchic liberation from coherence.