The Death of Truth nails fake news and lying Donald Trump with flair, but little depth – review
Michiko Kakutani, former chief book critic of The New York Times, draws on literary sources to illuminate the conditions that led to Trump’s rise, and his relationship to truth. When she veers into political analysis, she is less sure-footed
The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump
by Michiko Kakutani
Tim Duggan Books
Michiko Kakutani had the best literary criticism job in America. As chief book critic for The New York Times, she could review any book she wanted and won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1998. So why, after 38 years at the paper, did she walk away from the gig?
The answer lies in The Death of Truth, her first book. At the end of its first chapter, she turns her attention to Stefan Zweig’s 1942 memoir, The World of Yesterday, which chronicled growing up in Austria and the rise of Hitler: “Because they were reluctant to abandon their accustomed lives, their daily routines and habits, Zweig wrote, people did not want to believe how rapidly their freedoms were being stolen.” Kakutani abandoned the life to which she was accustomed, this book shows, to raise an alarm about US President Donald Trump.
That alarm – that Trump presents a danger to the United States’ democratic institutions – may sound familiar. It’s seen in articles by experts in law, commerce, voting rights, the environment and so on, as well as other books. In The Death of Truth, Kakutani looks at the fragmenting cultural discourse that preceded Trump, the role of the internet in our lives and politics, Russian interference in the US and abroad, the degradation of language, highlights from Trump’s first year in office and, of course, fake news.
What Kakutani brings to the narrative is her wide literary referent and an ability to nail an opponent with flair. “If a novelist had concocted a villain like Trump – a larger-than-life, over-the-top avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery, and tyrannical impulses,” she writes, “she or he would likely be accused of extreme contrivance and implausibility.”
Looking back, she draws parallels between the regimes of Hitler in Germany, Lenin in Russia and Trump – particularly regarding their mass appeal, scapegoating and manipulation of language.
In explaining how social media can both be manipulated and manipulate us, she quotes virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier and Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu.
She includes novelists in her cultural tour: George Orwell for doublespeak, F. Scott Fitzgerald for greed, Thomas Pynchon for paranoia, David Foster Wallace for irony and insincerity, Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth for just about anything.
In 2010, historian Tony Judt published Ill Fares the Land, a slender yet comprehensive look at 20th and 21st century economic and political thought and practice. He draws connections and illustrates how one idea led to another, sometimes with inverse intention. This is the kind of book I hoped Kakutani might write.
However, the reference to “notes” in the subtitle is accurate. This is an assemblage of observations of what is happening in America.
These observations are not meant to convince but to create nods of assent. Most readers who pick up a book critical of Trump by the former New York Times book critic will have noticed that Fox News has many viewers and that they probably aren’t among them. They know that climate change is real. They will have, like the author, decried Trump’s tweets. They support Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. They keep up on the news and maybe are even newspaper subscribers.
Analysis of these events happens every day in newspapers and online, on the radio, in podcasts and on television. There is little analysis here, and the book feels thirsty for it.
When Kakutani does venture into political analysis, she can make missteps. “For many of these committed partisans, supporting their party was like being a rabid, diehard fan of a favourite National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball or National Football League team; it was part of their own identity, and their team could do no wrong,” she writes. “Polarised voting in Congress mirrored these developments.” That’s mistaking correlation for causation.
She’s on much better footing when she’s looking at the world through books. The passages she pulls from Zweig about life in Germany and Austria during Hitler’s rise are striking. So too is what she takes from Victor Klemperer and his diaries, I Will Bear Witness, focusing on the German-Jewish linguist’s real-time take – from Dresden – on the decay of language in the Nazi era.
In a weird literary theory fillip that only a handful of other readers may care about, Kakutani lays a surprising measure of the blame for fake news on postmodernism. The theory popularised by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault is based in the idea that word and meaning are inherently separate; it led to, or described, all kinds of play in literary fiction (see the works of William S. Burroughs, Pynchon and Don DeLillo).
Where she might have tracked money and right-wing think politics (via a book such as Jane Mayer’s Dark Money), the role of race and racism (with the help of a book such has Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me) or the widening gap between rich and poor (using Capital by Thomas Piketty) – postmodernism is instead in her sights throughout.
So far, Kakutani’s move from book critic to political observer is only partly successful. Apparently, it’s not easy lifting your focus from the page.