The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump from Michiko Kakutani sat on my shelf for years, since being published to great acclaim in 2018. Other books related to the political situation during the Trump Administration felt more relevant. After reading it, I realize that I was wrong. Heck, media tracked the number of lies spoken by the head of our government. So, this book had relevance in spades.
And in 2021, after months of hearing media discuss “The Big Lie,” and hearing about the 2020 election-related lie itself, Kakutani’s book sat on my shelf mocking me. “Open me NOW,” it said. So, when the second Trump impeachment trial ended, I finally did.
Here’s what I learned. First, the book only reflects part of our collective history. But its ideas are even more important today. Kakutani analyzes and correlates the concept of truth with politics, history, philosophy, and literature. She discusses how the United States arrived at a place where the borders between truth and lies are beyond blurry.
Quotes to entice you
On page 20, Kakutani quotes former acting attorney general Sally Yates, “‘We can’t control whether our public servants lie to us. But we can control whether we hold them accountable for those lies or whether, in either a state of exhaustion or to protect our own political objectives, we look the other way and normalize an indifference to truth.’” Despite its 2017 date, this statement struck me in the solar plexus.
“The postmodernist argument that all truths are partial (and a function of one’s perspective) led to the related argument that there are many legitimate ways to understand or represent an event. This both encouraged a more egalitarian discourse and made it possible for the voices of the previously disenfranchised to be heard. But it’s also been exploited by those who want to make the case for offensive or debunked theories, or who want to equate things that cannot be equated.” (page 73) I don’t know much about the history of postmodern philosophy. But this book and this quote help me understand more about it.
“Without truth, democracy is hobbled. The founders recognized this, and those seeking democracy’s survival must recognize it today.” (page 173) No explanation necessary.
After the 2020 election, taking a break from reading about Trump and his administration seemed wise. And this isn’t really about him. It’s about how and why the broader world values truth less than ever. The idea that we now accept lies as a means to an end, and then promote them when it suits us is at the book’s center. It’s also about the rise of conservatism. And it includes Rush Limbaugh who happened to die as I read about how his hateful language promoted lies.
I appreciate how many books Kakutani references. That makes sense since she was a long-time book critic at the New York Times. Her command of language is amazing. However, some of it is so densely written that I read many sentences multiple times. For this reason, I recommend reading with eyes not ears. Unless you like rewinding and playing things twice or more.
This book offers limited hope. Instead, it repeatedly reminds us why truth matters and how lies damage democracy. So, I recommend to anyone interested in these concepts and their application in the future of our world. It’s intense despite only being about 175 small pages. So, I also recommend you plan when you read it.
You may want to pair this with something lighter but related. What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism from Dan Rather comes to mind. But if you want to dive deeper into its ideas, try How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley. Another book that continually came to mind as I read this one was Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present by Ruth Ben-Ghiat.