The search for truth is the pursuit of comfort in the face of doubt. Over the past few centuries, the scientific method — and the empirical proof it offers — has increasingly become the world’s go-to for answers. We plant and harvest crops based on meteorology, not astronomy; we administer levothyroxine, not leeches.
Statecraft has a mixed relationship with truth, as it offers an alternative form of comfort: acquiescence to authority. In an uncertain world, a strong leader who promises bread, shelter, and reasons why someone else is to blame for our problems has a seductive power. Mass media, beginning with the printing press and speedballing with broadcast media, has made the state’s relationship with truth the biggest arrow in the quiver of both democracies and autocracies. As Sacha Baron Cohen said, democracies are based on shared truths, autocracies on shared lies. But both are shared via media.
Recent events in Russia are troubling — nobody wants chaos in the leadership of a nuclear-armed state — but also heartening: They validate that the world cedes advantage to truth. Regimes based on lies end badly. Joseph Goebbels, the architect of the Nazis’ anti-truth regime, helped Hitler build Germany into a global power, but its dominance was unsustainable. The day after Hitler shot himself, Goebbels murdered all six of his own children and took his own life.
Putin is Goebbels’s heir, the modern master of nihilist propaganda. Rather than institute any specific lie, Putin’s objective is to undermine the notion that there is a truth. He “uses the media to engineer a fog of disinformation, producing just enough distrust to ensure that the public can never mobilize around a coherent narrative,” as Sean Illing wrote in Vox. The approach has proved so effective domestically that he’s exported it to the West, funding advertising and social media campaigns to sow confusion in American and European politics. Steve Bannon brought the strategy to the Trump campaign with the descriptor: “Flood the zone with shit.” The ultimate irony is the U.S. financed and built our adversaries’ weapons of choice: social media. As Ian Bremmer puts it, we used to be the largest exporter of democracy; now we’re the largest exporter of weapons that attack democracies.
Lies are steroids: They’re effective in the short run but carry severe side effects that manifest in unpredictable ways over the medium and long term. Putin is discovering nihilism begets apathy, and a populace that doesn’t care about anything ultimately doesn’t care about its leader. Last week, a trusted thug turned mutineer, seized a Russian city, and drove an armored column halfway to Moscow. Instead of resisting the traitor, Putin’s nominally loyal citizens responded with the same apathy he’s beaten into them. In the U.S., Trump’s disinformation campaign did not win him reelection, and it may land him in federal prison.
Beyond creating apathy, anti-truth as a theory of governing suppresses innovation and economic growth, as neither the market nor the laws of physics respect lies. The founders of Moderna are billionaires; RFK Jr. will go down in history as a stain on his family’s legacy. Where success is a function of proximity to power instead of actual value registered, sycophants triumph over innovators. But ultimately, the country or company fails. The truth also makes for a better business strategy, as it illuminates problems, rendering them more vulnerable to attack.
The Musk zealots posing as advisers enabled the mother of all “let’s buy it so we can break it” moves. Submersibles imploding and $45 billion immolating in an instant are both manifestations of the same techno-narcissism that infects the U.S.: believing you’re above basic principles of citizenship, truth, or physics.
Rule by force of personality requires a combination of charisma and ruthlessness. Those who possess it are not great at sharing, so they often drop the baton. Or hold on too long, which has happened in both Russia and China, where lone leaders have extended their tenure past constitutional limits.
Truth is easier to pass on than narrative. Contested transfers of power don’t go well in anti-truth regimes. There is no referee, no framework that allows the losing side to retire from the field. Political disputes become wars, and autocrats have to jail or kill their opponents. Democracies offer the 2nd-place finisher a position in society — and because they accept the role of dissent, the presence of the loser isn’t an inherent challenge to the prevailing power. The runner-up can become one of the nation’s most respected citizens (e.g., Jimmy Carter). In an autocracy, the best they can hope for is securing safe haven in a foreign country before being executed in their own. Fun fact: After an assassination attempt on an autocrat, a country is 13% more likely to move toward democracy if the attempt is successful.
Elections in autocracies are coronations, testimonies to power, not truth. In 1927, Liberian President Charles King won a third term with 234,000 votes despite there being only 15,000 registered voters in the nation. In 1995, Saddam Hussein won 99.99% of the Iraqi vote. This year, Xi Jinping became China’s first party leader since Mao to achieve a third term in a landslide: 2,952 votes for, zero against.
Autocrats suffer from their anti-truth diet when they begin to believe their own lies. When truth is not valued, flattery and conformity prevail. Putin’s generals told him what he wanted to hear, and he grossly miscalculated the cost/benefit of invading Ukraine. This happens in democracies, too, when truth is sidelined. George W. Bush developed a faith in alternative facts that defined his presidency. His historic blunder in Iraq was based on “intelligence” which should have been badged “belief dressed up as fact.” Common to both regimes was/is the exiling of dissent. Truth can admit doubt, but authority cannot survive it.
The Good News
Over the long term, democracy is steadily beating autocracy. A hundred years ago, for every five autocracies there was one democracy. Today, democracy is the most popular form of governance.
Truth can be hijacked, but it’s difficult to kill — a reason it’s so enduring. You can manipulate, distract, and conceal, but it remains. Ricky Gervais made this point deftly:
If we took any holy book and destroyed it, in a thousand year’s time that wouldn’t come back just as it was. Whereas if we took every science book and destroyed them all, in a thousand years time, they’d all be back.
Despite garnering cultural relevance, lies have not prevailed at the ballot box. In races identified by the Washington Post as “competitive” in 2022, just 10 out of 47 candidates who’d denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election prevailed. And 9 out of 9 election deniers running in state elections for offices with authority over the voting process lost.
Neither party is free of lies. The liar of the month, RFK Jr., has established the illusion of domain expertise by repeating lies, with confidence, including how vaccines cause autism and U.S.-issued remdesivir treatments were designed to kill Ebola patients. But the truth will prevail. The American people will recognize that all peer-reviewed research confirms vaccines do not cause autism, and that Ebola killed remdesivir recipients, not remdesivir. Kennedy is polling at 14%, but that’s another way of saying he’s 50 points behind the frontrunner … who the majority of his party believe shouldn’t run again. Side note: The trolls demanding that real scientists debate RFK Jr. miss a couple key points. That debate has already happened, in labs, trials, and billions of injections. And, yes, the dissenter’s voice is important. In the case of vaccines, that voice was the control group … and it was nullified — billions of times.
Another side note: Last week, in Cannes, I had dinner with the CEO and co-President of Spotify. They are impressive men, and I love Spotify’s service. But it’s also becoming a platform to rival Meta’s spread of misinformation when it fails to fact-check owned content it distributes to tens of millions of young men.
Are You There?
I have written about my insecurities as a teen and young man. It wasn’t that I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror, but that I wasn’t there … I was invisible. My translucence was a function of trying to shape a narrative and person around what I thought others would be most impressed by or wanted to hear. This artificial soul had a difficult time developing into physical form that could be present and counted on. I believe part of becoming a man is presenting yourself, in your situation, in your most authentic form … risking upset or worse, indifference. And that’s the question. When we look in the mirror, before judging the image, we should ask ourselves: Am I here? Is this really … me?
Life is so rich,
P.P.S. Want to form better relationships with the people you work with? Pick up Michael Bungay Stanier’s new book How to Work with (Almost) Anyone — it’ll change the way you work.