I’ve seen a few back-and-forths on this topic. My conclusion is that the participants are largely talking past each other, which is further evidence, as if any were needed, that Twitter is absolutely useless for trying to discuss anything containing the slightest depth or nuance. Please, people: just use it to post a link to an essay written on a blog or website. Stop trying to talk with a mouthful of novocaine, stop trying to sprint in a three-legged sack race, and stop trying to argue about detailed subjects in multiple sentence fragments. I beg you.
Anyway, yes, obviously, dishonesty is as old as the human species. What Malik is driving at, in my opinion, is that the postmodern left in particular has spent decades pouring acid on the concept of objectivity itself, which has created the opportunity for someone like Trump to brazenly disregard even a pretense of honesty. Allow me to elaborate by breezily conveying a few centuries’ worth of complex intellectual trends in a pocket summary.
Around the period of time in European history which we conventionally refer to as “the Enlightenment,” many people, understandably and reasonably enough, began to wonder if human society and culture could be explained by means of a few basic, inviolable laws in the same way that Newton had so successfully explained the natural world. Their hopes have remained unrealized to this day, with “scientism” being a term of disparagement often used against those who have closely hewed to that original vision.
Postmodernism was born as a result of the widespread disillusionment with the unintended consequences of mankind’s efforts to direct society according to scientific principles, which seemed to confirm that all our science and technology had accomplished was to make our worst impulses more lethal and efficient. While most (but not all, it must be said) postmodernists would concede that “facts” and “truth” apply in the realm of the natural sciences (excepting, perhaps, biology), they tend to be opposed to the idea of the terms having stable meaning in the realms of culture, society, and politics.
Nietzsche famously said that “there are no facts, only interpretations.” It’s difficult to know precisely what he meant by that, how seriously he intended it to be understood, or how far he would have liked to see it taken. His disciple Foucault, however, took the idea much further, perhaps doing more than anyone else to popularize the ideas animating many of today’s pomo radicals. When you hear someone’s rational argument being reduced to the predictable sum of their race, class or gender and dismissed accordingly, or when you hear the idea of objective, disinterested truth being scorned as nothing more than the most subtle, devious attempt yet by the Cishet White Patriarchy to exert hegemonic control over the discourse by presenting its own biased, tendentious values as neutral and universal, you can imagine Foucault’s bald head lurking in the background, nodding approvingly.
The postmodern left didn’t invent “alternative facts” so much as corrode the idea that there could ever be an respected position from which one could meaningfully condemn “alternative facts” as false. If cultural life is nothing but an endless power struggle between opposing groups with no means to morally distinguish between them, then Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty may have been the first Foucauldian postmodernist when he claimed, in response to Alice’s naïve assertion that words must have stable meanings, that the only thing that mattered was which meaning was to be master. For many of them, though, this is little more than an academic parlor game. Deconstructing the normative and epistemological foundations of Western culture is just a way to compete for status among other clever, disaffected academics, who otherwise live perfectly conventional lives outside the lecture hall. Others, however, are prepared to put such ideas to use outside of academia.
When Trump made the clearly risible claim that there were millions more people attending his inauguration than reported by the media, many people wondered why he would bother to lie about something so trivial, not to mention obviously untrue. Most bien pensant progressives responded along the lines of, “Because he’s a stupid, insane Rethuglican; it’s just the nature of the beast, hurr hurr!” I would suggest instead that he was simply planting his flag, rallying his supporters around a narrative. He’s been saying to his supporters all along, “The media are biased against people like you and me.” They already believed it anyway, and not without reason. They’re ready and willing to fight about it. They don’t need a good reason to fight about it, they just need a reason. Crowd size? Sure, why not. You’ve got your narrative, we’ve got ours. The only question is which is to be master, that’s all. Let’s do this thing.
The postmodern left, like a bunch of Will Ropers, have made clear their eagerness to cut down every last pretense to objectivity and civility in order to get at the Devil of oppression. We see another illustration of this in the pathetic spectacle of progressives competing to show which of them is more ready and willing to punch a Nazi, even if the Nazi in question has only been elevated from an insignificant fringe figure to an international celebrity thanks to progressive media giving him and his followers a disproportionate amount of undeserved attention in the first place. Out of reckless irresponsibility, they’ve created a battleground upon which they are woefully unprepared to fight. Now the Devil has turned around on them, eager to fight under these terms on this terrain.