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The Lies that Bind: Post-Truth on Trial

Putin, Trump and Johnson all face legal jeopardy. The charges reveal as much about us as them says Simon Speakman Cordall

Photomontage: Composed from Alamy Images

The Lies that BindPost-Truth on Trial

Putin, Trump and Johnson all face legal jeopardy. The charges reveal as much about us as them says Simon Speakman Cordall

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When enough columnists begin by telling you these are extraordinary times, it’s fair to say that the times are no longer particularly extraordinary. They’re just the times. However, we do live at a very particular juncture in history.

Currently, three of the world’s most prominent practitioners of what political scientists term post truth politics, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin face legal jeopardy. In the face of attack, all have proven defiant and all have attacked the institutions holding them to account and all, to varying degrees, are threatening to burn the house down if judgement goes against them.

In New York, Donald Trump stands accused of falsifying business records, covering up hush money paid to an adult film star, Stormy Daniels. In the UK, Boris Johnson is accused of deliberately lying to parliament about the numerous parties held in his family home, while the International Criminal Court, (ICC) has issued arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights on charges of war crimes.

Ideologically, as much as ideology applies, there is little that binds this unholy trinity together. However, all, to various extents, have shown themselves comfortable with staring down a camera lens and, at least as far as their opponents are concerned, lying.

It’s important we recognise this. Objective truth, that black is black and white is white, is the cornerstone of any functioning society. Truth matters. Politicians have exaggerated and embellished for as long as there has been politics. However, lying is a comparatively modern phenomenon. That a modern politician feels emboldened enough to address society and lie, only goes to show that something within that society is deeply unhealthy.

There’s a particularly cynical reading of populism at play here, too. All have proven themselves comfortable victimising vulnerable groups, typically migrants, or claim to speak for ‘the people.’ Likewise, all have chafed at the restraints of institutions they feel restrict their ability to act on the people’s behalf. However, as always, it is the lies that bind.

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Through the Brexit debate, Johnson continued to unspool the mistruths that have characterized his career at the very top of British journalism and politics, all the while decrying the metropolitan elite that sought to bring him down. Putin, for his part, began his premiership with attacks on the old elites of Boris Yeltsin and has consistently promised a return to the lost soul of slavic Russia and past greatness. Trump, well, the length of the chargesheet is dizzying.

Likewise, on finally being cornered, all have attacked the legitimacy of the body holding them to account, preferring to cast themselves as the victims of a wider conspiracy than accept any degree of accountability. Trump’s disdain for any check on his power, from the New York judge to the District Attorney finally calling time on his septuagenarian fantasies of Olympian power, is well documented. Putin opened his own investigation into the ICC prosecutor and judges who issued the warrant for his arrest, while allies of Boris Johnson have decried the “Kangaroo Court” that dares hold their champion to account, while insisting “the people” will ultimately find him innocent.

To many observers, it’s risible. However, there’s a wider context at play. For decades traditional liberal, or representative, democracies were the West’s foremost bulwark against encroachment by the Soviet Union. When the USSR finally collapsed in the early nineties, notions of liberal democracy, which had come to be defined in opposition to communism, grew weaker. More recently, after the financial crisis of 2008, as the tagline says at the end of every Quantum Leap episode, “Oh boy.”

“Johnson, Brexit and Trump didn’t come out of nowhere,” Dr Hamza Meddeb, a political scientist from Tunisia, a country rapidly acclimatising itself to the populist rule of its own President, said, “After the financial crash, public dissatisfaction with political parties and their leaders became clear to see. This idea has grown that ‘they’re all in it together.’ Traditional ideas of left and right have lost much of their meaning, allowing space for populists to emerge promising to smash the rule of the greedy elites.

“Now, throw social media into that mix, where truth and perception can be manipulated, and you have the stage for any leader setting themselves up in opposition to institutions, or even the global order,’ he said.

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Post-truth, or just asking the public to engage in a collective denial of reality, has proven a vital tool in the populist toolbox. Currently, Boris Johnson is calling upon the Privileges Committee to believe that documented social gatherings were not parties but were, in fact, more vital to the nation’s governance than nurses sleeping on hospital floors.

Putin’s lies are equally legion, from denying chemical attacks on UK soil, to telling the Russian public that Ukraine posed an immediate threat to their safety. That he didn’t know that abducting Ukrainian children was a war crime isn’t just improbable, it’s unbelievable.

And, as for Trump, the mind boggles. From the spurious claim that the 2020 election was rigged against him, to his allies’ grim omens that, if ‘they’ can do this to Trump, ‘they’ can do this to you. Warnings certain to land with every Ohio crop farmer worried about having paid $130,000 in hush money for illicit sex to a porn star.

In the UK, as the dwindling number of Johnson’s parliamentary allies lambast the Privileges Committee, their careless handling of the debate risks leaving permanent grease marks on one of the British parliament’s most vital institutions. In the US, Trump has likely done more than any other President to undermine both the Presidency and the institutions of state, while Putin’s hollowing out of Russia’s brief democracy should act as a stark warning to anyone.

However, the hope that the tide might be beginning to turn against the populists, their enablers and their jaded worldview is gradually taking shape. That all three subjects now face degrees of accountability should provide some succour to those thirsty for justice. Likewise, both Johnson’s isolation and the potential for both Trump and Putin, though unlikely, might be enough to warm a cold heart.

However, democratic vulnerabilities, once exposed, risk becoming weaknesses if left unattended.

“This needs to be an urgent conversation,” Dr Meddeb said, “We can’t just go about pretending that these things haven’t been said, or these things haven’t been done. We need to think of what we can do to protect democracy, of how we can build strong and cohesive societies where these attacks become impossible.” Ultimately, Dr Meddeb said, “We need to see accountability.”

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