I've been watching -- all of us have -- as Donald Trump attacked language and turned it on its head. Either he's a genius at it or is simply the most over-reactive human alive. One way or another, we're going to regret he got anywhere near the presidency.
Karl Rove said something back in 2004 or so, quoted, more or less, in a Ron Suskind magazine article:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore." He continued "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."I of course appreciated the utter and audacious narcissism of Rove's view, that he was something like a Master of the Universe and the rest of us not even relevant to be considered "actors" on history's stage. Rove still matters on the margins of politics, but the comeuppance Rove and the whole George W. Bush presidency received makes his arrogance, in the end, somewhat digestible.
Enter Donald Trump. What clarifies the mind with Trump is the rapid -- if we've accomplished it at all! -- new understanding we had to undergo as we watched him actually win the presidency. So we're left scrambling to get a handle on a Trump style, if that little word can even encompass it.
I started by turning Hitler's notion of The Big Lie into Trump's Big Lies, as we had to deal with Trump's near-constant lies and distortions, in order to grasp what Trump might be up to, to find an organizing principle. (And yes, we can utter the names Hitler and Trump in the same sentence, and not simply to discuss their particular notions of propaganda.)
I've been helped lately by Masha Gessen's insights -- she regularly steps in, for me at least, ever since the battles of the disintegrating Yugoslavia -- into what Trump's up to, even if Trump himself might not explicitly understand it. Definitely listen to her appearance on NPR's On the Media in which she, correctly I feel, defines Trump's Way as controlling reality through constant distortion as if it were his superpower.
Referring to Soviet propaganda and the impoverishment of language it caused, Gessen asks:
How do you use the word freedom when you've used it to lie for all those years? Fact is you don't.By the way, Gessen is Russian, so she knows of which she speaks. Knowing Putin as she does, she warns us of Trump:
Right. Most Americans and the media certainly didn't believe there was even the possibility that Donald Trump could be elected president. And I think that part of the reason for that disbelief was an inability to look around at the world and consider the possibility that the United States was part of a worldwide trend of reversal of democracy, and a worldwide trend of right-wing populists coming to power.Holy shit. Think Putin, Ertogan, Poland, even Brexit. Then add Trump. Speaking of chess champion turned activist Garry Kasparov's metaphor using chess, Gesson goes on:
It's like playing chess with someone who keeps knocking figures off the chessboard...When you've got a candidate who's lying more than 90 percent of the time, then checking each one of his lies is probably not the best way to go. Probably the best way to go is "Okay, so, what is he trying to say by lying 90 percent of the time?" What is this new game we're playing?.. This is where, actually, Putin and Trump are incredibly similar...One thing they do share is the cacophony of lies that they produce and I think the larger message there is "I claim the right to say whatever the hell I please." That's a really important thing to understand, that the lying is the point, not in the sense that Trump really wants you to believe that millions of people voted illegally, but the point is that "I will say whatever the hell I want and that is also a component of my power."Rovian-based reality writ even larger. Gessen goes on to say that we need to call him out and not "normalize" his lies as campaign rhetoric or hyperbole but instead look to the larger story, and that is that they -- Putin and Trump -- are autocrats.
Autocrats. That's the larger story, and they reinforce it through chaos, and in particular the chaos of language, of information. Putin used it in Ukraine, and in his smaller way, Trump used it with the Carrier incident. Where next? (And he's not even president yet.)
It's Trump's goal that we can't get a grip on his next move because he smothers us in non-sense. How does a man alienate China one day, then the next claim a Japanese business decision made months ago as if he were just now responsible for it, and then the next day or moment hear the CEO of Boeing criticizing him and then tweet a complete distortion of the facts of Boeing's plans on building the next Air Force One in order to recommend canceling the deal -- based on those distortions in the tweet -- as if he were already the Deal Master? It's almost too much to take. In fact it is too much. And he wins. He wins the point, the day, the news cycle, while we sit around saying what the fuck is he up to. He's up to no good, but we're too discombobulated to absorb it. Then it's on to the next news cycle.
And yes, we can call it Putinesque, or Hitleresque, or Trumpesque, whatever we like, because we need to figure out what's really going on, what the bigger thing he's trying to say. And, so far, it's I control reality, and you don't, so, as Rove had said, "and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
I can only hope that we do get a handle on Trump and stop him, the way we inevitably stopped Bush, though that came a bit late for so many people and so many countries, and so many of our troops, not to mention the lives of so many in the Middle East. What mischief can Trump get into? Frightening thought.