President Trump recently addressed the nation with a message of hope and reassurance, noting, “‘While we may be physically apart, we can use this time to pray, to reflect and to focus on our personal relationship with God.’”
Non-fans of the president, whose polls steadily measure at least half of the country’s voters, will take little solace in those solemn words, having become conditioned to believing virtually nothing this president says on any subject, from his faith to his favorite COVID-19 cures.
Matthew Fraser’s task in his entertaining and provocative new book, “In Truth: The History of Lies From Ancient Rome to Modern America,” which was published by Prometheus Books in March, is nothing less than charting the 2,000-plus-years path from Julius Caesar’s spin doctors to Trump’s “post-truth” America. Fraser’s many decades as an international media journalist, broadcaster and university professor have ably prepared him to take on the tome’s lofty task. Fraser makes the book’s vast political history digestible and wildly relevant, without ever losing the thread of what befalls those who use “alternative facts.”
Fraser notes, “At the end of 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary declared post-truth as Word of the Year” and he uses that event to provide the book’s view that centuries of lying politicians and gullible citizens, softened up by endless hucksterism, disruptive technologies and countless entertainment diversions, have led us to this moment.
His basic thesis is two-fold: First, show-businessmanship, lying of all sorts and political leadership have always been bedfellows and there’s nothing strange about it.
Second, the wages of sin are Trump and all the variations of Trump that have continually sprung up — throughout history long past and recent across the political spectrum — when the truth becomes either too malleable or forbidden by the powers that are too threatened by it.
Fraser’s friendly and deft historical excursions, starting with no less a top-tier star tyrant than Caesar, deepen our understanding of the current political and social moment. One of the primary appeals of “In Truth” is that Fraser’s engaging historical deep dives are a welcome antidote to TV’s hectoring talking heads.
Fraser’s determined to sort out both the roots and the branches of contemporary lying and Trump is seen, in terms of truth-shredding, as no more or less a damaging social ill than Google or Facebook. It helps that Fraser’s able to casually rummage through a vast array of thinkers throughout history who’ve never let truth slow down their zeal to find something better. Key figures from Nietzsche to Derrida to Foucault are noted for their roles in creating what Stephen Colbert famously deemed “truthiness.”
In Fraser’s bleak view, in 2020 we’re all taking part in a wipeout not unlike the taking down of Julius Caesar. We all come to praise the truth and then, by accepting the rules of the Google- and Facebook-dominated media world, we wind up burying it.
“For some observers, more was at stake than a redistributed media advertising pie. The future of democracy was hanging in the balance. ‘Facebook has become the richest and most powerful publisher in history by replacing editors with algorithms — shattering the public square into millions of personalized news feeds, shifting entire societies away from the open terrain of genuine debate and argument, while they make billions from our valued attention,’ observed Guardian editor Katharine Viner. ‘This shift presents big challenges for liberal democracy.’”
Dubbing today’s tech giants Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube as “the four horsemen of the Apocalypse,” Fraser warns that the news industry has been vanquished by these companies, which he describes as “charging through the media landscape and slaying everything in sight.
“The subordination of the profession to technology was double. Journalists lost gatekeeper power to Google and Facebook as distribution systems connecting to consumers, and they lost control over content to the logic of the algorithm in determining what kinds of stories they produced. For some in the news industry, this trend promised an apocalyptical endgame.”
While “Lying” sounds the alarm on high-tech, Fraser also takes an entertaining, insightful dig into Trump’s showbiz roots. Fraser essentially places Trump’s training in showbiz as beginning in childhood and those formative years have largely gone unexamined, at least in comparison to the amount of ink and angst expended on Trump’s reality TV career.
Others have written about the influence of Christian pastor and religious media star Norman Vincent Peale on the young Donald Trump, but following the convincing historical briefing that precedes it, Fraser brilliantly illuminates the precise interlinking between Trump’s born-again Christian supporters, his reality show persona and the shrewd media strategy that built on those links and brought him to presidential power.
“A billionaire reality TV star, Trump was a perfect celebrity icon in a culture that worships success and fame. Before he declared his candidacy, he was world famous on ‘The Apprentice’ … millions of Americans venerated his celebrity persona — his money, his private jets, his mansions, his glamorous lifestyle … Trump was a self-made billionaire celebrity. He was the embodiment of the free-market America they cherished.
“Trump could nonetheless claim a longstanding connection with a brand of Christianity that was perfectly compatible with right-wing evangelical politics. He was an adherent to the so-called prosperity gospel movement. According to the prosperity gospel, wealth and fortune are rewards from God. The stronger your faith in God, the richer you will become. Trump had been introduced to this doctrine early in his life when attending the services of Norman Vincent Peale, his family’s pastor at Marble Collegiate Church on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.”
Peale is a familiar character to anyone who’s experienced or studied 20th century radio and television programming. The Variety Archives brim with accounts of his long-running religious programs that ran steadily on radio and then television from the 1930s to 1960s. He sold millions of books, including his mega-best seller, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” and founded the still-active Guideposts nonprofit inspirational publishing operation. In 1964, Don Murray played Peale in the motion picture “One Man’s Way,” and in 1984 Ronald Reagan presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
At the beginning of Peale’s TV career, Variety pegged him as a well-meaning up-and-coming minister without the chops he’d need to click in the fast-developing medium of television. Reviewing “What’s Your Trouble?,” Peale’s 1953 faith-based chat show that he presented on WCBS with his wife, Ruth, Variety wrote: “This is a Mr. & Mrs. gab show with a twist. Instead of the routine man-wife chitchat familiar to a.m. radio dialers, this series is a serious attempt to get across religioso themes. Its technique, however, is not as noteworthy as its purpose. The 15-minute sesh fails to hold interest and has a lulling effect. If the initialer is any indication of things to come, ‘What’s Your Trouble?’ will be a celluloid sermon that’ll have trouble finding dialer disciples. Dr. & Mrs. Norman Vincent Peale handle the gabbing chores with more sincerity than showmanship.”
While Variety dismissed Peale in his early TV days as lacking polish or media savvy, by the time Donald Trump was taking notes from his perch in Peale’s pews, Trump was learning from a man who was leading a major Manhattan religious congregation, running an inspirational publishing empire, topping the best-seller charts and also appearing weekly in his own nationally broadcast productions.
In Fraser’s fairly corrosive view of where centuries of power fibbing have delivered us, he recounts how Trump traveled from rapt attention to Peale’s lectures to leading his own flock of free-marketers, billionaires, Christian prosperity evangelicals and assorted Fox-following marks and pigeons who put him in the White House.
But there may be some consolation in Fraser’s sober analysis of Trump’s “I lie therefore I am” leadership style. If you thought you were the only one who suspected that lying isn’t an occasional afterthought for Trump, but a foundational principle of his mortal existence, here’s Fraser to reassure you that you’re not just imagining things.
“Trump was a perfect icon for the post-truth era: real-estate tycoon, casino magnate, Wrestlemania showman, and reality TV celebrity. His media persona belonged to the realm of fantasy. He made no bones about his disregard for truth; he professed it as a virtue.”
In other words, Trump may not have been technically “lying” when he mentioned a “personal relationship with God,” but it’s essential to understand Trump’s God is richer, more tan, more famous and has a younger Euromodel trophy wife than your God.