Shortly after Trump was elected president for the first time, Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump surrogate, presented her view of truth on The Diane Rehm Show:


Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s—on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, ‘No, it’s true.’ And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.


As the claim there are no facts seems absurd, the principle of charity requires considering that she meant something other than what she said. One of the many things I have learned from teaching philosophy is that students often claim to think that everything is a matter of opinion and thus seem to think is no truth. The follow up discussion usually reveals that they do not believe what they think they believe. Rather than thinking that there is no truth, they think people disagree and people have a right to freedom of belief. If the Trumpian “denial” of facts is just that people believe different things and have a right to freedom of belief, then I have no issue with this.  

But perhaps the rejection of facts is not as absurd as it seems as there are philosophical theories embracing this view. One is relativism, which is the view that truth is relative to something. This is typically a culture, though it could be relative to a political affiliation. One version of this is aesthetic relativism in which beauty is claimed to be relative to the culture and objective beauty is denied. Another rejection of facts is subjectivism, which is the idea that truth is relative to the individual. Sticking with an aesthetic example, the idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a subjectivist notion. On this view, there is not even a cultural account of beauty, beauty is dependent on the  individual observer. While Hughes did not develop her position, she and other Trump supporters seem to be embracing political relativism or even subjectivism: “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.”

If it is claimed that truth is relative to the groups (divided by their feelings towards Trump), then this is a relativist position. In this case, each group has its own truth that is made true by the belief of the group. If truth is dependent on the individual, then this is a subjectivist view. In this case, each person has their own truth, but s might happen to have a truth that others also accept.

While some might think this view of truth in politics is new, it dates back at least to the sophists of ancient Greece. The sophists presented themselves as pragmatic and practical and for a fee, they would train a person to sway the masses to gain influence and power. One of the best-known sophists, thanks to Plato, was Protagoras.

The rise of these sophists is easy to explain in terms of the niche that was created for them. Before the sophists arose, the pre-Socratic philosophers argued relentlessly against each other. Thales, for example, argued that the world is water. Heraclitus claimed it was fire. These disputes and the fact the arguments tended to be equally strong for and against any position, gave rise to skepticism, the philosophical view that we (seem to) lack knowledge. Some thinkers embraced this and became skeptics, others went beyond skepticism.

Skepticism often proved to be a gateway drug for relativism. If we cannot know what is true, then it is sensible to infer that truth is relative. If there is no objective truth, then the philosophers and scientists are wasting their time looking for what does not exist. The sincerely religious and the ethical are also wasting their time for there is no true right and no true wrong. But accepting this still leaves twenty-four hours a day to fill, so the question remained about what a person should do in a world without truth and ethics. The sophists offered an answer.

Since searching for truth or goodness would be pointless, the sophists adopted a practical approach. They marketed their ideas to make money and offered, in return, the promise of success. Some of the sophists did accept that there were objective aspects of reality, such as those dealing with physics or biology. They all saw matters of value (such as ethics, politics, and economics) as relative or subjective.

Being practical, they did recognize that the masses tended to profess belief in moral and religious values.  They were also aware that violating these norms could prove problematic when seeking success. Some taught their students to act in accord with the professed values of society. Others, as exemplified by Glaucon’s argument in the Ring of Gyges story of the Republic, taught their students to operate under the mask of morality and social values while achieving success by any means necessary.

Relativism still allows for there to be lies of a certain sort. For those who accept objective truth, a lie is an intentional untruth, usually told with malicious intent. For the relativist, a lie would be intentionally making a claim that is false relative to the group in question, usually with malicious intent. Going back to Trump, for his true believers his’s claims are true because they accept them. The claims that Trump is lying would be lies to them, because they believe that claim is untrue and that Trump doubters are acting with malign intent. The reverse holds for the Trump doubters. They have their truth, and the claims of the Trump believers are lies. This approach has been broadly embraced, with many pundits and politicians claiming that what they disagree with is thus a lie.

Relativism robs the accusation of lying of its sting, at least for those who understand the implications of relativism. On this view a liar is not someone who is intentionally making false claims. A liar is someone you disagree with. This does not mean that relativism is false, it just means that accusations of untruth become rhetorical tools and emotional expressions without any truth behind them. But they serve well as a tool to sway the masses, as Trump keeps showing. He simply accuses those who disagree with him of being liars and many believe him. Or at least purport to do so.  

I have no idea whether Trump has a theory of truth, but his approach remains consistent with sophism. It would also explain why Trump does not bother with research or evidence. These assume there is a truth that can be found and supported. But if there is no objective truth and only success matters, then there is no reason not to say anything that leads to success.

There are, of course, some classic problems for relativism and sophism. Through Socrates, Plato waged a systematic war on relativism and sophism and some exclellent criticisms can be found in his works.

 One concise way to refute relativism is to point out that relativism requires a group to define the truth. But there is no way principled way to keep the definition of what counts as a group of believers from sliding to there being a “group” of one, which is subjectivism. The problem with subjectivism is that if it is claimed that truth is subjective, then there is no truth at all, and we end up with nihilism. An impact of nihilism is the sophists’ claim that success matters is not true. This is not because it is false, it is because there is no truth. Another classic counter is that relativism about truth seems self-refuting: it being true requires that it be false. This argument seems rather too easy and clever by far, but it does make an interesting point for consideration.

In closing, it is fascinating that Hughes so openly presented her relativism (and sophism). Most classic sophists advocated, as noted above, operating under a mask of accepting conventional moral values. But we have seen a new approach to sophism: one that is trying to shift the values of society to openly accepting relativism and embracing sophism. While potentially risky, this could yield considerable political advantages and sophism might claim another triumph in 2024.