The initiated, the members of the elite, by virtue of a kind of intuitive and direct perception are aware of the profound innermost thoughts of the leader, know the true secret aims of the movement. And so they are not troubled a whit by the contradictions and inconsistencies in their chief's public utterances: they know that these have only one object: to deceive the crowd, the enemy, the "others," and they adulate the leader who manipulates and practices the lie with such skill. As for the others those who believe they evince by their belief that they are insensible to contradictions, impervious to doubt, incapable of thought. Alexandre Koyré (June 1945) "The Political Function of the Modern Lie," Contemporary Jewish Record, 298-9. [HT MA Khan]
Two of the more fascinating features in Donald Trump's political activity are (a) the brazen calls for unjust measures and (b) his effortless self-contradiction. Koyré's piece analyses both in light of each other. To the best of my knowledge contradictions in public speech are not well understood as such and as a species of propaganda and this explains my interest in Koyré here. Yet it is worth spending some time on (a) first, which Koyré traces back to Bismarck and calls the "second order lie:" because the brazen liar knows knows he "will not be believed by the "others," that his declarations would not be taken seriously by the uninitiated" it is precisely by telling them the truth, that he makes "certain of gulling and lulling his foes." (296)*
Koyré treats the second order lie as part and parcel of the propaganda of totalitarian societies. It fits his larger explanatory scheme because he models public lying, propaganda, and the public use of contradictions on the nature of conspiracy, which has (i) an elite initiated who guard the secret, (ii) the believing (mob) followers, and (iii) the enemy, the "others."** So, for example, the second order lie is (mistakenly) not believed by (iii), but is (correctly) believed by (i-ii). Koyré is clear that the modeling assumptions about human nature (he calls it an 'anthropology') that figure in the conspiracy model are not universal, but (and here he anticipates Arendt) he suggests that in totalitarian societies they can become self-actualizing (an "experimental proof of the doctrine" (300)).
One tricky aspect of the way Koyré's argument is unfolded is that at first it is not entirely clear if he treats the conspiracy model at arm's length (as a model that helps make intelligible the actions of others) or that he embraces its assumptions, too. By the end of the piece it is clear that he treats democracy with a different model, and he announces that he is agnostic about the assumptions of the conspiracy model. (Sadly, he does not model his own philosophical activity either in light of the conspiracy model nor in light of the inverted model he applies to democracy.)
As an aside, Koyré is not well known among philosophers anymore except those with an interest in the history and philosophy of science. This is a bit of shame because his life and intellectual formation are fascinating. His soft-Hegelian treatment of the history of science, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (1957), first presented at Hopkins paved the way for the uptake of Kuhn. [His account of the debate between Huygens/Leibniz and Newton over action at a distance was the target of my first (and, perhaps, best) paper I ever (co) wrote.] Reading "The Political Function of the Modern Lie," which has not been cited much, helps explain his prominence during the cold war--he is an unabashed critic of totalitarianism and he makes fun of the "self-styled social elite" (300) that falls for totalitarian propaganda in liberal democracies and he praises "the popular masses of the democratic countries, alleged to be degenerate and debased, who in accordance with the very principles of totalitarian anthropology have proved they belong to the higher category of humanity, composed of men who think." (300)
To get to the main point: Koyré treats (b) the acceptance of blatant contradictions in political speech of authoritarian leaders as follows: (i) an initiated elite who can see through the contradictions and who understand the true aims of the leader, but who guard the secret, and (ii) the believing (mob) who do not grasp the contradictions because they are -- and this is crucial -- incapable of doubt--they are true believers.
It is notable that in this paper Koyré, who was an accomplished historian of religion, is careful not to stress the analogy with religion/theology. But it is striking that for those who know the history of science, the contours of the Kuhnian model are clear: there is a shared hegemonic paradigm, and the scientific community is divided between worker-bees (who don't grasp the big picture and don't really pay attention to possible contraditions) and the scientific legislators/elite, who understand that they belong to a sect which does not take objections from outsiders (the enemy) seriously. Scientific revolutions are initiated when part of the elite starts contemplating defection (in light of some rather salient anomalies).
Either way, I am not suggesting that Koyré's treatment of contradictions in public speech modeled on conspiracies is fully convincing. Having said that, it is worth noting that Trump invokes conspiracies somewhat regularly (for a funny overview see here). [I am not the first to note the continued relevance of Hofstadter's (1964) "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."] It is part of the logic of a conspiratorial world-view that we can be surrounded by conspiracies. One peculiar feature of this world-view is that the person who sees conspiracies in others can also be itself at the head of a conspiracy surrounded by an inner cabal who can see through the ("funny") rhetoric and devoted followers who are true believers. Koyré's analysis is optimistic because he implies that democratic masses are resistant against it. (This is a bit odd for somebody who lives through the collapse of Weimar and the collapse of the third republic.) Hofstadter's work is, thus, a useful corrective.
To sum up: it is no surprise that in an age of mass media and (purported) transparency, we encounter the second order lie; it is less obvious how contradictions can survive their exposure. Koyré's model may be a useful starting place to start thinking about the prevalence of articulated contradictions in modern political life.
*In context Koyré is describing some of Hitler's brazen techniques.
**Koyré does not mention Carl Schmitt.