One of the most important themes running through the Trump regime’s first days is its coordinated assault on language. That George Orwell’s 1984 tops Amazon’s best-seller list and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here is #4 shows that many Americans know exactly what Trump’s election means. Or maybe it’s Republicans buying the books as training manuals.
Trump’s attacks on the media are just the first salvo. The real goal is to corrupt language to achieve totalitarian aims as did Hitler and Stalin. They stripped language of all nuance and coloration so that any ideas outside the narrow constraints of official “new-speak” becomes illegitimate and/or criminal. Trump’s speeches are devoid of ideas, explanations, or moral imperative. Everything is reduced to the same hot-button terms: “Terrific. Fantastic. Huge. Loves Donald Trump. Good stuff. America First. Wall.” Or: “Liars. Disaster. Conspiracy. Carnage. Muslims. Mexico. Deportation. Terrorists. Illegals. Parasites.” This is language without thought, a Pavlovian attempt to arouse a mob and render everyone else dazed and confused.
Kellyanne Conway was mocked for her Orwellian allusion to “alternative facts” and calling the detention of Muslims a “prevention”, which presumably makes it alright. The desperate phrases suit a lawyer grasping at straws to defend a guilty client. But given the level of ignorance of Trump’s supporters, the weird terms could work. “Sure they have their facts but we have ours, right? Two sides to everything.” This is precisely the strategy used by holocaust deniers. Tell a lie often enough, act as though the lie were true, create discussion about the lie, and eventually people say, “Well, sure, some Jews died in the war but so did a lot of others. There’s no real proof…” As the old punchline goes: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” Who are we being asked to believe?
Note: I had already written the above paragraph when it came out that Trump deliberately omitted mention of Jews or anti-Semitism in his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. Hope Hicks, a Trump spokeswoman, said the statement was “inclusive” and “took into account all of those who suffered.” While Jews represented about half of those killed in the camps, they were at the center of the holocaust and its most thoroughly targeted group. The Nazis’ anti-Semitic campaign was the central motive behind the slaughter. One can honor all who died while still acknowledging the Nazis’ prime target. Frankly, I’m blown away that an example of holocaust denial that I had just written to illustrate the extremes of historical distortion actually became a White House reality, a barely coded message well understood by anti-Semites and holocaust deniers, though for Hope Hicks it was being “inclusive.”
Why stop there? Before a week was out the administration declared war on science. To be fair, Trump’s agency directives take to a drastic extreme restrictions already imposed by the Bush and Obama administrations. The Trump version, however, goes far beyond its predecessors, forbidding scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture from discussing their research or the restrictions with anyone outside the agency. As Scientific American detailed, the Bush-Obama restrictions alone made it easier for the government to control the public’s access to findings vital to public health. At their worst, they allow public agencies to “spin” their findings in ways acceptable to the government and corporate lobbyists, violating the most fundamental commitments of scientific research to pursue the evidence wherever it may lead. Not coincidentally, Trump also ordered a freeze on all grants and contracts at the EPA.
Such directives take aim at language. Open exchange and information sharing is central to virtually every scientific advance, science education, and the public’s ability to know what the government is doing on its behalf. Life sciences in the Soviet Union were debilitated for decades by Stalin’s decree that scientists had to adhere to T.D. Lysenko’s absurd genetic theories. Fundamentalist Islamic and Christian schools alike reject science for fantasy woven from snatches of religious text. The result is a culture of ignorance not only of science but of knowledge itself, which becomes a shifting fable shaped and woven for the benefit of whatever know-nothing cabal controls the state.
Steve Bannon, the white supremacist, anti-Semitic Hollywood scuzz who appears to be Trump’s Martin Bormann, contributed his assault on language by telling the media to shut their mouths and listen. Well, if they followed Bannon’s advice, they’d no longer be media. And listen to whom? We used to learn about Peter Zenger and the freedom of the press. Now we have Steve Bannon, whatever that is, re-defining a free press as a passive receptacle for the pronouncements of his and Trump’s gross and distorted world view. Meanwhile he is selected to replace the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and director of National Intelligence on the National Security Council. Think there’s a connection between Bannon’s new role and his attitude towards a free press?
For Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, the ideas of Edward Bernays, “father of public relations,” on propaganda and public opinion were a revelation, a game plan for manipulating the German mind. The Nazis sought to control language at every level: in schools, newspapers, public speeches, and private life by playing off the irrational fears and impulses illuminated by Bernays’ uncle, Sigmund Freud. The Nazis knew they could manufacture their own facts and, by constant repetition of hot-button words and mindless slogans, create language that mobs would respond to as reliably as Pavlov’s dogs. Those who spoke or wrote outside that new language became enemies of the state.
It can’t happen here…though 10 journalists were arrested in D.C. on Inauguration Day on trumped up felony charges. That’s a page from Putin’s playbook. Trump’s immigration order contains language that re-defines the very notion of criminality – any immigrant is liable for deportation if he or she is deemed capable of committing a crime. Welcome to the thought police, courtesy of Stalin and 1984. Trump paved the way for his anti-Muslim “prevention” order with his constant threats of mass deportations, attack on the Khan family, and attempts to turn all Muslims into objects of suspicion and fear in the U.S.
When waterboarding is called enhanced interrogation, we might wonder how the assault on women’s health will be described. An “enhanced foetal intervention program”? When we finally have a nation intimidated by thugs whose masculinity hangs on the weight of their open-carry weapons, our version of the Brown Shirts and militias of pre-WW II Germany, will we congratulate ourselves on being free at last, free at last, free to carry lethal weapons and use them too because we can “stand our ground.” If you don’t like it or reach for your cell phone, well, we can shoot you.
Those still sane in this madhouse need to call out the lies and call attention to the strategies behind the lies. The stakes are enormous. Genocide, for example, begins as a crime against language that proceeds in well-defined steps. First the manipulators instill – or install – the fear that its target group undermines social order. Then they describe their targets as sub-human: highly sexualized and perverted, primitive in their impulses, a threat more psychological than political. The rhetoric next descends to equating them with vermin and finally to infectious germs that infiltrate and attack society from within. The government finally proclaims the only cure for such pestilence: surgical removal and extermination. Even if the Trump pack has no intention of going remotely that far, they are paving the way for those who would. Going down that path even a little way divides a society irrevocably, and a nation divided by fear and hatred can not long survive, as another Republican said on the battlefield of Gettysburg so long ago.
The assault on language is an assault on the very thought processes that allow us to agree on a shared reality. As public language is reduced to official lies and catch-words, our view of the world—our dangerous, volatile world—grows warped and paranoiac. We see enemies where none exist; ignore looming disasters because fixing them threatens corporate profits; and bail out banks by throwing home owners overboard because banks have more rights than people. The “bail-out,” they say, “saved the day.” But whose day was it, and what was saved? Who cares? Anyone can claim their own alternative facts, use the language that best suits their interests. Who needs facts when we’ve got Donald and Kellyanne to explain the world?
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