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The decision to finally impeach Trump has transformed the spirit of the nation in just a few short days, but just what it is that has changed, and why it matters so much, can only be understood when we look to the harm that has been caused by failing to speak the truth.
Perhaps the greatest mistake liberals made in halting the rise of rightwing extremism was failing to call it by its true names. When confronted by orgies of hate and the praise of dictators, we called it “populism” instead of the more obvious fascism. When confronted by a candidate calling on a foreign power to hack his rival, we labelled it “disloyalty” instead of the more salient treason.
We pretended things were not so bad in order to get on with our lives, but the more precise language also sounded extreme. Liberals worried about losing the center, but they were also shying away from a fight. So, journalistic standards of fairness and political norms of propriety conspired to flood us with a vacuous stream of euphemisms. We called lies “misstatements of fact,” concentration camps “holding facilities,” and the starvation of millions in Yemen “war crimes,” instead of the more descriptive genocide.
In the process, we minimized the horrors and downplayed the threats. The result was an endless sense of astonishment and a queasy feeling of alienation. We were surprised because we had been telling ourselves things were not so bad, alienated because we had been living a lie. And at times the veil we drew was so thick we were simply blinded.
How else to explain the virtual silence over a president bragging about making billions in arm sales to a Saudi regime that was deliberately using them to starve millions of children?
The process started many years ago when liberals began cultivating a smug sense of self-satisfaction in the face of rightwing hate. No need to debate them on social media, because “hater’s gonna hate;” no need to worry about the movement claiming your black president is a foreign-born Muslim, for no one will take them seriously. We convinced ourselves that anger cannot bring about change, so the haters were wasting their breath, and our indignation and resistance were therefore intemperate.
So, when they stole the Supreme Court in their unprecedented refusal to even grant Merrick Garland a hearing, we simply let it go. And we did the same when they filibustered legislation, gerrymandered districts, and talked of assassinating our leaders. We let it go because we had convinced ourselves that reason and truth always win over anger and lies; and we let it go because we told ourselves things weren’t so bad.
And yet, the problem was not simply that we were not calling things by their true names, for even when we did the language we used tended to inspire inaction. A “deliberate misstatement of facts” is the exact same thing as a lie, but lies are universally condemned as immoral. And “hate speech” might be the same as racial incitement, but incitement is cause for alarm and punishable by law.
And when the words are set in a moral framework, calling things by their true names not only inspires action but is an action in itself, like the boy who disrobes the emperor by saying he is wearing no clothes.
The philosopher J.L. Austin identified a strange species of what he called performative statements, which are highly relevant in this regard. Making a vow or committing to marriage cannot be verified as true or false, for instance; rather, the declarations themselves are actions. Austin limited this class of statements to those with clear consequences, but it can also be applied more broadly, as in the case of the congresswoman calling for impeachment. For in calling for impeachment, she is both making a statement and initiating a process.
Speaking truth to power is no mere intellectual exercise, but it is all the more powerful when implicit in the truth-speaking is this call to act and do what is right.
This sort of thing tends to make liberals uncomfortable. The linguist George Lakoff suggests that liberals tend to speak the language of the enlightenment, laying out the facts in neutral terms; but conservatives speak the language of marketing, moving listeners to act. Liberals tend to believe that in speaking objectively, they can initiate a debate in which reason will win. But it is seldom like that in real life, where words always tell an emotional story, which guides our next moves.
Consider what it means to describe Trump as a tyrant. Everyone knows how tyrants behave and the damage that they can do, because we have seen what happens when they head up nations and families. Tyrants try to control others but are not in control of themselves. As a result, their projects tend to end in disaster. Hence, by calling Trump a tyrant we are not just describing his character but pointing the way to what needs to be done.
It is much the same when we call him a bully. Everyone knows how bullies behave, because most of us have been bullied. We know they play dirty and make things up, and they tend to be weak inside and fall apart when stood up to. This is because their strength is based on an illusion. Hence, in labelling Trump a bully, we are not just describing him but implying what to do. And what can be said of tyrants and bullies might also be said of liars and cheats.
So, when congress finally spoke with one voice and declared the actions of Trump illegal, immoral, and unacceptable, and called for his impeachment, because it is the right thing to do, something shifted in the spirit of the nation. Suddenly, we were speaking the truth and acting accordingly, and this unified not just the resistance, but something deeper in the heart of the nation.
Karl Marx once wrote that “philosophers merely interpret the world; the point is to change it.” Changing the world requires that our interpretations lead to action. The language we use needs to be accurate, but it also needs to tell a story about what needs to be done. And it needs to remind us of who we are and what matters most. This is not to suggest that we should not remain open to reason, but we need to reason not just about what is true, but also what matters and what is to be done.
The tyrant and bully labels describe Trump accurately but they also suggest a course of action. Labelling him a fascist, who is putting kids in concentration camps, while starving millions more in Yemen, describes him saliently but also provides a metaphor that captures the meaning of his presidency.
But calling for his impeachment, because he has broken his commitment to serve and protect the nation, is doing things with words; and it is the right thing to do, because it involves speaking the truth with words that matter.
Theo Horesh, author of The Holocausts We All Deny