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.’ The interviewer then shows Hoekstra 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 characterised it as as fake news, Trump’s man in the Netherlands then denies that he said it was fake news even though the interview 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 recognise that he has been held to account at all, and doesn’t actually seem to care that his falsehoods have been exposed in full public view to the country he is now working in.
It is here, in this arrogant and total indifference to truth or fact-based argument, that we enter new political territory, whose implications have yet to be fully absorbed. Contrary to some suggestions, ‘post-truth’ politics did not begin with 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 have now reached a period of history in which the president of the United States can lie openly and brazenly on an almost daily basis without any consequences whatsoever. This is 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 his power base ignores and rejects what he ignores and rejects without batting an eyelid.
Let no one think that this 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 has happened to these studies, Davis denied that they had ever been carried out.
As early as November 2016, Davis’s department said that it was preparing impact studies ′on over 50 sectors of the economy.′ Yet Davis sat before the Brexit committee looking bored, smug and utterly indifferent as the discrepancy between what he had promised and what he was offering was presented to him.
There are various reasons why we have ended up like this. One explanation can be found in the common decadence of British and American politics, which increasingly produces politicians without intellectual grounding or moral compass, who no longer feel any motivation even to go through the motions of telling the truth. But the arrogance of Trump, Davis et al is also a recognition of a wider 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 entire 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 precisely that kind of audience.
It’s a constituency that has been around for a long time, fed on a diet of poisonous allegations and conspiratorial explanations 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 has merely widened the audience and made it easier to reach 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 dishonesty of Trump, Davis and Hoekstra is essentially a right and far-right political phenomenon, whose toxic indifference to anything but its own prejudices has now infiltrated 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.
After all, if being caught out lying no longer matters, then why should you even bother to tell the truth? Why bother trying to prove that something is true or false if people will simply dismiss the facts and arguments they don’t like as ‘fake news’ and embrace whatever lies and fantasies they feel comfortable with?
This might make for good entertainment - albeit of a dystopian kind. But if facts, truth and reasoned argument no longer have a role to play in democratic politics, then political life becomes a playground for bullies, demagogues, populists, Twitter hatemobs - and liars.
And that, Houston, is a big problem.