What happens when leaders disregard the truth? Putin and Trump are about to find out

Peter Pomerantsev

The powerful were meant to be afraid of the truth. Journalists were meant to “hold truth to power”. Evidence was meant to destroy wrongdoers as sunlight does a vampire. Find the evidence, the logic went, and the powerful could be shamed and brought to justice.

Historically, the powerful would try to censor and suppress the facts. The Nazis tried to keep the truth about their atrocities hidden. The Soviet leadership would howl with embarrassment when dissidents passed information about conditions in the gulag to the outside world. Richard Nixon was brought down after the facts of his bugging his political opponents, and his ensuing cover-up, were brought to light.

But what happens when the powerful stop being scared of the truth, indeed flaunt their disregard for it – as we see in the behaviour of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and America’s Donald Trump? Why has shame disappeared and why does impunity reign? Are we now helpless to hold the powerful to account?

In the US last week, Trump was again lying “bigly” and brazenly. At a televised CNN town hall event, the journalist Katie Collins tried to rein him in with ropes of evidence and rational argument but he just revelled in rejecting any truth or logic. According to Trump, the presidential election that he lost in 2020 was “rigged”, despite there being no proof for any such claims; the reporter E Jean Carroll, whom a civil jury found Trump guilty of defaming and sexually abusing, was just a “whack job”; when Collins pulled him up over the classified documents that Trump had removed from the White House, he dismissed her as a “nasty person”. The audience in New Hampshire, full of Trump fans, whooped and cheered. Instead of being “held to account” with the truth, Trump had a field day showing how he didn’t give a hoot about it. Why do his supporters enjoy this so much?

There is, first of all, a powerful relief that comes from throwing off the weight of facts, the constraints of glum reality….