Presidential Rhetoric and the Attack on Reality

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a plenary session of the Second Eurasian Women’s Forum in Saint Petersburg on September 20, 2018. (Photo by Dmitri Lovetsky / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read DMITRI LOVETSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

By Emily Erdmann

On November 6th, Miami University students and faculty welcomed Russian-American journalist and writer Masha Gessen. The Humanities Center and Havighurst Center teamed up with the Western College Program and the Departments of Media, Journalism, and Film to host Gessen, a prominent public intellectual. The talk took place in Shideler 152, where students poured in, filling the aisleways and lining the back of the room in rows. Gessen tailored her lecture in a different direction than most of the attendants were expecting by making an extended comparison between the leaders of the two countries she has reported on extensively, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

Gessen addressed the way they lie. For both of them, she argued that lying is a technique for asserting power over reality itself. In turn, this allows for the construction of a strategic reality which benefits the manipulator. The lies themselves need not be cunningly crafted, they can even be easy to disprove and overtly blatant. In fact, the more absurd the better.  This absurdity almost guarantees an elicited response. As Gessen put it, “you are forced to interact with the lie.” Bombarded by incessant fibbing, people may ultimately be blindsided by the truth, Gessen claimed. After a year of denying the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine, Putin responded, “Well of course there are Russian troops in Ukraine.” Putin retains the power to say what he wants when he wants as people continue to acknowledge every comment he makes and yet lose themselves in the disorientation between what is truth and what is lie.

Gessen went on to argue that both parties manipulate power-associated words to mean their opposite or nothing at all. By this she implied that certain words are given values that they don’t ordinarily possess, while other terms are stripped of their habitual value. In so doing, the president—be it Trump or Putin—reassign socially-acceptable terms to socially-unacceptable models with the end goal being that the latter is thus perceived as positively as the former. This is by no means a new tactic—Gessen cited the Soviet Union’s term for elections, “free expression of citizens’ will,” as a prime example because not a single word conveys its original meaning when aligned in the overall expression. There was neither will nor freedom in the authoritarian structure of the USSR, and without such qualities, there was subsequently no degree of expression. The people of said system are therefore subjects rather than citizens.  As a colloquially-integrated expression, the positive connotation of each word begins to redefine the “elections” as something more positive than a large-scale, forced selection of a single candidate. Trump served as a contemporary example for his re-appropriation of “Fake News,” a term which stems not from his administration, but from his adversary’s.

Gessen concluded that these tactics, among others, are representative of an assault on a shared reality. This shared reality, she argued, is the one thing that citizens need to hold on to most as it gives us a chance of recognizing the trap that is leadership rhetoric. It is not ideal to interact and therefore validate the absurd conjectures of the president, and yet it is an even worse step to remove oneself from politics altogether. One must therefore strive to be aware of the rhetorical trap, and in all things attempt, to the best of one’s ability, to not augment evil.

Following this abstract conclusion, questions from the crowd centralized around a common theme: Miami students and faculty wanted a more tangible resolution. How does one stay involved and yet not contribute to the issue? No concrete answer was raised, and for all of her expertise, Gessen could not satisfy the curiosity incited by her own revelations. No one as of yet appears to have the key out of this trap.



This entry was posted in Havighurst Lecturers, Lecture Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.