The Age of Total Lies

A mural of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump in Belgrade, Serbia, December 4, 2016
Marko Djuric/Reuters
A mural of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, Belgrade, Serbia, December, 2016

Abetted by fake news stories, manipulation of social media, and continual lying, the coming to power of Donald Trump has raised the question of whether other countries’ populations might be susceptible to the same level of deceit. An interesting case is Serbia, whose current prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, a former ultranationalist who served as an information minister in the late 1990s, when newspapers were fined and shut down in order to muzzle dissent as Slobodan Milošević fought a war with NATO over Kosovo.

The following commentary by the Serbian opposition politician and human rights activist Vesna Pešić describes the tricks Vučić and his party use to rule the country these days. A woman of extraordinary personal courage and integrity, she has continued to criticize Serbia’s leadership in her columns in Peščanik, an online magazine, despite efforts by the government to silence her. She was recently sued by the Police Minister for inflicting “mental pain” on him by describing his stupidity as beyond compare and wondering why he was assigned the role of being the dumbest in the present government. Here is a translation of her article, along with excerpts of a recent conversation I had with her about the implications of rule by lies and the similarities between the Serbian and American situations.

—Charles Simic


In my last article I wrote about strategies of covering up the truth. Now, I would like to go one step further and raise the issue of ruling by lies. It is worth asking whether there can be a theory of total lying, or at least an attempt to explain it. A situation of total lying happens when a culture of lies becomes dominant in a society, as a result of the reinvention of reality and the denial of facts. In such a situation, the facts are imprisoned and put out of reach. In Serbia, the shift toward counter-factual culture took place when the High Court ruled that Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić’s brother does not own a company called Asamacum, although it was duly registered in his name, in what was a clear case of nepotism and conflict of interest. The court did so under pressure from the government, accepting its fabrications that the brother’s identity, ID, and signature had been stolen. It was one of the first blows against common sense. The court upheld that lie and, thus undermined its status as an independent branch of the government.

The law was similarly suspended and facts distorted to justify issuing permits to demolish buildings in Belgrade after masked men in the night between April 24 and 25 tore down part of Savamala quarter where a controversial government project is to be built, and thus we stepped into a world of blunt power and manipulation.

Politicians are, of course, always promising more than they can achieve; demagogues didn’t appear yesterday. But where did this deliberate and constant lying come from? It appears to have become a prerequisite for holding a state office, especially for the position of a minister in Vučić’s government. Vedran Dzihic, a scholar at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, argues that the aim is to make it impossible to distinguish facts from lies. This phenomenon is spreading throughout the world and is not specific to Serbia. Dzihic calls this post-factual politics. He believes that those bewildering stories we hear about spies, traitors, and coups d’état are meant to inflate Serbia’s mythical sense of importance and “throw dust in the eyes of the public.”

The fact that Donald Trump has won the US election thanks to his skillful management of lies confirms that there is some truth to the theory of post-factual politics. He unstintingly gave false promises in order to get the votes of those who had been “forgotten,” who were happy to be remembered—even if only to be lied to. That low-paid workers believe they will be rescued by a billionaire who does not pay taxes and who is the king of reality shows (false reality) is simply a result of downright deception. This will become evident very soon. Trump will cut taxes for those who already have too much money, but he won’t be able to give factory workers well-paid jobs, because it is impossible to do that in an advanced post-industrial society. Yet the angry and the poor continue to believe that a rich showman will start a fight against the very establishment that has marginalized them and impoverished them. And this is not just happening in the US, but also in France, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere. In fact, super-wealthy right-wing demagogues have formed coalitions with the poor all over the world, using post-factual and deceitful politics. By taking over the abandoned working class and relying on nationalism, which always wins in times of crisis, these new leaders are threatening Western liberal democracies. We are, in fact, dealing with an advancing form of social fascism—the most dangerous enemy of democracy, equality, and freedom.

It is clear that Serbia is a case in point, at least at first glance. We are led by a right-wing demagogue, a great manipulator who, while supported by the poor, is prone to authoritarianism and nationalism. But let’s not kid ourselves, our working class and other citizens won’t have it like in the US or France (if a right-wing demagogue wins the election there this spring). In underdeveloped countries such as ours, things are much worse, because here one can lie to infinity with impunity. This is because citizens are poorer, less educated, more prone to authoritarianism, more powerless, and more suspicious of democracy; while our institutions are battered and fragile, the media weak, and the economy frail. And our demagogue is not the same species as Trump. He is not rich, but belongs to a political mafia that intends to get rich by running the country. This distinction is crucial simply because such a government must hide what it is really doing. When all is hidden, a collective denial of facts occurs, leading to a culture of chronic rumors. Only the most diligent can learn a thing or two about what the ruling mafia is really doing. And that’s how it has to be, since its wealth has been obtained through corruption and crime).

In order to successfully hide their actions, our leaders bury the populace in lies, and in order to do so successfully, they have to undermine the state and its institutions, intimidate the media, and pay off people, which they do relentlessly. These are the weapons our leaders use to undermine critics and the opposition, and to fiercely protect the government and all its corrupt mess. Public opinion is manipulated to oppose the formally proclaimed pro-European policy, just as conflicts with neighboring nations and countries are encouraged, while stability is proclaimed. This is how such double politics is implemented: one for the nation, and the other for the rest of the world.

In a society as weak as Serbia’s, a lie is not used for ideological seduction, but to reinforce the reliance on authoritarian government. This dependency has always been there and explains why democratic and liberal-minded parties face an almost impenetrable wall. Their ideas are unable to reach a majority of voters because much of the population has already been converted to authoritarian rule and is not attracted to Western liberal principles. And the opposition parties themselves are under pressure from the regime. The current government chooses its ministers, MPs, and the editors of the pro-government media by how brutal and willing to lie they are. This is best seen in the three kinds of people in Vučić’s cabinet: the minister-boxers, who are willing to lie, babble, attack at his whim, and follow his commands blindly; those who are obedient and less visible to the public; and a third group that is “nice,” “pro-Western,” and “modern,” and is given the task of pouring lies about the great achievements of Serbia that are now within reach. “And we plan to catch up with the leading countries, such as the USA and China, in two years,” one of them tweeted, while another announced that our spacecraft will land on Mars by 2018. By saying that the EU has yet to do what Serbia is ready to do now, the new leadership has confirmed that our politics of manipulation is without parallel.

Vesna Pešić
Vesna Pešić

Charles Simic: I’ve been often struck reading your pieces over the years, including this one, by how much your observations on Serbia apply to American politics too. Now that we have Trump for president, I feel we are even closer.

Vesna Pešić: When Western democracies are shaken, peripheral countries often offer an early prophecy about the direction things are going. Those similarities don’t occur because the outskirts are the ones to create new global trends, but because they are the first to crumble as soon as the crisis sets in. The Serbian prime minister outdoes himself everyday with the lies he keeps telling us. Trump, too, has brought the usual practice of political spin to a whole new level. Neither of them has been hurt by their lies and fabrications. Serbian populists simply love Trump, they rooted for him passionately, marched the streets with photographs of him and demanded that Serbs in the US vote for him. They love how he attacks globalization and the fact the he is focused on the sovereignty of the nation. They feel that this kind of authoritarian turn will contribute to the fulfillment of Serbian nationalist dreams. They are convinced that Russia supports Serbia and that Trump’s “soon to be great again America” will soon join us. Lucky us!

When one hears the phrase “total lying” one thinks of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Mao’s China, but today we’re witnessing a growing contempt for truth in countries that are ostensibly democracies.

Contempt for the truth in democratic countries is not an entirely new phenomenon. But it is suddenly recognized for what it is after the Brexit referendum and Trump’s electoral campaign. This has nothing to do with the totalitarian history you’ve mentioned. Those leaders weren’t lying, they really believed in their messianic ideologies. The post-factual world imposes a new challenge: how to differentiate truth from intentional lies. European politicians are worried about fake news, disinformation, and hacker attacks attributed to Russia. The problem is that no one knows how seriously to take all this, or whether what we are hearing is the truth or a lie.

How do you explain that the poor are joining forces with billionaire leaders to make the rich even richer and the poor even poorer?

The welfare state was destroyed by globalization, de-industrialization, and the growing domination of corporations and the financial sector. Left-wing parties and left-wing criticism of capitalism is almost gone; the leftists have sided with neoliberalism, unions have been weakened or destroyed. Even when the banks collapsed in 2008, nothing changed. Taking over the problems of immigration and terrorism, right-wing politicians promised to “protect” citizens by spreading xenophobia, fear, and nationalism. They have risen to power by presenting themselves as the guardians of an abandoned working class, making appeals to nationalism and patriotic selfishness, and promising to kick the immigrants out.

Your pieces also have their moments of humor. I once reviewed a posthumous collection of political writing by Stojan Cerović and remember feeling that I was reading a diary of a sane human being who had found himself in a madhouse.

We are a small society and the progressive intellectuals all know each other. Our mischief is truly humorous, or, as we like to say, tragicomic. In the end, everything turns into a farce; although the consequences are actually tragic. Often I fall into humor, almost by accident, because the things our leaders say are sometimes hilarious. Stojan Cerović was a very dear friend of mine, I loved him very much. It’s funny how a backward society manages to nurture such talented people. Now we have remarkable caricaturists, even stand-up comics—an American invention. They are under heavy government censorship, and some shows have even been banned. But we still have to fight for democracy and freedom: we’re a minority, but we’re still here.

—Translated by Marijana Simic