Faith, bad faith and post-truth politics in the Trump Era
Josef Gregory Mahoney

Editor's note: Josef Gregory Mahoney is a professor of politics at East China Normal University. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was "post-truth," given its increasing use to describe politics of the era. As Oxford noted, the term has been around for several decades, and politicians have been lying a lot longer than that. However, metrics illustrating word usage indicate spikes in 2016, in the midst of misinformation campaigns for Brexit in the UK and simultaneously, the U.S. presidential election that took Donald Trump to the White House.

After four years of Trump in office, amid a cacophony of conspiracy theories, fake news and misinformation campaigns that are launched for or against Trump, and indeed, many of which are promoted by Trump openly, even to the point of willfully misrepresenting scientific facts and guidance in ways that have contributed significantly to America's failure to contain COVID-19, the term "post-truth politics" continues to resonate, and all the more so with Trump now running for reelection.

The origins of post-truth politics

The term might be widely understood as describing unscrupulous politicians and media lying to vulnerable constituent-consumers, but as Oxford notes, it indicates something much darker. 

Citing a 1992 essay by Steve Tesich in The Nation, Oxford suggests the post-truth era is one in which people have willfully chosen to be lied to, and politicians and media simply tell them what they want to hear. Quoting Tesich, Oxford notes, "we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world."

This is the lesson Tesich drew when drawing a line from the Iran-Contra scandal under Ronald Reagan to the first Persian Gulf War under George H.W. Bush, and which likewise can be drawn onward to the second Gulf War, the War on Terror, and Trump's rise. In fact, while the Trump era especially clearly demonstrates the U.S. is still living in the shadow of the Reagan era, Tesich fails to acknowledge much earlier starting points for post-truthism.

Bad Faith

While this historical moment certainly has its own unique characteristics, perhaps the basic problem is nothing new. In this sense, post-truth's underlying pathology easily links to one of Jean-Paul Sartre's most durable concepts, "bad faith," which can be defined simply as lying to oneself, knowing it's a lie, but choosing to believe it anyway. Sartre described this in Being and Nothingness (1943) as a socially ubiquitous condition that constantly undermines authentic being.

And even in those moments when we are not fully conscious of the lie that we tell ourselves or that we allow others to tell us, there is nevertheless still a lurking suspicion. 

This was one of the key points of Sartre's play, Les Mains Sales/Dirty Hands (1948), set in 1943, about a conflicted but faithful partisan, Hugo Barine, who assassinates a party leader under party orders and justifies it as politically valid, but who ultimately commits the murder after willfully ignoring actual political realities and allowing himself to be guided by a complicated mélange of personal motivations, including a dishonest intimate relationship and a duplicitous party agenda.

Poor Hugo, described by Sartre as a 23-year-old bourgeois intellectual who joined the Socialist Party's communist faction with the nom-de-guerre "Raskolnikov," in reference to Fyodor Dostoevsky's equally conflicted character of the same name in Crime and Punishment (1866/7). 

But Sartre also has Hugo flirting with another pseudonym "Julien Sorel," the protagonist of Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir/The Red and the Black (1830), set in the year it was published, and that satirized the pervasive practice of performing "sincerity" despite the obvious and widespread hypocrisy then common in France during the final year of the Bourbon Restoration.

Supporters wave flags during a campaign rally for President Donald Trump at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, U.S., July 17, 2019. /VCG

Supporters wave flags during a campaign rally for President Donald Trump at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, U.S., July 17, 2019. /VCG

Although André Gide believed the novel was ahead of its time given its focus on Sorel's psychology, Sartre's reference is, of course, intentionally trans-historical, underscoring his conviction that the problem of bad faith was nothing new, even in the terribly complicated and existentially compromising politics of the World War II era when he first described the term.

But this was also already true for Stendhal, who drew inspiration in part from Antoine Destutt de Tracy, who coined the term "ideology" in 1796 while imprisoned during the French "Reign of Terror," by which he proposed a rational normative science for evaluating political ideas or "truths" to counteract the irrational and violent tendencies of mob rule that frequently came into play then. Unfortunately for de Tracey, "ideology" has come to describe ideas in a way quite opposite to what he had in mind.

While Oxford appears justified in describing this as the post-truth era, and while other descriptors like "fake news" likewise proliferate, we are perhaps willfully lying to ourselves if we think what is happening now has not happened before, or that one should not draw uncomfortable lines from the past to the present as Sartre and Tesich did.


While philosophy as a discipline or intellectual pursuit in the Western tradition is sometimes described as a secular competitor with theology, favoring "reason" over "faith" and "physics" over "metaphysics," on a deeper level this distinction is ontologically inaccurate or more precisely, unfaithful.

The unavoidable necessity of faith is perhaps the most difficult lesson to appreciate in philosophy, particularly by materialists and secularists seeking an intellectual asylum from religion. This lesson is found even in the ancient Greek father of Western empiricism, Aristotle, and has been advanced in the modern era by existentialists like Søren Kierkegaard (a Christian), Friedrich Nietzsche (an atheist and anti-socialist) and Sartre (a Marxist humanist). 

It also resounds in very complicated and often terribly dark ways in the works of Martin Heidegger, often described as the most important philosopher of the 20th century, but who was also a Nazi and anti-Semite.

Whatever their strengths or shortcomings, what each of these philosophers understood is that it is impossible to construct oneself reliably as an ethical person without some clear commitment and fidelity to a set of principles or values that, however ascertained (even empirically or materially), amount to leaps of faith.

Reflecting on Kierkegaard's fascination with the biblical account of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as an act of faith over reason, Emmanuel Levinas questioned whether faith amounted to an act of violence against the self – the self as a construct of rational being –that then extends outward as violence towards others. Levinas also asked how one should reconcile Abraham's celebrated moral certitude with one of the Ten Commandments, "Thou shall not kill."

The USNS Comfort arrives in New York to help with overcrowding at the city's hospitals with COVID-19 patients, March 30, 2020. /AP

The USNS Comfort arrives in New York to help with overcrowding at the city's hospitals with COVID-19 patients, March 30, 2020. /AP

Levinas well-known influence on Jacques Derrida is clearest in this regard, particularly in his essay, "Violence and Metaphysics," in Writing and Difference (1967), which begins with a separate essay questioning Michel Foucault's thesis in History and Madness (1961) that faith, as a type of Cartesian retreat from doubt towards first principles, is when madness masks itself as reason.

Derrida's response begins provocatively with a quote from Kierkegaard, "The instant of decision is madness," and proceeds with the argument that madness is not hidden away or dismissed as Foucault believes, but sublated as reason itself, and carries over into every "reasonable" or rational decision and action that follows – as acts of faith.

Faith, bad faith, and Trump

By some accounts, Trump's popular support continues to weaken, although there is no clear evidence that his most devoted followers, an estimated 42-44 percent of voters, has decreased significantly. 

While his deteriorating relationship with the U.S. military and his mishandling of the outbreak threaten his reelection chances, his style of politics remains a potent force that will help narrow margins significantly in his race against Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, despite Biden's current double-digit lead in some national polls.

It is interesting to note that Trump's strongest supporters are Christians, especially Evangelicals, who have linked their religious faith to their faith in Trump, despite the fact that many acknowledge that Trump merely panders to their beliefs, and has, on the whole, lived his life in ways they find profoundly immoral.

Likewise, there are many Americans, including religious people, who are patriotically attracted to metaphysics of Trump's nationalism – centered on the "Make America Great Again" slogan, and which asserts a conservative nostalgia for a past, including the belief that progressive, multicultural and multilateral politics have eroded the cultural foundations of American exceptionalism and greatness.

In both respects, it can be argued that Trump speaks directly to the "lies" people want to hear about themselves. These lies are the threads of their fabricated being and facing the alternative not only exposes them to a devastating reality, it also makes them complicit in histories and practices that might fairly be described as "evil." 

In this sense, their faith in Trump can be viewed as both faith and bad faith, and their commitment to him is, pathologically, a matter of self-preservation. In short, they cannot and will not go quietly, even if Trump loses.

Strangely enough, this odd pairing of faith and bad faith also helps explain how some Trump supporters can believe that America is facing a biblical apocalypse – that we are living in the end times – while also embracing Trump as a savior.

Unsurprisingly, many minorities, as well as a growing number of Caucasians, disagree with Trump and his supporters, seen especially during recent protests against police brutality for killing African Americans, amid other frustrations, including Trump's alleged sympathies for white supremacists and the symbols associated with them, as well other concerns related to social justice, including his regard for women, his denial of environmental problems, and so on.

Even if the approaching election introduces us to a post-Trump presidency, it's unlikely to signal post-post-truth politics. Indeed, the narratives and counter-narratives that continue to spin out of control in the U.S. and beyond today are part of a much larger and older phenomenon. 

Nevertheless, such conditions appear to intensify, both now and in the past, as history shows and as this essay has hinted, during periods of national decline and global crises. The U.S. is in such an era now, and we might expect post-truthism to be a defining characteristic of American politics and beyond well after Trump leaves Washington.

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