Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

The modern political lie and the political lie

ESSAY / How can it be that some politicians can lie as much as they want, like President Trump, and at the same time be perceived as truthful by their constituents? We look at how the philosopher Hannah Arendt defined the difference between the traditional and the modern lie, as the difference between hiding and destroying. And how the truth can be faked because one can finger reality.


Since Donald Trump took office as US President, article after article has been written about his lies: according to The Washington Post they amounted to no less than 2018 by the end of the summer of 4229 [18 'false or misleading claims' within 000 days, writes the newspaper 14 April 2020, editor's note]. At the same time, he is president with great "truth capital." He is not seen by his constituents as a liar at all, but on the contrary as a long-awaited truthful politician – as someone who says no other politician dares. The more often he is caught lying, and the more articles and lists are created about his lies, the stronger this truth capital seems to grow in the eyes of his followers.

When the world can be transformed into a circus, carnival and procession.

When we today discuss fake news, alternative facts »and lies in political contexts, we often forget that lies and secrets have always been part of the political game – the Roman concept arcana imperii refers, for example, to empire and power as something secret, something that hides itself. But one also forgets that truth in political contexts can mean something more than facts, if by facts you mean truths that have to do with the facts of the case. Lying, hiding, distorting or denying truths have always been political tools – no matter how immoral you may consider them to be. Being a "true" politician is not necessarily the same as sticking to the facts.

When the lie creeps into politics

"Let us not forget," wrote the philosopher Hannah Arendt, «That it was not human sin that made the lie creep into politics. Precisely for this reason, it is also unlikely that moral resentment will make it disappear. " It is no coincidence, she claims, that lies are part of politics, and that they are often seen as a necessary and legitimate, political tool. Lies and political action stand in an intimate relationship with each other.

Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt

Arendt, for his part, defines political action as birth, beginning and initiative. Political action sets history in motion in unexpected ways, it is the unforeseen beginning of something new – a beginning that cannot be fully explained by the actions and historical events that precede it.

But action in that sense, like beginning and birth, is not based on a vacuum – it is not a beginning out of nothing (ex nihilo). We always act in a historical and political context that is already there. Therefore, in order to make room for our actions, "something that was already there must be removed and destroyed, the previous state of things must be changed." We would not be able to do that if we did not, at least in our imagination, move to other places and imagine another world. That is, to deny reality as it is, and the actual circumstances given in it. " In other words, the conscious denial of actual truths — the ability to lie, and the ability to change facts, the ability to act — are bound together. they arise from the same source: the power of imagination. "

Without the ability to say "yes" or "no" – not just to statements and assertions, but to reality, "to things as they are given, beyond consensus and non-consensus, to our sensory organs and cognitive abilities" – it would not be able to act. And action, Arendt claims, is "the very thing that politics consists of."

The ability to lie, and the ability to change facts, the ability to act – are tied together.


The ability to lie and the ability to act politically thus emanate from the same source, namely our imagination – or what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called "the power of imagination". It was from this idea of ​​lies and political action that Arendt analyzed fascism as a movement that brought an innovation, a mutation, into the history of political lies.

Fadi Show
Fadi Show

Her originality in the book The origins of totalitarianism consists precisely in this: Instead of analyzing totalitarian regimes based on the ideological content of their doctrines or as a specific, authoritarian form of political governance, she argued that totalitarianism peculiarities must be understood from what she calls «the modern political lie».

Some politicians can strengthen the image of themselves as truthful by lying.

What Arendt means by the modern, political lie is not the same as something false and erroneous, or to deliberately withhold, distort or deny facts. It can not even be understood, as one usually understands lies, as opposed to truth. The modern political lie is something completely different: one can see it as a way of becoming the truth put in play in politics on, and as a way politics invests in truth on. This is precisely why it is also an important and interesting concept today, which can shed light on why some politicians can paradoxically strengthen the image of themselves as truthful by lying.


Arendt first discussed the modern political lie in its totalitarian forms. But she also claimed that it has many faces and can appear in non-totalitarian versions even in democratic countries. For example, in the essay "Lying in Politics", she discusses how a non-totalitarian variant of the modern lie arose in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, when PR agents, game theorists and problem solvers were brought to Washington to administer the Vietnam War. .

What, then, does the modern political lie mean? She tries to answer this question already in the opening chapter on the origins of totalitarianism, by reminding "that the position of truth in the world is very uncertain". Here she defines the modern lie by tracing a difference between the old and modern sophists (sophistiator). While the sophists of antiquity contented themselves with "the temporary victory of the argument, at the expense of the truth," more is at stake in modern sophistication. The modern sophist seeks "a more lasting victory at the expense of reality itself."

If the sophists of antiquity denied individual facts, content with a short-lived and temporary victory over the truth, their modern relatives would instead try to turn the lie into a lasting, fictional reality.

What was characteristic of fascist propaganda, she writes in the essay "The Seeds of a Fascist International", was precisely this: "it was not happy to lie, but deliberately tried to make its lies a reality. […] No one was prepared for a false reality that lies. "

This is why the modern lie cannot be understood as a lie, inaccuracy or deliberate distortion of facts. Rather, it must be understood as a special relationship between politics, reality and truth – or rather, as an unexpected beginning, an innovation, in the history of this relationship. The fascist ideology and the content of the propaganda were not in themselves new – but the "totalitarian organization", which turns lies into a fictional, but operational and lasting reality, was something unexpected:

The form of the totalitarian organization is – in contrast to the ideological content of the movements and the slogan of propaganda – something completely new. They are meant to translate the movement's propaganda lies, spun around a central fiction – the conspiracy of the Jews, the Trotskyists, 300 families and so on – into a functioning reality. So even under non-totalitarian circumstances, a group is built where the members act and react in accordance with the rules of a fictional world.

The camps of the Nazi regime and the Soviet Union

One can understand this operation, where lies are transformed into an organized fictional world, as a certain way the truth is put into play in politics.

The examples that Arendt returns to are the Nazi regime's concentration camp and the Soviet Union. The camps were invented as "laboratories" where they performed "experiments with or rather against reality". In this sense, their role in the totalitarian regimes was to establish isolated zones, outside the conflicting, conflict-filled and unstable world. These regimes arise "between people", through spontaneous interactions, communication and actions beyond any control.

In these zones, politics becomes true, and the regime legitimized: the inhabitants of the camps soon became living verifications of propaganda theses. Totalitarianism thus exploits the old understanding of the Western tradition of truth as a struggle between thought and things (the adequacy of reality and understanding), to a point where the truth completely loses its meaning, and no distinction can be made between true and false in the field of politics. This means that a sentence or thought is true if it is in accordance with reality – if it reproduces reality correctly, as it is.

From this realization, totalitarianism concluded that. We do not have to wait until reality reveals itself and shows us its true face. We can bring out a reality whose structures we want to know from the beginning, since it is entirely created by ourselves. In other words, the belief behind any totalitarian transformation of ideology into reality is that it will become true whether it is true or not.

Between hiding and destroying

If the traditional political liar was content to deny individual facts, the modern lie instead implies a more or less complete loss of reality, a denial of the whole of actual reality – while this operation paradoxically legitimizes the ideology. This is the art of the modern liar, whether it is a totalitarian or non-totalitarian variant: it is the art of making politics true, by making lies a reality.

That is precisely why, says Arendt, that fascism cannot be tackled by pointing out that it is a lie. Discussing the truthfulness of its statements would be like discussing with a potential killer whether his future victim is alive or not, but completely forgetting that the man can kill and that the killer, by killing the person in question, can quickly prove that this claim is true. .

We can finger the truth because we can finger reality.

To believe that one can react to a modern liar by showing that his claims are untrue is not only meaningless, but plays the ball over into his hands, since the modern liar does not operate through logical, rational debate, but through the actions which makes the policy true.

The liar, writes Arendt, «is an action man by nature; he says what is not the case because he wants things to be different than they are – that is, he wants to change the world. " The liar takes advantage of that relationship between our ability to act, to change the world, and "our enigmatic ability to say 'the sun is shining' when the rain pours down." The modern lie is an act of speech, a statement, which not only, on a logical and rational level, denies certain facts, and can be refuted. It is an action that changes the course of history, and thus becomes true.

This means that the modern lie arises within the domain of politics – the field Arendt describes as the stage of historical birth and beginning. It does not move in a completely rational and logical sphere, but in the sphere of unexpected, sudden beginnings – the sphere of initiative and imagination. In this sense, it unfolds as a separate, alternative story.

The danger of the modern lie is not that it distorts historical facts, but that instead, by obliterating all actual reality, it replaces the story of political beginnings with a story that destroys them. It is an experiment, an innovation, which replaces the whole web of facts that in uncontrolled ways emerge "between people" with an organized fictional reality – and thus, Arendt seems to say, also destroys the premise for new beginnings in politics. "In other words, the difference between the traditional and the modern lie is evenly different from the difference between hiding and destroying."

Pentagon documents

The modern lying artone consists in this dividend, in which a history of political action, birth and beginning, is replaced by a history that lies in the beginning – so that the memory of politics as beginning and initiative is erased. In this sense, the modern lie is not just a hallmark of totalitarian regimes – in its non-totalitarian variants it also appears in democratic states.

One of Arendt's examples is the so-called "Pentagon documents" which describe American involvement in Indochina from World War II to 1968. They were leaked to The New York Times in 1971, in the middle of the Vietnam War, and led to the violent debate that marked the beginning. on the case of Richard Nixon. This despite the fact that what they revealed was not really something new, but rather something that was already widely known. The shock effect was therefore not so much due to the content of the lies they revealed – as that the American intervention in the war should have consisted of "helping" the Vietnamese.

The reactions came rather because they showed that these lies were not something random, temporary and secondary, within the framework of a larger political strategy. Rather, the lies were the core of the political strategy, its infrastructure and tricks – and it was this, rather than the individual lies, that turned out to be an explosive secret.

Image creators and problem solvers

Arendt analyzes what the Pentagon documents demonstrate as a non-totalitarian variant of the modern lie, on a political scene dominated by the media. She refers to this variant of lying as "image-making" and "problem-solving". The image creators were per consultants, with roots in advertisingindustry, which came to Washington from Madison Avenue. The problem solvers were professional game theorists and systems analysts who came from universities and think tanks around the country.

The task of the PR consultants, on the one hand, was now to create images, an image – like that of the United States as a benevolent doctor helping its friends and allies in the fight against malicious communists – in order to "sell" the war to the Americans. voters. Problem solvers, on the other hand, were given the task of maintaining these images throughout the war years.

If the former created images to sell the war, the latter's task was to create scenarios, in the war, so that the war itself maintained the image of a war of liberation, and of the United States as a benevolent, aiding superpower. What the Pentagon documents revealed was precisely this: how the facts of the war were systematically deleted and replaced with images, and how scenarios were simultaneously created in the ongoing war, which made these images true. This in turn made it easier to sell the "fact" to American voters. The modern lie is thus a kind of laboratory, a mechanism, which creates a true, legitimate policy by systematically destroying the truth.

Modern testimony – a political act

What does it mean to be a witness to the truth in this situation? Arendt claims that the liar in politics has a great advantage over the witness to the truth. As an action man, as someone who wants to change the course of history, the liar is always already in the middle of the political scene. To tell the truth, however, is to take a completely different role: it is to point to the world as it is – something that normally does not lead to any action at all, but perhaps only to an acceptance of status quo. Truthfulness, Arendt writes, "has never been counted among the political virtues, precisely because it contributes so little to actual political activity, to changing the world and our living conditions."

Nikola Lists
Ll. Nicola Listes, see

But when it comes to the very modern lie, it appears different. As it creates fictional worlds, telling a truth becomes a testimony from within lie. What is at stake in such a truth is not individual facts, but rather the ordinary, historical reality the witness himself finds himself in. In such a situation, truthfulness as such becomes an immediate political factor, with explosive power. "When everyone lies about all things that are important, the witness of the truth, whether he knows it or not, has begun to act. He has also entered politics, because if he, against all odds, survives, a change in the world has begun. "

Modern testimony in itself becomes an act, however apolitical it may be, simply by introducing truth in a situation where it has been erased. But it is, of course, as Arendt suggests, an act that has its price in the form of risk: since the liar is free to shape his facts according to political interests and expectations, he will seem more convincing and credible than the one who speaks the truth, who may rather appear to be a mad liar.

Trump's campaign manager

At the same time, the modern lie is something that constantly reinvents itself – and Arendt never had time to think about how it can mutate in a situation where the truth itself can have an immediate and explosive political explosive power.

"I pack and sell him as an outsider," he explains Roger Stone – one of Trump's campaign leaders and the inventor of the song "The truth can no longer be hidden, put her in a cage, put her in a cage!" about Hillary Clinton. In what reality does that lie come true? When can the world be transformed into a circus, carnival and spectacle? "Politics is a show business for ugly people," says Stone, who initially wanted to become an actor and is described as a prince of darkness by his enemies – perhaps not so much because he, as it is claimed, "lacks soul", but because he know something about the secret that governs empires.

Lying, hiding, distorting or denying truths have always been political tools.

Stone knows that telling the truth is a risk. You can sell someone who has had a debt of billions of dollars – who has lost their casinos to the bank – as a risk taker. Stone knows how to create a liar in a media context by releasing "truth capital". It was not by lying, but by constantly be exposed as lies, that Trump "becomes true" – or in Stone's words, to become "the only one who breaks the prevailing order, when everyone else is in favor of the status quo".

It is better to be infamous than unknown

If anyone knows, it is of course Stone – who was barely 20 years old behind Nixon's re-election campaign; the same Nixon whose fall began with the Pentagon leak. Ironically, since these documents did not even cover the period when Nixon was in power. If the lie revealed in the Pentagon documents was a mechanism that replaced facts with images, which sold better if they came true – then lobbyist Stone knows that when reality has been picture, it is instead the witness of truth, who speaks "directly" to the people, beyond pictures and through Twitter, which can be sold: "I was like a jockey looking for a horse. You can not win without a horse. "

The political leap Stone sought and found a winner in a world where it is always possible to appear like a crazy and sick liar, like the one who always dares to take the risk, beyond any picture – in a reality that has been broadcast live casino and pure entertainment . "Do you really think people distinguish between politics and entertainment?" Stone asks rhetorically, proving his reasoning by confirming the saying "it is better to be infamous than unknown." When the empire is about to fall, it can – at least for a moment – preserve its legitimacy by becoming a show and pure entertainment.

To preserve their reality

Truth constitutes opposition and a limit to politics, an outside that cannot be completely controlled. At the same time, it is also something that can at the same time give legitimacy precisely to political interests, strategies and actors; at the same time as it can destroy their reality, their actual political influence. In Sophocles' drama, it is through his search for truth that King Oedipus wants to legitimize his power, but what he finds is something that not only overthrows him from power, but that tears apart the world he has ruled. The truth, writes the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, is not something we seek because we want it – it is rather something you have to make room for, against your will. The truth is the "touchstone" Socrates insisted that politics constantly had to work hard – to test and preserve its reality.

You may also like