The flawed comparison of Nixon with Trump is pursued through a trite investigative structure, which leaves a much more interesting story unexplored: the story of a woman who takes ownership of her own self.
There are times when the story-teller gets the story wrong. This is one of those times. Spielberg wanted badly to make a movie to criticise Trump and appeal to Americans’ respect for the rule of law. To do so, he used as parallel Richard Nixon and his attempt at silencing the publication of the Pentagon Papers recording US involvement in Vietnam. In doing so, the story of the woman who published the Papers plays second fiddle.
Katharine Graham lived in the shadow of her father, Eugene Meyer, publisher-owner of the Washington Post, and of her husband, Phil Graham. Meyer made Graham publisher after becoming President of the World Bank. Graham ‘inherited’ the Post through his marriage to Katharine. Yet it is Katharine who finds herself in the middle of a national crisis in 1971. Bossed about by male editors and advisers, Katharine is portrayed as unsure when preparing the Post to go ‘public’ on the stock market. Daniel Ellsberg, military analyst at the State Department, leaks the Pentagon Papers first to the New York Times, which gets a court injunction, and then to the Washington Post. As such, the Post faces not only criminal charges but contempt of court. Graham publishes the Papers.
In publishing the Vietnam Papers, Katharine Graham becomes her own self. She comes out of the shadows and takes a stand, a stand that might ruin her newspaper, the legacy of her father and husband. She goes ahead anyway. Yet, as far as the film is concerned, she’s just a daughter and wife. The only thing ‘topical’ of this film is today’s obsessive retro nostalgia, which comes with 1970s sexism. We are not given any clues to her identity. Was she a woman frustrated by her inferior position or was she satisfied with it and uncomfortable at being thrown to the frontline? What was her relationship with her father and with her husband? Spielberg falls for the romantic crusade of fearless journalism, instead of giving a portrait of woman coming out of the shadows.
In pursuing a critique of Trump by a flawed association with Nixon, Spielberg’s The Post misses the story and the point. If Spielberg really wanted to draw a parallel between Nixon and Trump, he should have focused on the lies not the lack of respect for the rule of law. The lies about the Vietnam War are the seeds of today’s disenchantment. The Government lied about a war, a war that has torn the United States apart and caused over 3 million deaths. Nixon didn’t start the war or the lies, but, once President, he tried to suppress the truth. The Vietnam War was a pivotal moment in the history of the United States. Vietnam becomes the political and cultural event that shapes the new consciousness of the 1960s. It divided America between liberal and conservative. The rebellious sixties were the time of civil rights, the women’s liberation, the gay liberation, but also of citizens wanting to play a role in the public sphere and demanding reforms. They were was also the time of riots, of police violence (think Kent State University shooting), of the boom of the consumer economy, and of narcissistic self-expression.
The machine of the state didn’t reform enough, the national state economy went bust with the oil crisis in 1974 and and subsequent libertarian politics (to put it crudely), the dismantling of regulations that made the market a little fairer allowed the growth of corporations that buy political candidates. The betrayal of that new consciousness has left a deep suspicion of authority, cynicism, and, among conservatives, an under siege mentality. The lies have become bullshit. Those who talk bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt defines it, are not just lying, saying something that is not true; rather bullshitters are not interested in the veracity of the facts they’re talking about. They disregard the truth completely.
The bullshitter … does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. (see Frankfurt)
In the post-truth era, we are at risk of ceasing to believe in the possibility of truth. That’s how we end up with the questioning or outright rejection of expert knowledge. A little scepticism is healthy. After all, we get lied a lot. The US government lied on Vietnam, on their support of the Contras, the UK and US governments lied about Iraq, local government lied about the safety of water in Flint, corporates lie everyday, often to cheat (think car emissions and more). No wonder we think it’s all bullshit. Trump thrives on bullshit and emotional arousal, not just of his followers but also of his ‘enemies.’ After all, he’s an entertainer, a TV celebrity who has mastered what TV has been doing for decades: emotional manipulation and bullshit (see my analysis of Vice).
The means of communications are instant and global, making fact-checking and reflection more difficult. Submerged in bullshit from entertainers, infotainers, and conspiracy-tainers, it is easy to become the victim of cynicism and give up on ever being able to ascertain the truth (not just facts, but also values), can ‘suspicion’ help us discover the truth? The ‘hermeneutics of suspicion,’ as Ricoeur phrased it, is the sceptical attitude that seeks to unmask the lies and illusions of consciousness. We are not just lied to, we are also imbued with an understanding of reality (e.g. gender), values, and norms that reflect power relations, social structures, and that often oppress specific sections of the population (women, ethnic minorities, LGBT, disabled people etc.). Suspicion that can let us go beyond superficial understandings of reality, but it also carries the risk of relativism (as the excesses of post-structuralism and postmodernism showed us). Bullshit thrives today because too many are suspicious for suspicion’s sake. Disenchanted, frustrated, and insecure, we despair that truth is at all possible because it is not available once and for all and in clear and certain terms. Understanding truth was never meant to be easy.