It is hardly news to point out the profound disconnect between the world as imagined by a substantial portion of the U.S. population and the world as it actually is. This disconnect has been especially prevalent among the more reactionary segments of the populace thus far this election season, though they certainly don’t hold a monopoly. When faced with the egregious falsehoods repeatedly espoused by Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and the rest of the gang, many people are baffled. Why are these liars getting airtime? Why do they keep repeating lies, even after being corrected? Why do people keep believing and supporting them? Don’t any of them have any shame?
This line of frustrated questioning often depends implicitly on a particular kind of politics of truth, wherein the exposure of falsehoods, the soundness of one’s argument, and the uncovering of facts can defeat injustice, extremism, and particularistic demands. Ideals of deliberative democracy and public reason enshrine this as a central pillar, overcoming irreconcilable antagonism and the zealotry of a truly committed, uncompromising political actor through some larger recognized (or emergent) truth within which everyone can come to (rational) terms, however limited. This runs headlong into the truth claims churned out by the reactionary politicos. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss their eagerly consumed nonsense claims as only a sign of stupidity, irrationality, or ignorance in their audience, or their lying as simply a mark of being heinous manipulators. It might instead be useful to think of their truth politics through the metaphor of ecology.
When Donald Trump repeats the groundless threat that undocumented Mexican immigrants will destroy the U.S. economy and rape and/or murder everyone along the way, or Carly Fiorina doubles down on her having watched a non-existent Planned Parenthood infant brain-harvesting video (I don’t recall if the doctors were supposed to be wearing evil mustaches during the procedure), or Ben Carson fabricates pseudo-science and lends his medical prestige in service of Six-Day biblical literalism, or any of them repeat the unsupportable notion that Christians are subject to mass persecution within the U.S., or that the Iranian government has a suicide wish and wants to bee-line for a nuclear weapon so as to use it on Israel, or that ISIS is around every corner and The Greatest Threat To America Today, they are growing an environment of cognitive and emotive reference points wherein their plausible constituencies can survive and mobilize effective cohesion and power. These habitats help circulate particular ideas and feelings, grow interlocking networks, institutions, and policies, and certify the fitness of particular traits of mind, operative discourses, and culture. I have no doubt that Carson truly believes many of his curious statements on science. His is a “science of the gaps”, wherein actual empirical research and worthwhile scientific theories can be maintained, as long as they aren’t harmful to the theological cosmology and political expediency that are his immediate concerns. I also have no doubt that Trump is, as least for many things, simply fabricating what he knows will rile his base. The actual truth of their claims or the honesty of their convictions are, however, beside the point of their functional efficacy in building truth-habitats, some of which are for extremely inflexible, niche species of political animals.
This raises an important question, though, as more recent scholars of fanaticism, extremism, and zealotry and its applications in the pursuit of freedom, radical democracy, and equality (as with the radical American antebellum abolitionists) have broached. Who is the truly “inflexible” or maladaptive political animal amidst these divergent ecologies of truth? The anxious, white, Christian, nationalist reactionaries who require a secure, highly-pruned — if utterly mythical — habitat that brooks no challenge, and fight tooth and nail to preserve it? Or, those who oppose them, but (through some commitment to pluralistic tolerance, Rortyan irony, or a de-weaponized conception of public reason) are incapable of coming to terms with the antagonistic incompatibility of their ecologies, as well as being incapable of recognizing that *others* can recognize and embrace this incompatibility? While Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction is scarcely found among the liberal Left, who instead satisfy themselves with derision and condescension against the Right’s ignorance, those reactionaries are able to project their priorities far beyond their size.