A decade ago, the dictionary people at Merriam-Webster performed a great public service by bestowing its word of the year award to “truthiness.” Truthiness has become one of my favorite words. It is absolutely key to understanding and thus combating Trumpiness, my least favorite social disease.
Truthiness (thanks to Merriam-Webster, it doesn’t need quotation marks around it anymore) was invented by Stephen Colbert, remarkably in the very first episode of his old show on Comedy Central.
Webster’s now gives two definitions for truthiness based on the Colbert usage: “Truth that comes from the gut, not books” and “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts of facts known to be true.”
“Face it,” Colbert said in that first truthiness routine, “We are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No. We are divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart. … That’s where truth comes from — the gut.”
Colbert, the fake right-wing blowhard, was specifically mocking the ignorant “argutainment” of talk radio and cable, but he nailed the broader zeitgeist — of the Bush administration’s truthiness on the Iraq war, of the ways social media nurtures truthiness, of the truthiness in a Balkanized political culture where every sect and cause gets its own truth from its aligned media.
In the words of George Costanza, “Just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
Truthiness now has its own superhero, its messiah: Donald Trump. Trumpiness is truthiness plus billions of dollars and unlimited ego multiplied by the backing of the Republican Party.
No one at this level of politics has ever been so alpha-male certain that his every hunch, gut feeling and off-the-cuff crack is true by definition. No one has lied so promiscuously, blatantly and escaped any and all punishment for it. No one has made such a mockery of conservative, pre-truthiness commandments like good manners, respect for other views, deference to tradition and the capacity to feel shame and embarrassment.
In his gut, Trump feels honest and truthy. I guess. What is for sure is that no one has found the antidote, the kryptonite to combat this evil superhero. And now that Colbert wears the shackles of CBS instead of the clown suit of Comedy Central, he seems handicapped.
Truthiness actually has a long history in philosophy, a history tied to the techniques and appeal of authoritarian and dark populist demagogues. In the 19th century, British philosophers coined the term “emotivism.” The contemporary Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his influential 1981 book, “After Virtue,” resurrected the phrase to describe the incoherence of modern moral arguments.
MacIntyre wrote, “Emotivism is the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and, more specifically, all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.” There is no meaningful distinction between saying, “abortion is wrong” and “I don’t like abortion.”
This is a variation on pure relativism. There is no agreed upon common ground or shared truth. Truth comes only from the gut.
MacIntyre’s great warning was that in the modern or postmodern world, after so many sources of moral authority frayed in the 1960s and the culture of narcissism caught on, coherent moral argument would become harder and harder. It was already hard in a pluralistic society where evangelical Christians, seculars, Unitarians, technology postmodernransgender advocates, conservative Jews and so forth all live in one Tower of Babel. MacIntyre felt that as our realm of individual choice expanded to every nook and cranny of identity — picking our own hometown, job, religiosity, sexuality, even gender — common ground and shared values would be harder to find. Arguments would become impossible to settle.
And we saw that in politics with inflamed, obnoxious partisanship. People end arguments by declaring, “You just don’t get it,” or, “You’re biased.” Professionals stopped being able to pass laws and solve solvable problems.
MacIntyre was as admirer of St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism who brought moral order to some corners of the Dark Ages. Coincidentally, the first Pope after MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” was published took the name Benedict.
In his very first homily, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the relativism, the lack of common moral language in the modern world. “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definite and whose ultimate goal consists of one’s own ego and desires.”
This is Trump. He is a man who accepts no rules, no standards, no measure but his assertion. Truth, morality and ethics are toys to him. His ultimate goals are ego and desire.
He is the authoritarian man on horseback for a time after virtue. But only if we citizens allow it.