For connoisseurs of 21st century dystopian humour, there is a bleakly amusing clip doing the rounds showing Pete Hoekstra, the US Ambassador to the Netherlands, apparently being well and truly hoist by his petard. Hoekstra is a diplomat appointed by Trump and forged very much in the template of his master. Asked by a Dutch journalist whether he said that there were Muslim ‘no go areas’ in the Netherlands, Hoekstra denies that he said any such thing, and accuses the interview of spreading ‘fake news.’ Said interviewer then shows said ambassador a 2015 clip in which Hoekstra can be found saying exactly what he has just said he has not said.
When the interviewer shows Hoekstra the clip and asks him why he characterized it as as fake news, Trump’s man in the Netherlands immediately denies that he said it was fake news even though the interview that he is participating in clearly shows him saying exactly that.
This exchange tells us a number of things about the state we’re in. The good news is that there are still good journalists who are prepared to hold lying politicians to account. That might be grounds for optimism, were it not for the fact that Hoekstra doesn’t appear to care that his falsehoods have been exposed in full public view.
Hoekstra may be little more than his master’s lickspittle, but the contempt, arrogance and total indifference to truth or fact-based argument on display here are another indicator that 2017 has taken us into a new political territory, whose implications have yet to be fully absorbed. ‘Post-truth’ politics didn’t begin with the election of Donald Trump. Tony Blair and George Bush worked up one of the great political lies in modern history, and neither of them paid any serious price for it.
But Blair, Bush and their defenders have repeatedly denied that they were lying about WMDs and tried to make excuses for their catastrophic decision to invade Iraq. In the Trump era excuses and apologies are not required. We now have an American president can lie openly and brazenly on an almost daily basis without any consequences whatsoever: a president who can ignore and reject photographs demonstrating that his inauguration was poorly-attended as ‘fake news’; who denies that he was in a ‘pussy-grabbing’ video in which he can be clearly seen and heard – and crucially, a president whose power base ignores and rejects whatever he ignores and rejects.
This isn’t some kind of American aberration. David Davis has clearly lied through his teeth all year about the Brexit impact studies that turned out never to have been made. Asked by the Brexit select committee early this month what had happened to these studies, Davis denied that they had ever been carried out, even though he himself had said on various occasions that such studies did exist.
As early as November 2016, Davis’s department said that it was preparing impact studies ‘ on over fifty sectors of the economy.’ Yet Davis sat before the Brexit committee looking bored, smug and utterly indifferent to the discrepancy between what he had promised and what he was offering that was being presented to him by his shocked interlocutors.
There are various reasons why we have ended up like this. Part of the explanation lies in the common decadence of British and American politics, which increasingly produces politicians without any intellectual grounding or moral compass, who no longer feel any motivation even to go through the motions of telling the truth. But the arrogance shown by Trump, Davis et al is also the product of a deeper cultural and political shift, in which political arguments have become so tribalised that truth no longer matters even to their supporters.
Trump and Davis know that the people who support them don’t care if they lie, and don’t care if they are found out, as long as their lies suit and reflect their common agenda. So if Davis lies about Brexit, that’s fine, as long as his lies are seen to further the cause of Brexit. When Trump lies about…anything, that’s ok too, as long as his lies rub salt in the wounds of ‘liberals’, ‘leftards’ or ‘the elite.’ And when Hoekstra is caught lying about Muslim ‘no go areas’ in which ‘cars and politicians are being burned’, that doesn’t matter either because there are many people who want to be believe that such things are true.
This is why the likes of Katie Hopkins have continued to claim that October’s car accident outside the Natural History Museum was a terrorist attack, even when it was absolutely clear that it wasn’t. After all, if you believe that the media and political class are so cowed by Islam that they will actively cover up a major terrorist attack to avoid causing offense, then you will believe anything, and politicians like Trump, Davis and Hoekstra appeal to an audience who are prepared to believe whatever confirms their prejudices.
This audience has been around for a long time, fed on a diet of poisonous allegations and conspiracies that goes beyond the current world of shock jocks, Infowars and Prison Planet etc to the ‘UN black helicopter’ conspiracies that circulated in the early Clinton era. Social media have merely widened that audience and made it easier to reach it and compartmentalize it, and the results are plain to see.
There was once a time when Americans were taught to admire the young George Washington, who supposedly admitted to cutting down a cherry tree on the grounds that ‘ I cannot tell a lie.’ A 21st century Washington would simply deny that a cherry tree had ever been chopped down or call it ‘fake news’, and his supporters would agree with everything he said even if someone showed them a chopped-down tree and an axe with his fingerprints on it.
These tendencies aren’t exclusive to the right, of course. Leftists can think and act like this too, but the brazen dishonesty of Trump, Davis and Hoekstra is essentially a product of the tribalism of the right and the far-right. And 2017 is the year in which this toxic sludge burst from the social media fringes into the mainstream, to the point when the whole process of reasoned argument and fact-based discussion that makes democratic life possible is now at risk.
Because if lying no longer matters, then why should truth matter? Why bother even trying to prove that something is true or false if people will simply ignore your arguments if they don’t like them?
And if you no longer believe that truth has a role to play in democratic politics, then you run the very real risk of transforming political life into the playground of bullies, demagogues, populists, Twitter hatemobs – and liars.