An Alternative History of ‘Alternative Facts’: Postmodernism and the Center-Right Knowledge Ecology

Long a matter of academic attention, the very criteria of what makes a fact now circulates as a matter of politics. Indexing the increasingly widespread concern about what makes a fact, the Oxford dictionary selected “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year.

This philosophical issue crystallized in wider public discourse just after the inauguration of the forty-fifth president of the United States. Sean Spicer, the president’s first press secretary, asserted that attendance at the inauguration had been the largest ever. Spicer’s claim ran contrary to reporting from major media sources, to aerial and ground-level photographs comparing attendance on January 20, 2017, with photographs of previous inaugurations, and to reports on public transit ridership levels in the capital that day. Even as the new administration proffered pictures from the National Park Service that had been deceptively cropped to create the impression that attendees filled the entire available assembly space, Spicer excoriated media organizations for deceptive and intentionally underrepresenting attendance numbers. Subsequently, when confronted by the discrepancy between Spicer’s representation and the photographic record, Kelleyanne Conway, an advisor to President Trump, explained that Spicer’s statements came from his articulating what she called “alternate facts.”

Reactions to Conway’s remarks have ranged from defense to derision. Among academic publics, critics have meditated on Conway’s comments as a species of what the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt has termed “bullshit,” the class of statement in which the distinction between truth and fiction is irrelevant. Another mode of critique frames Conway’s comment as a part of a long-running conservative strategy to intentionally destroy knowledge in the public sphere.

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Perhaps the widest ranging commentary has involved classifying Conway’s remarks as a product of identity politics, intersectional methodology, and/or postmodernist views in the humanities that facts are social constructs. The idea that Trump and his administration are postmodern receives prominent attention in mass circulation media including the New York Times, New Republic, The Week, and National Review as well as conservative websites.

Such views are not new to analysis of Trump and his campaign. Indeed, they echo earlier suggestions in major media outlets that postmodernism is a useful way to characterize endemic lies in John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. So too do these accounts match the self-criticism by academics concerned that their own modes of analysis have enabled conspiracy theories.

If some suggest the Republican party from McCain to Trump now enact postmodernist philosophy, others have taken the argument further by contending that postmodernism and relativism are responsible for the outcome of the 2016 election. The philosopher Lee MacIntyre argues, “although the Brexit vote and the US presidential election may seem inextricably tied up with post-truth, neither was the cause of it—they were the result.”1 Kurt Andersen observes “postmodern intellectuals—post-positivists, poststructuralists, social constructivists, post-empiricists, epistemic relativists, cognitive relativists, descriptive relativists—turned out to be useful idiots most consequentially for the American right.” He offered the perspective that the “beginning of the end of reason” and therefore the rise of postmodernism was 1962 because, according to Andersen, that was the beginning of “the 1960s,” an era he sees as defined by irrationality, specifically the Beatles, LSD, and the counterculture.2 If Andersen sees particular genres of popular music and hallucinogens as leading to Trump via postmodernism, other public intellectuals locate the roots of Trumpism in too much popular critique of elites.

The once lead book critic for the New York Times Michiko Kakutani adopts such a view. In an article for the Guardian, she quotes Hannah Arendt’s contention in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.3

Such authoritarian subjects seem to have arrived, in Kakutani’s analysis, for “around the world, waves of populism and fundamentalism are elevating appeals to fear and anger over reasoned debate, eroding democratic institutions, and replacing expertise with the wisdom of the crowd.”

Having diagnosed the symptoms of “truth decline” and their relation to authoritarianism, Kakutani moves to identify the disease’s etiology: “For decades now, objectivity—or even the idea that people can aspire toward ascertaining the best available truth—has been falling out of favour.” In the book length version of this argument, Kakutani inveighs against what she takes as “ridiculous,” a so called “radical” postmodern view that scientific theories “are informed by the identity of the person positing the theory and the values of culture in which they are formed.”4

This corrosive idea that people making theories have no perspective or that theories happen without people to make them has a seeming origin. It was, Kakutani claims, the 1960s. For her, the problem with objectivity did not begin with the counterculture, as Andersen contends, but with the rise of relativism as the New Left sought “to expose the biases of western, bourgeois, male-dominated thinking,” and “academics promot the gospel of postmodernism, which argued that there are no universal truths, only smaller personal truths—perceptions shaped by the cultural and social forces of one’s day.” The decline of truth, Kakukati remarked, continued with the narcissism of the 1970s and eventually allowed it to be “hijacked” by the “populist right,” a process accelerated by social media.

Despite its breath and frequency, the evidence that academic forms of epistemology from “postmodernism” to “relativism” can account for the rise of Trump is sparse. We lack proof that they have played a determinative role in shaping the right or alt-right, or that they have transformed the political and social world. Such evidence certainly exists, but it is being overwhelmed by evidence for multiple alternative ways of explaining the history of the right, the alt-right, and Trump’s success in 2016. Such possibilities include the structure of the electoral college; the long history of voter suppression; patterns of systematic mistruth in movement conservatism since the 1960s; or a combination of social media exploitation with a targeted media, advertising, and psychological warfare campaign waged by an arm of the Russian intelligence services.

While centrist intellectuals see postmodernism as the cause of current conservative epistemology, members of the right and adherents of so-called classical liberalism disagree. When they reference postmodernism, it is only to attack it as a symptom of what is wrong with the country and to conflate it with “cultural Marxism,” “political correctness,” or the suppression of inquiry by leftists. Such discussions of postmodernism neither celebrate it nor deploy its tools for diagnostic purposes. Instead, they mention postmodernism to index what they see as the epistemic and moral decay of left-liberal elites, especially those in the humanities. For instance, the Cato Institute sees in postmodernism a mirror image of what Andersen and Kakutani see. For Cato, a conservative libertarian think tank with ample funding from the fossil fuel industry, postmodernism arms “modern censors” with weapons to prevent investigations into how the consensus scientific view of anthropogenic climate change lacks grounding.

Why, then is it so common for intellectuals to argue that postmodernism caused post-truth, our political situation, and the election of Trump? The answer to this question is not to be found in understanding the role of Derrida’s writing in the political consciousness of the average voter in Columbus, Ohio. Instead, I propose an approach directed at the history of knowledge systems within a particular, though elite, subculture.

This perspective seeks to investigate the intellectual worlds and historical memories constructed by journalists, trade book authors, literary critics, philosophers, and public intellectuals. Since the 1970s, this knowledge ecology has been populated by a coalition of liberal centrists and conservatives who write for informed, nonacademic audiences: professional pundits, authors of trade books, and, more recently, podcasters and speakers on the TedTalk circuit. In this ecology, the local culture, work, lives, and debates of academics at elite institutions loom exceptionally large. Public intellectuals, often having attended elite universities themselves, are consequently prepared to treat the environment of select university campuses as a synecdoche for American culture writ large.

In this knowledge ecology, protests again military contracting at universities, questions about the validity of Mertonian and Logical Empiricist accounts of science, critiques of the revival of race science in the hands of psychometricians, or debates over deconstructionist literary theory in Ann Arbor, Cambridge, or New Haven are not issues for an isolated ivory tower but seem to bear on the rationality and health of the entire country. Thus, whether it comes to them via reconstructed memories, oral accounts passed through elite networks, or coursework when they were young, today’s public intellectuals are prepared to understand 1960s and 1970s critiques of the production or uses of expert knowledge as both irrational and threatening to the nation as a whole.

Jamie Cohen-Cole is an associate professor of American Studies at George Washington University. His Twitter handle is @jcohencole.

  1. Lee McIntyre, Post-Truth (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018), 15. ↩︎
  2. See also Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (New York: Random House, 2017). ↩︎
  3. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1973), 474, quoted in Michiko Kakutani, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2018). ↩︎
  4. Kakutani, The Death of Truth. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Jamie Cohen-Cole, “An Alternative History of ‘Alternative Facts’: Postmodernism and the Center-Right Knowledge Ecology,” History of Knowledge, May 16, 2019,