A central challenge for anyone attempting to make sense of our current predicament is figuring out what is distinct about the age of Trump (what is, to use a popular phrase, “not normal”) and what is a continuation of previous trends. What is a difference in kind and what is a difference in degree. The title, “The Death of Truth,” implies truth was alive before, and that this era signals its demise. But anyone who lived through the George W. Bush years and the Iraq war (something Kakutani devotes a few pages to), or has spent any time reading American history, knows that official deception about the most important matters of life and death is by no means a new phenomenon.
Kakutani’s argument is that Trump is not only new and different and terrifying because of his lies, but also that he is the “bizarro-world apotheosis” of a variety of political, cultural and attitudinal impulses, trends and traditions that have waxed and waned throughout American and global history. Age-old authoritarian methods and impulses facilitated by new technology and the media landscape, in tandem with the growing polarization of the electorate, have brought us somewhere we in the United States haven’t quite been before. Trump, she writes, is “emblematic of dynamics that have been churning beneath the surface of daily life for years, creating the perfect ecosystem in which Veritas, the goddess of truth … could fall mortally ill.”
Kakutani is, obviously, nothing if not well read, but the book is so full of citations and allusions it can almost feel as though the author’s own argument is getting lost, if there is an original argument to be found at all. There are references to Orwell, Arendt, Tocqueville, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Philip Roth, Neil Postman, Tom Wolfe, along with contemporary writers on the politics of truth and polarization from Masha Gessen to Tim Wu. There are references to Twitter trolls, a gloss on Putin and dezinformatsiya, and a brief excursus on Derrida, deconstruction and postmodernism.
The best moments come from unnerving historical nuggets and finds, like this great Arendt observation that “in an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”