Donald Trump’s way of relating to truth shows something important.
Trump seems to see truth as secondary to identity. What he likes, what reenforces his beliefs and worldview, what makes his supporters like him is the truth. Anything that is critical of him or which makes him look bad is false, spread by the fake media.
What is primary for Trump is his own will to power. His own affirmation of who he wants to be. Since he sees himself as the best, anything that suggests otherwise is put into the category of doubting oneself – of letting others determine what you can or can’t do.
Trump doesn’t relate to the world as a spectator. He doesn’t start with a neutral description of the world and then situate himself within that reality. He starts instead with the reality he wants to see of himself and sees the world through that prism.
Contrary to all the worries about how Trump is creating a post-truth society, the problem with Trump’s relation to the truth isn’t that he doesn’t acknowledge truth as a neutral arbiter.
That can’t be the problem because truth can’t play the arbiter role on its own.
If two people disagree about something, so much so that they can’t agree on a fact which will decide the issue, there can be no fact which can play the arbiter role. Truth is like an umpire who calls balls and strikes. The claim of the umpire only holds if both teams agree on the rules of the game. If one team says they are playing cricket and the other team says they are playing baseball, and yet they disagree and are on the verge of fighting about whether the batter is out (this is pretty much most political arguments currently), what the umpire says isn’t going to settle the issue. For there is always the added question: does the umpire know what game is being played? Can he determine what game is being played? Or is his ability to determine whether the batter is out dependent on the players themselves, and on whether they agree on what game is being played?
Very little in everyday human life has truth as an arbiter as such. Is it sunny or cloudy? Are the Lakers a good team? Were Ross and Rachel on a break when Ross slept with the other woman? We normally navigate these issues not by resorting to truth as an arbiter but by getting aligned on what kind of game we are playing. If two people are fighting and don’t trust each other, they can fight about why the other person is wrong about the weather or the Lakers, or about the facts of who cheated on whom, when, where and why.
But surely somethings are just true or false, like if there is milk in the fridge or if it is raining right now outside the house? Actually, no. Not in the sense that the truth of the matter is prior to the coherence of the human interaction at stake. How much milk does there need to be for there to be milk in the fridge? This depends on what the practical tasks are for that milk. If it is for one bowl of cereal, perhaps there is milk. If for baking a cake for 30 people, then no. And what counts as raining: drizzling, a downpour, for how long, with what intensity? Depending on the context and the tasks at issue, the answers vary. There is no “the truth” attached to the abstract question “is there milk in the fridge?” or “Is it raining?”
Does this mean that truth is just whatever the powerful or the stronger person says it is? That is the worry raised by Trump. If truth can’t be a neutral arbiter, then how can we hold him accountable? Or hold anyone accountable? If truth can’t be an arbiter, is there only power?
I suspect, insofar as Trump might think about this kind of question, he might say “yes”. Like Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, Trump might think that truth, justice and so on are just what the strong says they are. Therefore don’t ever give in and apologize. Don’t ever agree anything you said is false or that your opponent said is true. For that would be a weakness, which gives your opponents a win and increases their power.
But this doesn’t follow. Truth as a neutral arbiter and the strong man’s power aren’t the only options. There is a third option rooted in compassion and love.
If two people are disagreeing so deeply that neither can agree on what fact might resolve the dispute, the deeper problem isn’t one of truth but of trust.
Marriage therapists know this. The issue is never really about which spouse is right or has the true beliefs (“You never take out the trash!” “I do too!”). The inability to agree on a common way of getting at the truth is a sign of the lack of trust between the two sides. If there is trust, then there is a momentum to work together and then to heed common norms. If there isn’t trust, even if one is shown truth as an arbiter (“Here is a video tape of the last year in the house, and you never took out the trash”), that itself would evoke a new round of resentment and anger (“You video taped me?! How dare you!”).
When there is a lack of trust, it doesn’t take much courage to give up shared norms and resort to brute power. It doesn’t take courage because that is what we naturally want to do when there is a lack of trust. Nor does it take much courage to assert the importance of shared norms only to say that shows you are right and they are wrong. Because that is also what is natural to do when there is a lack of trust.
When trust breaks down, courage is related not to truth directly, but to being willing to heal the wounds and to build trust.
This in fact requires a deeper commitment to truth. Wanting truth as the arbiter is the easy affirmation of truth. It doesn’t require any work to change on one’s own part – the truth shows the other side is wrong, and I just have to repeat the truth over and over again, in ever louder or nuanced ways.
The greater commitment to truth is the commitment to compassion. Which requires me to change my own assumptions and to see the world from the perspective of the other person. To step out of my shoes and see the world differently so that a deeper truth that neither of us can see can come to the surface when we work together.
Trump is right that fundamentally truth seeking is secondary to, and must be seen in the context of, our relations as people, and of our ideals, aims and hopes. This is not a threat to civilization, a break down of truth, law and science.
For our relations as people need not be defined by our fears or our anger, or by the will to power to show the other people are weak and I am strong. The spiritual insight, be it of Christ or the Buddha, is that there is another way we can relate as people, rooted in self transformation and a commitment to healing wounds and building trust. Which acknowledges the priority of human interactions over an abstract, dehumanized truth as an arbiter, but which sees in humanity more than a desire a win or to put down the opponent. Which sees in humanity at root not a will to power but a will to love.