Jeremy Paxman – ex-BBC political interviewer – said that his interviews with politicians were driven by the (in)famous question asked by an earlier Times foreign correspondent (Louis Heren), “why is this lying bastard lying to me?”. The answer is often as simple and obvious as ‘because too much honesty in politics is too damaging’. Honesty exposes; lying protects (to a point). Politicians are obsessively protective of their status-space.
Now, many people are exercised about the awful things Donald Trump says. It may be true that he suffers from Tourettes syndrome and simply cannot help utterances and tics spewing out. It is certainly true that it is frequently a frustrating and embarrassing experience. But there is at least an even chance that he is telling his own truths – more than we expect or like. We certainly seem to know more of his authentic flaws and prejudices than we do of many politicians. Ronald Reagan famously cited the old Hollywood saw, ‘ what you need to succeed is sincerity – if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made‘. This seems to be the barrel in which political postures most typically mature. Not so Trump’s, who seems naked of all skills of dissimulation and misdirection and unaware of audience. The confusion into which the press and media have supposedly been cast by him at the time of writing this blog is more one of ‘how can we cope with the terrible excess of truth?’ rather than the chronic ailment of having to winkle out a sliver of the real stuff.
It is sometime said that ‘open’ societies are more dangerous than ‘closed’ societies – open societies being those in which there is greater transparency of intention and mechanism. Why? Because the insistence on openness persuades politicians to find ever more subtle ways of concealing uncomfortable truths, and feigning openness with copious misinformation. Both this and its reciprocal are true by degrees, of course, and we need to be vigilant – far more so than we are with our (UK) mostly docile press and media. But, again, Donald Trump puts us in a spin. He is brutally open about his intentions to create a closed society. He even seems wilfully to draw attention to his clumsy attempts at lying. He is almost confessional before the misdemeanour.
Confusing it is and the contemporary press beats its chest about how to deal with the man – stupefied by the reversal. Trump will not play the game. In Jean Genet’s court scene in The Balcony, the judge insists that the plaintiff admits her guilt – but not too soon! He has to worm it out of her in the time-honoured way if he is to play his part. “If I am to be the model judge, you have to be the model prisoner!” – otherwise the game will not work. Genet saw artifice and ritual where we see rationality – or, rather, he blurred the boundary between the two. In fact, he celebrated those who were unhesitant and unashamed about their artifice, but in an honest way. I suspect he might have found Trump refreshing for his blunderous revelations of the inner mind. Not so our journalists who seem, in their protests, to be more like Genet’s judge.
Plaintiff: It’s true, your honour, I’m a blood-sucker!
Judge: No! No! No! That’s for later.
Plaintiff: What’s for later?
Judge: I mean the confession comes later. Right now deny everything – everything!
Plaintiff: Yeh! And get beaten again?!
Judge: Exactly, my child, get beaten again. First you deny and deny and deny and then admit and repent. I want to see real tears gush from your lovely eyes – I want to be drenched in them…I want to see real tears of repentance, I want to touch them with the edge of my black robe! Only when I see you wet as a meadow – !
So what might Paxman, at the height of his game, have made of Trump? He was disdainful of ‘the game’. Of course, he would immediately have seen the irrelevance of upending ‘the lying bastard’ in the conventional way and gone straight for the moral jugular.
What’s so confusing?