Cold Showers, Horror Movies, and Violence: The Limitations of Truth in an Age of Trumpism
Michel Foucault recounts an 1840 work in which French psychiatrist, Dr. Leurer discusses how he treated one of his mad patients. Leurer took his patient to a shower room to detail and confess his madness. Following the patient’s recounting, the doctor tells the patient “all that […] is madness. Promise me not to believe in it anymore” (147). Although after hesitation, the patient promises, Leurer turns on a cold shower after which the patient assents, “Yes, yes! I am mad!” (147) The interrogation continues and the patient concedes, “Yes, I recognize that I am mad […] because you are forcing me to do so” (147). After another shower, confession, and subsequent interrogation, the patient rebuts, “I assure you, however, that I have heard voices and seen enemies around me” (147). The confession results in another cold shower with the patient conceding, “I admit it. I am mad; all that was madness” (148).
Foucault characterizes this anecdote as a “truth-therapy” wherein “the mad could be cured if one managed to show them that their delirium is without relation to reality” (148). These therapies operate under revelatory logic, which presupposes individuals can change their thinking when presented with the truth. While Foucault’s anecdote focuses on the relationships among “discourse, truth, and coercion,” it also importantly demonstrates the ineffectiveness of truth-therapy aimed at the mad (148).
In a time of economic, social, environmental, cultural, political, and environmental crises, Foucault’s anecdote offers a timely frame of intelligibility to test our collective assumptions about contemporary truth-therapies aimed at countering pervasive Trumpism, which privileges madness, if you will, over truth.
Discursive and Material Dangers
Characterizing Trumpism as madness carries obvious dangers. Defining madness and normality, for example, imposes particular rules of social behavior. Definitions always command ethical inquiries such as: who benefits from defining madness? How are bodies regulated and marginalized under such normalizing judgements? Who has power to interrogate, listen, discipline, and regulate? At what point did one’s action become mad? Moreover, madness and normality can become locked in a structural homology whereby they are just opposite sides of the same coin of morality and become subject to the same questions. Who, for example, benefits from defining normality? Who gets to set the slippery boundaries of rationality? What becomes of rationality when transferred to the social?
Despite the dangerous implications of these questions, and structural similarities that operate under the same logic, I’d like to suggest madness is a ubiquitous, collective, public feeling about Trumpism — particularly regarding Trump’s loss of the presidential election and soaring COVID-19 infections.
Presidential 2020 Election
When considering Trump’s lawyers proposed that Trump supporters boycott the Georgia senate run-off election, official Gabriel Sterling observed, “none of it makes sense. It’s crazy town.” Dubbed “mad king George,” and ‘insane duck,” with “hallucinatory hopes,” Trump alleges “massive evidence of fraud in GA” even after three certified voter recounts where votes, in the words of Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, “were counted accurately, fairly, and reliably.” No truth-therapy can mitigate the hostility Trump and his base have for evidence regarding the presidential loss. In fact, revelatory logic seems to only entrench Trump and his base. Psychiatrist and violence expert, Bandy X. Lee underscores these reactions when she recounts how once when confronted with evidence that countered one of his lies, Trump “would double down, repeat himself, and grow belligerent” (loc. 1,070). No cold shower, or even golden shower for that matter, followed. Unaffected by truth-tests, Trump supporters are even willing to die for him. The Arizona Republic Party, for instance, retweeted a Trump supporter who wrote “I am willing to give my life for this fight” and replied, “He is. Are you?”
The Pandemic: A Fucking Horror Movie
The belligerence, counter-truth, toxicity, and life-denial tendencies of Trumpism have similarly infected COVID-19 patients. Soaring COVID-19 infections haven’t proven an effective truth-therapy. Consider, for instance, the experience of a South Dakota ER nurse named Jodi Orth who, haunted by the unshakable thoughts of COVID-19 patients tweeted, “the ones that stick out are those who still don’t believe the virus is real. The ones who scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is […] going to ruin the USA. All while gasping for breath on 100% Vapotherm.” Orth continues, “I can’t stop thinking about it. […] It’s like a fucking horror movie that never ends.” Other nurses underscore Orth’s exhaustion with their personal experiences of patients who refuse therapy, repeat conspiracy theories, and refuse mask protection because it “den[ies] [their] constitutional rights.”
Not unlike Leurer’s patient, patients infected with Trumpism resist perceived coercion, remain steadfast in their paranoia, and remain unchanged when facing the truth. To reiterate, revelatory logic rests on the assumption that evidence might persuade the mad of their madness. Nonetheless, when a (composite) dying patient’s last words are “this can’t be happening, it’s not real,” rather than a confession of “I am mad; all that was madness,” the notion and practice of truth-therapies operating under revelatory logic prove antiquated to the politically mad. Friedrich Nietzsche explains this madness, if not with reference to truth-therapy when he writes, “the snake that cannot cast its skin perishes. So too with those minds which are prevented from changing their views: they cease to be minds” (aph. 573).
Truth-Tests: Repetition of the Same
Despite the apparent ineffectiveness of truth-therapies, the media is in no short supply of truth-therapy. Some experts, however, are reduced to silence about Trump’s dangerous comments about the virus. University of Pennsylvania Assistant Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy Harald Schmidt admitted, for instance, “I am struggling for words — this is crazy.” Nonetheless, other experts and pundits counter Trumpism with rational discourse supported by detailed, relevant, specific, and credible evidence; however, truth-therapies still are no silver bullet. By contrast, Trumpism seems to pervert the revelatory logic of truth-tests by illuminating the illumination, with the simulacrum taking a life of its own. If not with reference to art, Foucault explains this perversion when he says, “similitude circulates the simulacrum as an indefinite and reversible relation of the similar to the similar” (This is Not a Pipe 44).
The compulsive and pathological repetition of the simulacrum strips the signified and the simulacrum of all meaning. With regard to the Special Counsel Investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, for instance, Robert Mueller repeatedly asserted, the Counsel’s report “speaks for itself” with which Trump repeatedly claimed, “complete and total exoneration.” In a similar vein, Trump released the transcript summary of his call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky; however, with it, his team launched the slogan “read the transcript.” The slogan diverted supporters away from the real work of reading the transcript and took on a life of its own. Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show (Jordan Klepper) created a short video to inquire if Trump supporters had read the Ukraine call script — unsurprisingly, supporters answered they had not.
Truth-therapy lacks efficacy when Trump tells his supporters, “just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what is happening. Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.” Lacking trust in their own reason, Trump supporters relinquish their agency, and of course, as in Noah’s video, will call truth “bullshit.” Eventually, the signified and the simulacrum lose any significance, which explains why at Trump rallies, followers repeatedly chant mindless slogans unprompted by context, relevancy, or reason.
That’s right. Read the transcript. Repeat. And wear a conforming, bright, juicy-red MAGA hat while you are at it.
With reference to the transparency society, Byung-Chul Han maintains, “more information and communication alone do not illuminate the world. […] The mass of information produces no truth. The more information is set free, the more difficult it proves to survey the world. Hyperinformation and hypercommunication bring no light into darkness” (41). As such, Trump’s hypercommunication of the perverted truth obscures any truth or meaning.
Maybe it might be easy to dismiss Trumpism’s perversion of truth-therapy as a simple Platonic indictment against rhetoric, which reinforces its subordinate role to philosophy, which Plato characterized as true knowledge. Plato, for example, argues that for the rhetorician, “there is no need to know the truth of the actual matters, but one merely needs to have discovered some device of persuasion which will make one appear to those who do not know to know better than those who know” (Gorgias 95). In other words, appearance and belief over truth might be the rhetorical tools of Trumpism — or what some might call post-truth. Trumpism might even evoke rhetoric’s post-truth, artistic function of language, and yet, this occurs only in the form of a disaster artist.
Nonetheless, Trumpism has nothing to do with philosophy, post-truth, or art. Something else is at work when Trumpism resists truth-therapy, perverts revelatory logic, rhetoric, and ethics — a violence of rhetoric that erodes democracy and perpetuates everyday suffering.
Trumpism goes beyond discourse — it seeks to dominate and annihilate the other. As a tiny snapshot, incendiary chants such as “Lock her up,” “send her back,” and “fire Fauci” devolve into uncontainable conspiracy theories such as pizzagate that prompted assault with a dangerous weapon, a governor kidnapping plot, countless death threats to Georgia election officials, and so much more. When seventeen U.S. states seek to overturn Trump’s election loss, the violence of Trumpism rears yet another ugly head.
Mythic Knowledge: Hercules and the Lernean Hydra
With the dangerous task to kill the Lernean hydra with his nephew Iolaus, Hercules journeyed to the swamps near the city Lerna. With one immortal and nine heads, anyone who inhaled her toxic breath “died in greatest torment.” In some accounts, Hercules protected himself from the hydra’s toxic breath with a nose and mouth cloth covering (sound familiar?). Because the hydra would regenerate two heads after Hercules would sever a head, Iolaus eventually cauterized the necks to prevent regeneration. Finally, Hercules severed the immortal head.
The second labor provides a telling way to diminish Trumpism in its resistance to truth-therapy. As Bandy X. Lee says, “how do we reason with a Trump supporter?” The quick answer to that query is, simply: ‘You don’t’” (loc.2,709). Rather than fall back on truth-therapies, Lee argues (democratically, not Hercules-like) removing Trump from power as well as the conditions that made them vulnerable to exploitation in the first place can transform society. Exploitative neoliberal capitalism can only foster violent connections whereby Trumpism’s creative act devolves into contempt, torment, and negation.
Arts of Governmentality
When considering masks can mitigate COVID-19 infection rates, yet infections continue to soar, confronting Trumpism and the wicked problems of neoliberal capitalism seems an impossible, Herculean task. Unlike Trump’s anti-maskers, though, Hercules did wear a mask to protect himself from the hydra’s poisonous breath, so we’re fucked.
Although Hercules defeated the Hydra, here is the kicker, Trumpism will never disappear or be defeated — its violence endures. Nonetheless, critical social movements such as Black Lives Matter and the rallying call to defund the police are forces against state sanctioned violence and neoliberal capitalism. Redistributing resources of care to the community is a fledgling step toward chipping away at the inequities that made people vulnerable to predatory Trumpism. Returning to the Hercules myth, the remedy to heal communities might be compassion and healing rather than severing and eliminating. Fixating on truth-therapy is no panacea for political struggle, but perhaps collective empathy may open new possibilities of ethical governmentality.
Foucault, Michel. The Politics of Truth. Translated by Lysa Hochroth and Catherine Porter, MIT Press, 2007.
Foucault, Michel. This is Not a Pipe. 2nd ed. Trans. James Harkness, U of California Press, 2008.
Han, Byung-Chul. The Transparency Society. Stanford Shorts, 2015.
Lee, Bandy X. Profile of a Nation: Trump’s Mind, America’s Soul. World Mental Health Coalition, Inc., 2020.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Cambridge U.P., 1982. Print.
Plato. “Gorgias.” Trans. W.R.M. Lamb. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings From Classical Times to the Present, 2d ed. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2000. 87–138. Print.