Although we expect all politicians to dissemble, equivocate, and lie, the disconnect between the Trump presidency and the truth has taken all this to a level most of us have never before experienced. By “the Trump presidency,” I include not only President Trump and his administration, but also the support Trump receives from Fox News and certain members of Congress, not to mention Trump’s base. What most of us would call undeniable facts, they deny with equanimity or with passion, depending on the temperament of the one who denies them.
What exactly, we wonder, is their connection with the reality? Do they truly believe what they say? Or are they, with full consciousness, telling bald-faced lies? Are playing word games, intent on deceiving us while staying right with God? Or are they confused, unable to bring the facts into some kind of connection with their thoughts?
It was with these unanswered questions in the back of my mind that I sat down to read Robert Warshow’s The Immediate Experience, because Warshow was an influential film critic, while I am a movie lover. In other words, I was just planning on gaining a few insights regarding movies I had watched, and thus it was with a bit of serendipity that I came across his 1953 essay, “The ‘Idealism’ of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,” written shortly after the Rosenbergs were convicted of spying and sentenced to death. While in prison, they wrote letters to each other, which were published. Warshow’s essay is a discussion of those letters. What struck me was the resonance between his analysis of the Rosenbergs’ idealism and the present situation concerning the Trump presidency, made all the more striking by the fact that they are at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Warshow says that “the commitment for which they died—and by which, we must assume, they somehow fulfilled themselves—was precisely that the truth was not to be spoken.” Because the Rosenbergs knew their letters to each other would first be read by prison officials, and because they were hoping to avoid execution, Warshow admits that they cannot be expected to have been completely honest about their spying for the Soviets. But their dissociation with the truth goes beyond mere prudence:
Under the circumstances, they could not have been truthful. But there is something uncanny nevertheless in the way this husband and wife felt compelled to write to each other, never evading the issue but, on the contrary, coming back to it continually in order to repeat continually what was not true.
Warshow quotes excerpts in which the Rosenbergs speak of their innocence, of how they had been framed, putting the word “Communist” always in quotes, and denying that they had committed the crime they had been convicted of. Of this, Warshow says:
No doubt there is a certain covert truth-telling in all this, with “we are innocent” standing for “my resolve is unshaken; I will not confess.” But one is forced to wonder whether the literal truth had not in some way ceased to exist for these people. It is now about seventeen years since Communists told the truth about themselves … and enough time has passed for the symbolic language of Communism to have taken on an independent existence.
The suggestion here seems to be that while a single thought cannot survive if it contradicts reality, when numerous thoughts are brought together under an ideology, they begin interacting with one another rather than with experience, which they are able to ignore. And the internal logic of the ideology alters the meanings of words in such a manner that denying facts can act as a substitute for denying the ideas held by others. For example, as Warshow notes:
… when he [Julius] says “it is obvious that I could never commit the crime I stand convicted of,” we cannot assume that he is simply lying. More probably, what he means is something like this: If it were a crime, I could not have done it. Since in the language of the unenlightened what I did is called a crime, and I am forced to speak in that language, the only truthful thing to say is that I did not do it.
Not only did their ideology detach itself from external experience of the world, but also, according to Warshow, from experience of themselves as persons:
It is as if these two had no internal sense of their own being but could see themselves only from the outside, in whatever postures their “case” seemed to demand—as if, one might say, they were only the most devoted of their thousands of “sympathizers.”
And later Warshow concludes that “they filled their lives with the second-hand, never so much as suspecting that anything else was possible.” And as such, they could relate to anything that served their purpose, and just as easily disown it later, “the initial responses and their contradictories [being] equally real, and equally unreal.”
There is something to this more profound than insincerity…. The Communist is always celebrating the same thing: the great empty Idea which has taken on the outlines of his personality….
What they [the Rosenbergs] stood for was not Communism as a certain form of social organization, not progress as a belief in the possibility of human improvement, but only their own identity as Communists or “progressives,” and they were perfectly “sincere” in making use of whatever catchwords seemed at any moment to assert that identity—just as one who seeks to establish his identity as a person of culture might try to do so either by praising abstract painting or by damning it. The Rosenbergs thought and felt whatever their political commitment required them to think and feel. But if they had not had the political commitment could they have thought and felt at all?
The thrust of all this seems to be that the most important aspect of their ideology was their personal identification with it. We normally think of an ideology as directed toward some end, toward a better world in some sense. But once an ideology has triumphed over experience, the better world can be asserted and believed in regardless of the facts. Jesus once asked how it would profit a man if he gained the whole world but lost his soul. In this case, we may ask how it will profit a man if he loses both the world and his soul for the sake of an ideology.
I believe it would be both tedious and unnecessary for me to list examples from the Trump administration, Congress, and Fox News as corresponding instances of Warshow’s analysis of the Rosenbergs, so I will leave all that to the reader’s imagination. And as to whether his analysis captures the nature of the Trump presidency and its relationship with the truth, I will leave that to the reader’s judgment. But I have saved for last my favorite tidbit from Warshow’s essay, which I will present without additional comment:
On July 4, 1951, Julius clipped a copy of the Declaration of Independence from the New York Times and taped it to the wall of his cell. “It is interesting,” he writes to Ethel, “to read these words concerning free speech, freedom of the press and religion in this setting. These rights our country’s patriots died for can’t be taken from the people even by Congress or the courts.” Does it matter that the Declaration of Independence says nothing about free speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of religion, and that Julius therefore could not have found it “interesting” to read “these words” in that particular document? It does not matter. Julius knew that the Declaration of Independence “stands for” America. Since, therefore, he already “knew” the Declaration, there was no need for him to actually read it in order to find it “interesting,” and it could not have occurred to him that he was being untruthful in implying that he had just been reading it when he had not. He could “see himself” reading it, so to speak, and this dramatic image became reality: he did not know that he had not read it.