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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Talking away from totalitarianism

If Trump wins re-election, it’s unlikely that our democracy can survive. The primary bulwark against his seizure of unchecked authority would be the military high command, which has shown little patience with his pretensions and has resisted the illegitimate use of the armed forces, such as suppressing public protest. Even if he loses, however, the damage he has done will be hard to rectify.

I don’t have in mind his executive orders weakening environmental protections or health and safety standards. These can be undone by his successor. Nor do I mean the subversion of federal agencies through his dismissals of dedicated public servants and their replacement by people hostile to the missions of the very agencies they run. The agencies can be rebuilt, some more quickly, some less. I don’t even mean his Supreme Court appointments, although they will cause more lasting harm. I have in mind his damage to political life itself.

The lifeblood of democratic politics is public discourse — continuous flows of information and opinions that culminate in judgments about the wisest policies and most qualified people to guide us. That bloodstream has always been somewhat polluted — Trump is not the father of lies nor the originator of disinformation. No other president, however, has attempted to unsettle confidence in the very existence of a shared reality, replacing it instead with realities contingent upon our allegiance to person, party and/or race.

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” That description fits the kind of people Trump has tried to mold, just as it fits Trump himself.

How has he succeeded to such an extent? I’ll cite what I think are three leading causes. Basic is the disposition to heed information and opinions that reinforce our own outlook on life and ignore or discount whatever doesn’t, an almost universal behavior with which truth has always contended. Another is the drastic shrinkage of news media, especially newspapers, that have an ethic forbidding the knowing publication of misinformation, and their replacement by partisan broadcast media and a cacophony of voices on websites and social media. Today it’s inconceivable that Walter Cronkite could be voted the most trusted person in America.

But I want to dwell on a third, more complex, cause. It’s the rather recent and commendable awareness that our perceptions are heavily conditioned by situational realities such as gender, race and class. In academe, this awareness has made a huge impact on the humanities and social sciences, largely for the better. No longer are the fields dominated by the perceptions of white middle-class men. Hitherto excluded voices and new insights have emerged to enlarge and correct our knowledge.

But from being aware that our perceptions are situationally conditioned to denying that there are any stable facts or ascertainable truths is a small step, and too many academics have taken it. They have authorized a radical relativism and, striving to champion the previously marginalized, have encouraged tribalism in public discourse. Thus, even the facts about a coronavirus can become ideologically contested.

There’s no readier way to defend democracy now than to speak as accurately and judge as carefully as we can. We must confess to our own biases, but we mustn’t despair of truth.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.

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