Perhaps the caption drew US President Donald Trump to the tweet: “Muslim migrant beat Dutch boy on crutches”. Perhaps he admired its author, Jayda Francis, the head of the neo-Nazi group, Britain First, who is currently facing criminal trial for religion-based harassment. Perhaps he merely liked that the organisation’s name mimics his own slogan, America First. The important fact is this: Trump’s decision to forward that tweet to his 2 million followers demonstrates how close we have come to inhabiting a world built on lies. Dutch legal authorities had repeatedly clarified, since the video first began circulating this summer, that it in fact records a fight between two minors, both born and raised in the country. Trump perhaps did not know; he certainly does not care. “Whether it’s a real video [or not]” said the President’s spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “the threat is real”. In recent weeks alone, Trump has made many other untrue assertions, saying he will not personally benefit from planned taxed cuts and that he has made the United States an energy exporter “for the first time”. In February, he pointed to what was “happening last night in Sweden” to assail immigration; as bewildered Swedes pointed out, nothing was. For a leader who rails against the media’s “fake news”, this record is illuminating.
Lies have always been part of the politician’s toolkit: When Russia’s Vladimir Putin announced that there were no Russian troops in Ukraine, he did nothing exceptional. The liberties that Trump often takes with facts, though, are no simple deceits. They speak to his constituency’s deepest emotional and cultural needs. From Boris Johnson’s Brexit campaign to the Islamic State, entire movements are being built on easily-fasifiable fantasies — and their adherents do not care. The anti-Enlightenment traditions birthed by Friedrich Nietzsche and brought to harvest by post-modern intellectuals have been weaponised by the political right-wing and religious chauvinists.
Post-truth has costs. Technology has seduced societies that lack the critical reasoning skills needed to sift fact from fiction — and whose faith in expertise has been eroded by the hardships inflicted by the nation-state. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian politician and among the most adroit practitioners of post-truth politics, famously asked: “Don’t you realise that something doesn’t exist — not an idea, a politician, or a product — unless it is on television?” The real world does exist, though — and takes ferocious vengeance when democracies surrender themselves to demagogues. For civil society and its institutions — educators, artistes, media — an extraordinary challenge lies ahead: To put the idea of truth back in our public life.