US Elections Untangled – EP 6: When the truth no longer matters (with Antto Vihma)

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FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled

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Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?

FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.

The series is hosted by Visiting Research Fellow Maria Annala from The Center on US Politics and Power (CUSPP) at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs who is an expert in present day American politics. Joining her in the studio will be a wide array of international relations experts from FIIA. This podcast was made possible in part through support provided by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation.

 
US Elections Untangled – EP 6: When the truth no longer matters (with Antto Vihma)

When a traditional politician lies, they do their best not to get caught. When a post-truth politician speaks, they might not even know whether their words are true or not.

In November, Americans will make a choice between a traditional politician and a post-truth one.

“Trump is a great example of a post-truth strategist,” says Leading Researcher Antto Vihma from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

“You can just bluff and not care about truth and falsehood at all, and that is what president Trump is known to do.”

You can also listen to the series on SpotifyApple Podcasts or Google PodcastsListen to the previous episodes here.

 
Read the text version of the episode

Intro starts. 

The host Maria Annala: Welcome to US Elections Untangled – a podcast series brought to you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs 

Audio recording of Donald Trump: From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it is going to be only America first, America first. 

Audio recording of Joe Biden: Donald Trump’s brand of America first has too often led to America alone. 

Maria Annala: Hi everyone and welcome to US Elections Untangled. I’m Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, and I’m going to be your host throughout this podcast series. 

Annala: In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about, how the relationship between politics and the truth has changed and how that plays into the 2020 campaign. Our guest today is Leading Researcher Antto Vihma from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Hi Antto, thanks for being here!

Vihma: Thanks for having me!

Annala: One of your areas of expertise is post-truth politics. One good example of post-truth politics, in my opinion, is president Trump. He is like a textbook example. In your recent book on post-truth politics you and your co-authors refer to the likes of him not us lawyers, but as bullshitters. So, what’s this distinction you’re trying to make and what makes Trump not a liar but a bullshitter?

Vihma: Well yeah, the whole term of post-truth came about in our discussion in 2016. It was selected to be the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. Of course, Donald Trump himself and his campaign and then of course Brexit campaign as well, were kind of the main drivers of that discussion. So, I agree that Trump is a good example of a post-truth strategist or a bullshitter. I think about bullshitting, it’s a harsh word, but it has philosophical origins. It was used in this meaning first by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, distinguished professor in Princeton if I remember correctly. So, bullshitting means that truth and falsehood they don’t really matter; that bullshitting is more akin to bluffing than lying, because if you lie, you kind of make a conscious choice: you care about truth on a certain level and you choose not to pursue it, but to lie. I think Americans have a have a good turn of phrase when they talk about a bullshit artists, it’s almost akin to an art form. You can just bluff and not care about truth or falsehood at all, and this is what president Trump has been known to do. If you listen to his recent interviews he’s improvising, there doesn’t seem to be a relation, a coherent relation, to kind of purposeful lying in a sense that the classics of political thought would think about it, like Machiavelli for example.

Annala: Where you are very much aware of what the truth is, then you sort of think, ok I insert this lie here to pursue that particular goal and it’s all very conscious and very sort of methodological.

Vihma: Exactly, that you do it and you kind of calculate as well in the Machiavellian sense, that you don’t want to get caught. It’s important for a Prince to appear to kind of be good in a way although he might be deceitful. Of course this kind of more postmodern or post-truth way of communicating it doesn’t… Donald Trump doesn’t aim to appear as someone with dignity.

Annala: That’s true. I remember there was some leaked report about, what Trump had been saying privately to his advisers. I think it was a G8 meeting, where he blatantly said “Yeah, I said it, wasn’t that great? I made it up on the spot!”, and sort of, he seemed to be proud of this. I think he mentioned in that report “I have no idea, if that’s true or not, but wasn’t that a brilliant thing to say? It was just the right thing to say in that instance”, and that sort of, I feel, characterises pretty well his relationship with the truth. It makes no difference, if it’s true or not, and he doesn’t need to find it out.

Vihma: He always… if he creates a scandal by lying or telling something that’s like blatantly false, he can press forward, he can change the subject and tweet out a new scandal. He doesn’t have to stay there and explain himself. This has worked very well and it works very well in most cases, but maybe, just maybe the coronavirus is a bit different, because it doesn’t go away. It has this persistence, that you can try to change the subject, but does it work?

Annala: I feel that’s what’s happening with him; that this is the one adversary that is immune to his strategy of changing the subject and just sticking to his untruths. He keeps saying it’s going to go away it’s, it’s going to go away, but everybody can very painfully see that it’s not going away. Him saying so doesn’t change anything. Then it’s also… I think it’s made some people and some media companies, also social media companies care more about what he says. When he says you should insert disinfectant under your skin and maybe that’ll help, that’s kind of such a huge red flag that people, who didn’t react before… now Twitter is saying, for example that we have a very strict policy that you cannot spread misinformation about the coronavirus. Now they’re finally starting to censor some of his untruths, which they didn’t do before.

Vihma: Yeah, it’s a huge change with the social media giant platforms that certainly didn’t take place in 2016. It is a big change. Not only does the coronavirus not go away by Trump saying that it’s going away, but also if he were to divert the attention even in the most dramatic means possible by perhaps starting a war or a special operation somewhere, it still wouldn’t go away. It would still be a huge political topic. So, that’s something that doesn’t go well with post-truth strategy.

Annala: That’s fascinating. One other fascinating thing about the 2020 elections in the post-truth sense is that Trump’s opponent Joe Biden is more of a traditional politician, who seems to have a more traditional relationship with the truth. He does care about which things are true and which things are false. So, how do you think that campaign is going to play out, when you have one candidate who is a bullshitter and the other one who is trying to play by different rules?

Vihma: Yeah, this is I think, a very significant thing about president Trump. It’s the banal and obvious thing that he has kind of redrawn the lines on what is acceptable. This is a huge, big change in the, let’s say, the norms that embed liberal democracy. I think that is one thing, why political theorists have been so worried about president Trump’s behaviour. It creates a strange playing field, because of course his opponents can’t do the same things as he does, but then again he has this kind of bigger field to move in, because he has really managed to change certain norms on what is acceptable communication. I think you could come up with tens or even hundreds of that would be impossible to imagine of any other president or presidential candidate in the history of the United States to say.

Annala: Yeah, but Trump has been getting away with them

Vihma: Yes.

Annala: That is true and it’s interesting to see, how the American voters react in the end to these two different candidates, coz I feel that… I’m not saying Joe Biden is never lying, but I’m saying that if he lies, he does it in a way that where he’s trying to minimise the risk of getting caught. He doesn’t just say one thing and then deny it the next day, even though everybody heard him say the first time, like Trump does. So, it’s kind of an unfair advantage in a way that Trump has, where he can say whatever and he seems to always get away with it. Then at the same time, as you said, the coronavirus has made many people more aware of this and I think a lot of people are getting more fed up with it than they were before. So, it’s also possible that it in the end plays to Biden’s advantage.

Vihma: I’m not an optimist by heart, but I do really think that the corona situation does favour Biden as a more calm… and it favours the challenger. If Trump was a challenger, he might get some advantages out of it. But because he’s in the driver’s seat, he is the one with all the responsibilities. That’s where the post-truth strategy kind of fails him and we know that Trump’s strengths are really in the post-truth and his chosen way of communication. He has really like honed that to do a certain a certain level that’s very effective He’s good in that kind of narrow field of communication, but he’s not a very diverse guy. But the next Trump, should we have him or her in the next couple of decades, might be a better Trump than that Trump is.

Annala: That’s an interesting thought. One thing I’ve been wondering and that a lot of people have been wondering is, why it seems that this bullshitting, if you want to use that term, doesn’t seem to cost Trump anything politically? Pundits kept saying originally, when he started running for president in, like for the first time… pundits kept saying that “yeah, he’s not going to get anywhere, people are going to see through this, people are going to object to that, he’s going to get caught and there’s going to be a high price to pay politically and he’s not going to survive”, but he proved them wrong. So why do people put up with that and why does, more importantly, why does the Republican Party stand by his side?

Vihma: Yeah, this is the dark question about the Republican Party, the state of GOP. I can relate to that, that this belief that you just outlined… I was in the US, I was in Boston 2016. I am a naive European and I watched all the three televised debates with my friends and colleagues and I remember leaving each one of these watch parties in a kind of state of relief. I thought very honestly and naively that Hillary Clinton got the best of it in all three cases and I thought that was pretty obvious and this will in the end matter. Well, that didn’t turn out to be true at all. Analytically and four years after that, I think the two underlying factors here are polarisation and digitalization. So, the political split that you have probably been discussing here in this series already in several occasions and then the technological change, which allows Trump to communicate so effectively and has created this right wing media ecosystem that proved to be really powerful four years ago, even outperforming many great traditional media outlets, such as New York Times. A lot of it due to social media, because social media kind of works in this logic of platforms that allows, you know, challengers to beat the giants.

Annala: When you say outperforming, do you mean more social media shares and likes or?

Vihma: Yeah, more social media reactions. I think Breitbart News outperformed in Facebook the New York Times at least a couple of times or a couple of months in the last elections.

Annala: Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me, because I think the whole Facebook logic favours shocking things and things that are so outrageous that you kind of have to click on them. If they happen to support your worldview, you’re inclined to share them, because you have such an emotional reaction and that’s not the New York Times style at all.

Vihma: Yeah, that’s the logic of social media platforms and that’s very much in contrast with the logic of let’s say journalism or truth. I’m using truth here as a political concept; I’m not talking about philosophical truths, but truth with a small t, like factual truth.

Annala: Yeah, I guess it reminds me of that saying, where the lie has run around the world three times before the truth has even got its boots on. That you can see very clearly in social media, when you have a delicious lie, that’s going to start spreading a lot more easily than a more boring and fact based piece of reporting, for example.

Vihma: Even if you like see through that lie immediately, you still might kind of naively share it and maybe with a piece of commentary that look at this, this is outrageous isn’t it. That means that of course most of your followers be it 99% of them just pat themselves on the back and think, yeah this is outrageous, we’re way above that level of political communication. But then there’s your second or third cousin, whose dark switch goes on for the first time. He hears about Pizzagate and that’s how these things work too.

Annala: Yeah, I think this whole media ecosystem that you mentioned is one big reason why Trump can get away with his bullshitting. There’s this fascinating book called Network Propaganda by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts that talks a lot about this. They analysed millions of online news articles and showed that there are two separate media ecosystems in the US. There’s the right wing media and then there’s the rest. That’s not surprising as such. I’m sure we all know that many Republican and Republican leaning voters only watch Fox and they are highly sceptical of outlets like CNN or New York Times. But what I feel is important about this book is that the researchers show that the right-wing media ecosystem plays by totally different rules than the rest of the American media. This is something that if you just say it, people are going to dispute it. People who believe the right wing media, they’re not going to believe you. They’re going to say that you are lying and you’re biased and it’s actually CNN and the New York times that are lying. But I feel that these researchers, they looked at millions of articles and I feel they make a very compelling case. It really is true that on the centre left off the American political spectrum the media is actually fact based and cares about traditional values of journalism, where you always try to tell the truth. If you fail, you correct your mistake as swiftly as possible and make sure everybody hears about you’re mistaken and finds out the real truth. Whereas this right-wing media bubble seems to be just bulshitting basically and spreading disinformation that serves their political purpose.

Vihma: I think the keyword here is journalism that you have… most of those centre-left and even more leftist media systems; they do kind of sign the basic rules of journalism. This is of course something that Infowars or other parts, important parts, of this right-wing media ecosystem do not. So, there’s a difference in the means of knowledge production in the making of that news site, even though these both can look the same, of course the streaming headlines are also quite different. But yeah, there’s an important qualitative difference and I think the key question is that does this have any effect… I mean can journalism kind of survive as a political force in this current digital era? I think this is an important and sinister question that affects the whole discussion on the future of liberal democracy – and not only in the US by the way. This is this is a very international theme and we still don’t know the answer. We are still, the jury is still out there and that’s also… yeah, it’s a question that’s not going away after these elections either, even if Trump loses convincingly.

Annala: Yeah, no that’s definitely not going to go away. I feel that in the US, it’s reached the point, where people don’t even have the same facts anymore and they don’t even speak the same language. I’ve mentioned this in a previous episode too; where words don’t mean the same thing anymore. When you reach that point, it’s really hard to have a conversation, if you don’t even have a fundamental shared understanding of what the underlying facts are and what the terminology means.

Vihma: You mentioned bubbles and that’s an interesting social sciences debate currently going on. There have been studies that indicate that bubbles are… perhaps it’s a bit totalising metaphor, because it indicates that you don’t get any news out of anywhere else; you’re really sealed in a vacuum, you’re in a bubble. People do browse around the Internet quite carelessly on social media and they tend to see some, at least some, headlines of other media as well as their favourite one. So, there have been studies that say that there’s only a very small percentage of people that are in a true bubble that only get their news from a couple of outlets, but these kinds of studies do not, in a political way, they don’t make me calmer. They don’t kind of comfort me that much, because even though like total bubbles are a bit maybe a rare phenomenon, the logic of social media, which you mentioned earlier, that favours these extreme views. They get more reactions and become more viral more easily. This can still like affect the debates, different debates, in a very destructive way. Even though the bubble wouldn’t be complete, it still distorts the debates. A second thing is that even if the percentage of people, who are in a let’s say a total bubble, would be small, let’s say that it’s only 5 or 6%, is that really only 5 or 6%? Is that something that we should just be happy with? It sounds like an awful lot of people to me.

Annala: Yeah, especially in a country like the US compared to a country like Finland, it’s always even a couple of percentages of the American people is a huge amount of people. Also politically, it’s a huge part of the electorate.

Vihma: Sure.

Annala: Yeah, I agree with what you’re saying. Definitely most people have at least that second cousin, like you said earlier. The proverbial second cousin, who posts something in their Facebook feed that is totally different from what they and their closest friends would post or argue. I think it’s really important to also note that it doesn’t help, if you see headlines or even if you click on them, if you have a strong emotional bias that you’re very critical of that outlet. Some people follow sort of… they keep an eye on the enemy, some people say. One of the people I interviewed for my book on Trump supporters, one of my main characters, he was saying that he spent a lot of time everyday reading New York Times and watching CNN and for him it was all about keeping an eye on the enemy. He wanted to know, what the other side was saying. He wanted to see, what the arguments were, how things were being argued so that he could then figure out his counterarguments. So, if you believe for example what Tump keeps saying about fake news; how certain media outlets are by Trump’s definition fake news. If you’re a Trump supporter, who believes what he’s saying, it doesn’t make any difference, if they watch CNN a little bit every day. If they watch it just to get outraged about the lies, it doesn’t change their thinking. It doesn’t help people come together and have mutually shared facts to have a discussion, even if they follow partly the same media outlets, as long as there’s this distrust.

Vihma: The keyword here is enemy. So that, if you position yourself in that way to follow media debates, that you’re not perhaps talking about opponents or even follow the debate as such, but think about enemies and their arguments and their weaponry, it’s really… we’re pretty far out of the old norms of liberal democracy. I don’t want to sound nostalgic, but still that kind of level of conflict, the level of intensity, might not be compatible with liberal democracy.

Annala: Yeah, because liberal democracy needs for people to be able to come together, debate and discuss – and for them to respect the other side and see the other side as fellow citizens, instead of these dehumanised enemies. That’s definitely a very concerning thing about this post-truth social media conversations and this era we are living in as a whole.

You mentioned you don’t wanna sound nostalgic, but nostalgia has actually been one big theme, I feel, in both Trump’s campaigns both in 2016 and now in 2020. It’s also a topic that is very prevalent in the right-wing media ecosystem. Trump said he was going to make America great again, but he clearly refused to specify – even though a lot of people tried asking him – he never specified when America was great, when was this period of greatness that he wants to go back to. Because if you go to details, if you name an era, people have a lot more weapons to criticise the idea. They’re going to point out everything that was wrong in that era. But if you just generally want to take people back to the good old days, everybody can sort of imagine them and nostalgize them the way they want. But, what do you think this whole nostalgia thing is about?

Vihma: Yeah, I first of all I agree very much that it was a key part of the 2016 message and it’s also underlying the debates now. There have been some big data analysis even on this that, from the right-wing media ecosystem we have discussed, the nostalgic narrative of taking the country back or making America great again is very much a big thing, a key element. I also agree that, well Trump… he’s not a great specifier and it’s beneficial for the argument not to specify, just as you said. It’s kind of a feature of nostalgic thought as such as well; nostalgia really doesn’t make an argument. It’s an emotion that seduces, it implies and seduces. I think that it’s been very effective as a kind of underlying sweetener somewhere, because Trump and the right-wing media ecosystem, they project a lot of hate and a lot of dark emotions. To have a kind of something that sweetens the pot a little bit, something positive, which is kind of a picture of a more coherent pre-60s society, where traditional values are not challenged by minorities and feminists and cosmopolitans and so forth, that’s something that’s painted somewhere as a backdrop.

Annala: So, what do you think the big changes were that Trump supporters would especially like to undo, perhaps subconsciously? When I was working on my book, I read a lot of studies on who voted for Trump and I know a lot of Trump voters had racist thoughts. They often were subconscious; they wouldn’t define themselves as racist, but they had this underlying racism. They also had a lot of, let’s say anti-feminism or possibly even misogynism – an idea that this equality between the genders is not a good thing. So, these might be… when you say 1960s, these sound like the kind of things, I think that people are secretly longing to go back to, undo all this equality.

Vihma: These are exactly the kind of 1960s so called revolutions that I think are the key here. There’s a theory or kind of way of looking at history that’s celebrated by right-wing intellectuals on how good and balanced American life was before the 60s. Everyone kind of knew their place, families were happy and America was very powerful and this was no coincidence. It’s because of this nuclear family and how should we say, white privilege or white supremacy even that was going on back in the day that made America so powerful.

Annala: According to this thinking.

Vihma: Yes exactly, but now that these values, the shifting values, have occurred, people have become more socially liberal. Women want to be part of the workforce and treated fairly even in the in the workforce, and minorities are demanding for rights and more recognition. This has kind of rotten the core of the healthy order that used to be there. What’s interesting about this narrative, is that according to Mark Lilla, who is professor in Columbia University, this is almost exactly the same way as reactionaries have been telling history for the past 200 years, since the French Revolution at least. So, the blueprint of the narrative is always the same: that there’s a certain point of history that we can see clearly; we can see through the modern lies or currently you could say post-modern lies. We know the exact point of time, when the rot started to set in the society. It’s always a change in values and it’s set forth by progressive intellectuals, professors, media people or some kind of elites. So, elite betrayal is always in the centre of this narrative and then the social cohesion weakens and the society marches happily under a kind of false consciousness to its destruction and decay. It’s up to the reactionaries to change the path and go back, because they have information and they know what’s what. So, this is a very old narrative that’s come again very forcefully to European politics and to US politics and actually even to global politics. It’s been used also in very different contexts in the Philippines, in Brazil in Turkey, in Russia, but the nostalgic argument is currently, it’s very popular.

I think there are many kind of very basic things that favour the nostalgic currently. One of them is that of course the boomer generation is very big and they have rosy memories of their childhood and their upbringing in a more wholesome world or they colour it with rose coloured glasses. The other thing is that… I mean people are getting older that favours nostalgia in the western world, especially in Europe and Japan. Then you have geopolitical changes. There are many kind of forms of, kind of, Imperial nostalgia that was something that was quite present in the Brexit debate. It’s very present in the Russian debate that you want to bring back the kind of powerful days and I’d like to argue that in the US as well. Before the US-power was kind of… the US had a more hegemonic position after the Second World War and now we talk about multipolarity and the rise of China all the time. Thirdly, the technological change has kind of revolutionised everyday life, the everyday experience, life is completely different than it was 20 years ago. Mobile phone has changed everything that we do and think. I think these kinds of dramatic fast changes also, they kind of give possibilities to nostalgia, because there are lots of so called lost gardens of Eden that you can construct in your mind – how things were more healthy and wholesome before.

Annala: Why do you think it’s so often the post-truth politicians that like to use a little nostalgia?

Vihma: I think it’s mainly, because it’s effective. They tend to not care about the rules as we discussed, but kind of message, what they feel that cuts the cake and a nostalgia seems to be a winning these days. It’s easy to combine that with kind of anti-elitist messaging and communication and kind of angry opposition populist kind of voice, because it’s the elites betrayal that has taken away our good old days. So, these can be combined. I think that’s something that’s… yeah, it works.

Annala: Whatever works, that’s what they say. To finish this off, could you describe one nightmare scenario and one optimistic scenario about what the 2020 elections might mean to the era of post-truth politics?

Vihma: Very unoriginally, I’d say that the worst case is that Trump and his supporters and this right-wing media ecosystem manage to cast a shadow over the legitimacy of the elections – that they challenge the result and then chaos ensues at least for a while. That’s of course very worrying and very objectionable scenario and we can only hope for the best, but we can’t be sure what’s going to happen. As for the best case, I try to gather all my optimism here… I think the best case is that the elections are perceived as legitimate and perhaps some kind of period of quiet time comes along. I think some kind of de-intensification would be much needed. I’m not sure that that’s in the cards, but we could certainly use a little break. I’m not even talking about the healing process, of healing of citizenship or liberal democracy, but a little bit of de-intensification for a year or two would be a best case.

Annala: Yeah, I guess if Trump loses like you said, we might not get another Trump, at least not right away. Even if we end up getting another Trump sometime soon, they might be a Trump 2.0 – a newer version of Trump, where they might actually have some more knowledge of the political substance, even though they would use his methods. So, we might get a little breather. If Trump loses and for example Joe Biden is elected president, I think there’s going to be a little less tweeting and a little less bullshitting – at least coming from the White House – and that would already make a slight difference in the everyday lives of people. Even though it wouldn’t obviously change what goes on in the social media, it wouldn’t change what goes on in the right-wing media ecosystem, but it might make these blatant bullshit statements a little less salient. We might be able to forget about them for a while and sort of not think about them all the time as much as we have in the past four years.

Vihma: We can certainly hope. Of course Joe Biden would be hated by a good number of people and then we shouldn’t be idealistic about him uniting the country again, that’s not in the cards. However, it might still be a little less of a disruptive era, a little less of a disruption compared to this chaotic ride that we’ve had for almost four years.

Annala: Yeah, here’s hoping. Hey thanks so much for coming!

Vihma: It was good to be here!

Outro:

Thanks for listening! Please tune in next week for our next episode. We’ll be talking about, how the Trump presidency has changed the transatlantic relationship and what lies ahead for the friendship between the US and Europe. Our guest will be Senior Research Fellow Matti Pesu from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.