‘Have You No Shame?’: On Post-Truth and Fake News

Prof. Dr. Phil. Habil. Cordelia Schmidt-Hellerau

The shameless promotion of the ‘Big Lie’ can be analyzed as a fetish, a fecal phallus revealing the perversion of the current campaign against the results of the US presidential election.


There used to be a saying: What's news in the US today, will be news in Europe tomorrow. Maybe the sequence never was as one-sided as its claim, and maybe nowadays, thanks to the ubiquity of social-media, extreme trends seem to simultaneously sprout in many places of the world. Still we may take the disturbing developments of a currently raging fake news / post-truth culture in the US as a case in point and wonder, what are the underlying psychological conditions that enable such a trend?
The 2020 US presidential election was the most scrutinized in US history. Each and all challenges of its results were rebutted. Yet false claims about it have been spreading like wildfires, e.g., that there was massive voter fraud; that Biden's win was a big lie; that the election was stolen und Trump is still the rightful President; that JFK Junior (who was killed in a plane crash in 1999) will come to Dallas and announce that he will be Trump's running mate in the next Presidential election; that the January 6 riot at the Capitol in Washington (aimed at preventing the certification of the election results) was just a normal tourist visit, a peaceful protest. Clearly, these and many other claims are so ridiculously false that they would seem to be over the top even in comedians' late night performances. But high-ranking Republican members of Congress don't speak out publicly against the dissemination of such conspiracy theories, and more than a year after the election, 71 % of Republican voters believe that the election was stolen. Supposedly as a consequence of the alleged massive ‘voter fraud’, 17 states with Republican governance have already enacted 28 laws that make it harder to vote and easier to control the outcome, and Republican members of State legislators are trying to pass nearly 400 additional bills to this end. On July 20, 2021 President Biden called the Republicans out on their dis-information campaign, saying : ‘Have you no shame?’

Biden's plea recalled Joseph Welch's immortal lines admonishing Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954 ‘Have you no sense of decency?’, which substantially contributed to McCarthy's downfall and the end of his infamous hearings. However, in 2021 no such result followed Biden's speech. The shift from Welch's call for decency to Biden's query about shame indicates a further regression to a more primitive state of metal functioning that has since befallen parts of our society. Clearly, the answer to Biden was NO. No shame? How can we understand a mindset that has no shame?

According to Freud, shame develops when the child transitions from the anal to the genital phase and is strengthened throughout latency, where it receives its most sophisticated expression – by supporting a ‘sense of decency’. Shame inhibits the urge to show and see the genitals, which are of utmost interest for the oedipal child. A natural inclination culturally fostered in child-rearing, shame works against the child's initial polymorphous perverse pleasures and eventually forms a protective wall against sexual perversions. The resolution of the Oedipus complex then comes about via processes of structural differentiation, separation, secondary identification, and sublimation, all of which contribute to containing the sexual urges and channeling them into the cultured behavior within civilized societies. Disgust in the anal and shame in the genital phase help these developments along. As Freud would have it, all these processes result in structure formations, which at the end of the Oedipus complex, are condensed into the superego. The superego has two wings, the ego-ideal with its challenging imperative to strive for the best, and the conscience with its warning to not do harm. 

Have you no shame? Shame may not prevent you from lying, but at least it would make you try to avoid being caught red-handed. It used to be like that. Now our elected representatives in the highest office can publicly say something in the morning and claim they never did so in the evening. They may even ask the courts to help them dispute the truth. I'm not talking about cases of dementia or delusion (even though the incapacity to distinguish reality from fantasy is a criteria for psychosis). I'm talking of willfully – and yes, shamelessly – telling lies. To call this a feature of psychopathy would merely label such conduct. The question is: how is it possible? Do these people have no superego? Or if they do, what kind of superego fosters such distortion of truth?

The ego-ideal is the residue of infantile sexual strivings and their first narcissistic cathexes of self and object. The resolution of the Oedipus complex has accepted gender and generational difference and the growth principle, which emphasizes eternal aspirations rather than immediate grandiosity. As Chasseguet-Smirgel (1975) has shown, in failed oedipal developments pregenital part-objects like the fecal phallus remain idealized in a perverse universe, which inverts feces into gold – or, we could say: lies into truth. The term ‘post-truth’ is then another inversion, because it idealizes a state of (pregenital) ‘pre-truth’, which won't acknowledge truth and reality (the superiority of the paternal phallus). The slogan ‘fake it until you make it’ has paved the way. Not able though to completely disavow the value of truth, it retains its hollowed out notion by asserting the fake superiority of being beyond or post truth. Post-truth representatives claim that in a post-modern world news is always fake because it shows the facts only in the eyes of the beholder, from the reporter's perspective; hence they demand that all perspectives need to be equally valuable (no difference). ‘Alternative facts’ must be true simply because they say so. This claim goes beyond narcissistic grandiosity. The lie becomes a celebrated fetish shamelessly pushed into your face in an act of brutal exhibitionism: look at my big lie! We understand why Biden's exclamation: ‘The big lie is just that, a big lie!’ was helpless, even counter-productive, because it confirmed the bigness of the lie, which is what is glorified (the golden calf to dance around). No shame, instead the celebration of the power of perversion. (It may have been more effective to clarify: ‘The so-called big lie is just a pathetic little lie!’).

What about the other wing of the superego, the conscience? While the ego-ideal's demands are pushed by the sexual drives, the prohibitions of the conscience are operated by the preservative drives (Schmidt-Hellerau 2001, 2018). Self- and object-preservation are interdependent. The child learns that to preserve the other helps to preserve herself. Thus do no harm. However, not all harm is immediately detectable, a tempting opening for lies to slip in. And clearly, lying does do harm. Lying is confusing, impinges upon a person's capacity to judge for herself. Since a lie is only employed when the truth would disadvantage the liar, lying is cheating, often with the ultimate purpose of an unjust enrichment (via power or other means). The amassment of anal gold is enticing, even necessary to gild the dirty flam of the fecal phallus. And as much as the liar betrays a glaring lack of object-preservation, he also demonstrates a considerable lack of self-preservation. When the rising tower of fraud, lies and stolen goods collapses (Madoff's Ponzi Scheme), the wreckage will not only crush his victims but bury the liar as well. 

The social breakdown of self- and object-preservation (the public conscience) clearly shows its perverse twist in the response to the pandemic. It started with downplaying its seriousness, purporting that the Covid-19 infection is just like a flu. Then the recommendations and later the mandates of wearing masks were disputed, fought against in the courts, and even in some states prohibited by law. Thereafter Covid vaccines were not only discredited as useless, but advised against as being extremely dangerous, because they would alter DNA, insert microchip surveillance technology into the body, cause miscarriages and infertility, could even infect people with Covid and much more. Alternative, better cures were recommended, namely drinking bleach, injecting disinfectants, or taking Hydroxychloroquine (an auto-immune and anti-malaria treatment), or Ivermectin (a horse and dog deworming medication) – all of which are not only unsafe but potentially poisonous (bleaching, disinfecting, and deworming betray the anal context). The inversion is obvious: the vaccine is dangerous, the poison is the cure. The lack of self-preservation (no mask, no vaccine) becomes a lack of object-preservation (spreading the virus), with both building each other up. The virulent perversion of self- and object-preservation ends up being group-suicidal.

The perfect mechanism to entertain this perversion is projective identification. The ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign calls the winner the thief, while stop means go. The actual rallying cry is: ‘Go steal the presidency!’ Throughout the past five years there were many examples of such obvious projective identifications. Their obviousness is as much a problem as the intent they reveal and the lies they put forth. Since these shameless projections, these in-your-face-lies, have not been vigorously repudiated by the leaders (the fathers) of the party they promote, we may wonder: Have these claims meanwhile established an ‘alternative’, fake reality, in which right is wrong and the truth is a lie? Freud has shown, regressions can lead to a dissolution and re-sexualization of superego demands. However, what we see here seems not simply a regression to previous states of mind. The proponents of this fake reality have created a new maxim of conduct, a marching order and principle of faith, an openly perverse super-ego that demands to worship the lie and scorn the truth. More than a year after the election, countless election audits supposedly set up to safeguard the integrity of the elections, are dragging on in many states, not hoping for a different result, but in order to smear the true results as fake and feed a sneaking suspicion against the value of official counts and democratic election processes.  
It has become clear, the confrontation with reason and reality won't make much difference. Sobriety and lawfulness can't match the level of excitement that comes along with the hype of a rallying cry. Conspiracy theories are exciting, overstimulating, they function like a drug. Rationality or scientific proof won't reach the addicted. Withdrawal is hard and easily avoided since replacements quickly are at hand. Addiction compounds perversion, of which it is an ingredient. And if perversion is the plug that stops the break out of psychosis, we have reached a dangerous and tricky moment. 

Can we take apart the perversion without unleashing violence? 

Can psychoanalysis help develop a path that would counter a further regression into mass-psychosis?
Chasseguet-Smirgel, J. (1975). L'idéal du moi. Essai psychanalytique sur la ‘maladie d'idéalité’. Paris: Tchou.
Schmidt-Hellerau, C. (2001). Life Drive & Death Drive, Libido & Lethe. A Formalized Consistent Model of Psychoanalytic Drive and Structure Theory. New York: Other Press.
Schmidt-Hellerau, C. (2018). Driven to Survive. Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis. New York: IPBooks.