The Truth of Trump

In “Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious,” Freud writes:

Two Jews met in a railway carriage at a station in Galicia. “Where are you going?” asked one. “To Cracow,” was the answer. “What a liar you are!” broke out the other. “If you say you’re going to Cracow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg. But I know that in fact you’re going to Cracow. So why are you lying to me?”

This excellent story, which gives an impression of over-subtlety, evidently works by the technique of absurdity. The second Jew is reproached for lying because he says he is going to Cracow, which is in fact his destination! But the powerful technical method of absurdity is here linked with another technique, representation by the opposite, for, according to the uncontradicted assertion of the first Jew, the second is lying when he tells the truth and is telling the truth by means of a lie. But the more serious substance of the joke is the problem of what determines the truth. The joke, once again, is pointing to a problem and is making use of the uncertainty of one of our commonest concepts. Is it the truth if we describe things as they are without troubling to consider how our hearer will understand what we say? Or is this only Jesuitical truth, and does not genuine truth consist in taking the hearer into account and giving him a faithful picture of our own knowledge? I think that jokes of this kind are sufficiently different from the rest to be given a special position. What they are attacking is not a person or an institution but the certainty of our knowledge itself, one of our speculative possessions. The appropriate name for them would therefore be ‘skeptical’ jokes.

In the age of post-truth, the logic governing this joke is no longer attached to humor or critique; it is the default condition of speech itself. But post-truth is not non-truth; it continues to rely on attributions of truthfulness in order to function in its “skeptical” mode. (Even truthiness involves a validity claim.) The question, as Freud points out, is not whether something is true, but rather how speech acts produce truth-experiences in our interlocutors—even if they do so by undermining the very notion of truth. Recall that Colbert’s neologism highlights precisely this dimension: truthiness is an experience of truer truth than the mere truth can furnish.

Having said that, it appears many of us on the left are prone to our own version of truthiness. Take Trump (please). When he goes on a Twitter rant about women, gays, Muslims, Mexicans, etc., we take him very seriously and respond in righteous outrage and ostensibly political gestures of refusal. But this is how we fall for the ruse. When Trump makes racist, misogynist and homophobic remarks, he is lying to us, concealing from us that he *really is* pursuing a lethal political agenda. The appearance of neo-fascism in his nascent administration should not deceive us: it really is neo-fascism. The post-truth President is telling us the truth, which we can discern only if we stop focusing on the falseness of its form.

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