Post-truth politics actually dates back to Aristotle
by Kevin Morrell
Following Donald Trump’s inauguration as President the world is anticipating a new, and potentially radically different era for the US. The inauguration also prompts questions about this new style of politics. Trump’s surge to leading the most powerful nation in the world was fueled by a rhetoric we associate with a new term: ‘post-truth’. The Oxford Dictionary named post-truth its word of the year in 2016, and defined it as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
Brexit, and Trump’s success were new lows for many of us, particularly in higher education, precisely because facts came a distant second to populist appeals.
But, as a number of people have identified, post-truth didn’t begin with Trump.
One reference point for the two campaigns 2016 will be remembered for has been the propagandism of the 1930s, and two wickedly cynical pieces of advice: repeat lies often enough until they are accepted as true, or remember if you are going to lie, tell a big lie.
But almost a century earlier, in the 1850s, there was a far dirtier US election campaign where an anti-immigration party, the “know nothings”, actively thrived on pretending to be ignorant of their own party’s activities.
Further back still, before US independence, the satirist John Arbuthnot wrote: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it, so that when Men come to be undeceived, it is too late… like a physician who has found out an infallible medicine after the patient is dead.” The title of his 1712 essay The Art of Political Lying.
And way, way before Arbuthnot, in 350 BC, Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens describes the demagogue Cleon in a way Trump critics might recognize: “The cause of the corruption of the democracy by his wild undertakings.”
A closer look at Cleon invites several parallels with how critics see Trump. Cleon inherited his wealth from his father in the form of a tannery – a leather factory: certainly the Athenian equivalent of blue-collar.
He rose to power in 430 BC, during a desperate time for Athens – it was at war with Sparta and was devastated by plague. Plutarch describes him as someone who “catered to the pleasure of the Athenians” with a combination of “mad vanity”, “versatile buffoonery” and “disgusting boldness.”
Cleon had a distinctive and shocking communication style, one Athenians had never seen before. While speaking, he would hitch his cloak up and slap his thighs, running and yelling at the crowds.
Aristotle says he was “the first to use unseemly shouting and coarse abuse”. Aside from this radically new communication style, Cleon’s populism was based on attacking two enemies.
First, though wealthy himself, he was an anti-establishment figure, pursuing a “relentless persecution of the upper classes”.
Second, he was a flag-waving xenophobe, antagonistic towards Athens’ rival and (partly thanks to Cleon) bitter enemy Sparta, as well as to the city of Mytilene, who wanted independence from Athens.
The Athenian general and historian Thucydides even records a speech where Cleon expresses admiration for Mytilene’s “unassailable” walls.
Parallels don’t end there. A later Athenian writer, Lucian, suggests Cleon profited from exploiting his office as some warn Trump is set to do and that he was “venal to excess” (as Trump detractors suggest).
He was boastful, once bragging that he could win a war against some Spartans by himself. He was thin-skinned and censorious, as well as a litigious bully.
Cleon tried, unsuccessfully, to have the satirist Aristophanes prosecuted for writing The Babylonians, which he considered a treasonable play – in the process turning Aristophanes into a life-long enemy.
He accused Athenian generals of incompetence and, in establishment-bashing mode tried, unsuccessfully, to prosecute one of them, Laches.
Cleon was held responsible for the eventual exile of another, Thucydides, who as well as being a general is sometimes described as the founder of history.
Indeed Thucydides’ contribution was to found a tradition of historians as being concerned with facts and the truth.
Throughout this period Cleon was the biggest obstacle to normal relations with Sparta and within a year of his death a peace treaty was agreed.
History was certainly not kind to Cleon, and perhaps Trump will not be showered in praise either.
In Cleon’s case this was no surprise perhaps given that he exiled the most eminent Athenian historian and tried to silence the most eminent Athenian satirist.
Nowadays Cleon is most well-known through Aristophanes’ play, The Knights (far ruder than Saturday Night Live).
This has an unusually small cast because it is essentially a relentless assault on the character Paphlagon, who is obviously based on Cleon: “the leather-seller” with a “gaping arse”, “a perfect glutton for beans” who loudly “farts and snores”, an “arrant rogue” and “mud-stirrer” with a “pig’s education” and the “stink of leather” – “this villain, this villain, this villain! I cannot say the word too often, for he is a villain a thousand times a day”.
Cleon may well have had a front-row seat for The Knights, where he would have seen Aristophanes playing Paphlagon/Cleon, presumably because no-one else dared to.
Characters in these plays were masked, but no prop-maker dared make a mask resembling Cleon.
We might imagine Cleon later reviewing The Knights as: “A totally one-sided, biased show – overrated! The theatre must always be a safe and special place. Apologize!”
What matters is that Aristophanes’ contemporaries awarded The Knights first prize at the Lenaia festival (something like Athens’ Cannes Festival).
Cleon’s brand of post-truth politics flourished because when life is extremely hard, facts are not as novel or distracting as sensationalism.
Some Athenians were won over by the novel spectacle of yelling, coarse abuse and thigh-slapping – and distracted by diversionary ranting against Sparta.
Critics of Brexit and Trump might say voters were won over by bus-sized gimmicks or tweet-sized slogans – where both camps painted “enemy” over an anonymous other.
2016 was a bad year in which millions were desperate for change, but perhaps what we saw was an age old spectacle. Populism and appeals to emotion always work on some people. When times are bad enough they work on enough people.
One consolation for Trump’s opponents and Remainers is that the Athenians kept Cleon partly in check using existing governance mechanisms – the courts.
They can also take comfort that contemporary culture remembers Cleon through the eyes of his bitter enemy Aristophanes. Cleon’s era was horrific yet it also became a golden age for satire and saw the birth of the discipline of history.
The worst fears for the Trump presidency are bleak, but civilisation survived Cleon. Shortly after his death we saw another kind of Athenian golden age – with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle laying down the basis for Western philosophy and civilisation.
They taught the importance of scepticism and scrutiny, and of virtue. They placed the ultimate premium on the search for knowledge and truth.
In the Rhetoric Aristotle gave us all the tools we need to see through a Cleon. Indeed, he wanted rhetoric to be widely understood so politicians’ arguments were evaluated on their merits rather than the wrapper (or bus) they arrived in.
Kevin Morrell is Professor of Strategy at Warwick Business School, UK. He researches rhetoric in politics, on post-truth.
GRAPHIC: After Lysippos [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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