Not that you expect political memes in an age of social media to keep their original meanings or expressive usefulness for very long, but “fake news” must have had about the shortest half-life of any meme in history, before radioactively decaying into its exact opposite. It began as a lament and a warning against conspiratorial, fact-immune wack-jobs happily megaphoning their own beliefs against the inside of their own thought-bubbles but, lo and behold, it already has been co-opted to mean “any account of anything that Trump doesn’t like hearing”.
The damage to language is perhaps already more serious and Orwellian than this, though. The concept of a “lie”—a good strong old Anglo-Saxon word, of the kind Orwell himself preferred—is under special attack. For, with the fall of “fake news”, the conquest of “lie” turned out to be a fait (or faux?) accompli. Much as “racism” and “sexism” seem increasingly to risk meaning anything that stands between a campus liberal and his/her/hir unquestioning self-esteem, so a “lie” is rapidly becoming anything that reveals something that The Leader doesn’t want people to know, or particularly, that reflects poorly on him.
That latest presser with the President, though, took this already worrying trend into true what-the-hell territory. The more time passes from first viewing, the more the thing seems to unfurl new avenues of crazy. Most notoriously, it features our President simultaneously admitting the leaks about his administration are “real”, while also berating all news stories based these true leaks as “lies”. (Maybe the crowds of people lately lining up to buy “1984” have got the right idea after all.)
But one especially unsettling theme buried in this already-discombobulating display, little noted compared to the President’s narcissistic outrage at the press and his strange need to continue re-living the campaign—he was soon headed out to have some rallies in Florida, explaining, en route, that “life is a campaign”—is how he was already working the carrot-and-stick. After all, why just intimidate the press when you can also hint how much greener the grass is for those who aren’t a thorn in the Leader’s ego, or those who ask, as he put it, “good questions”?
“If you were straight, I would be your biggest booster. I would be your biggest fan in the world, including bad stories about me”, he told the assembled group of relatively tame, lame, conglomerate-media journalists, who suddenly began to seem like Edward R. Murrow by dint of their mere reluctance to swallow contradictions that would be mocked by your average five-year-old.
The Leader demanded only good questions therewith, and tried to offer a couple of examples that turned awkward—such as telling a Jewish reporter to be quiet after asking about a rise in anti-Semitic incidents, and assuming that another reporter, being black, must be on personal terms with the Congressional Black Caucus.
Perhaps the model student, a future star of the nation’s propaganda organ, was a tremulous young reporter who summoned all his probity to ask the Leader to confirm Melania Trump’s wondrous wonderfulness in gracing the White House Visitor’s Office re-opening ceremony.
“Now, that’s what I call a nice question”, said Trump, gesturing approvingly to the Future of Journalism. (Expect great things from that young fellow!)
Apparently unsated by 77 minutes of neurotic whinging, the President next awayed to his trusty Twitter, to declaim the press as the “enemy of the American people” (a label to be repeated, proudly, at CPAC). Then, perhaps to reward himself for crafting such a finely Stalinist turn of phrase, he absconded for those Florida rallies and a dose of Mar-a-Lago, marking his third consecutive weekend away from D.C.
Of course, in Trumpspeak, “enemy of the American people”, much like “lie”, simply means anything that rankles The Donald, or is unpleasant for him to consider.
They were not empty words, for they were soon followed by the deliberate exclusion from White House press meetings of the New York Times, CNN, and Politico—media that, in stubbornly reporting “fake” (aka unflatteringly correct) news, placed themselves in the crosshairs. (To their credit, the AP and Time Magazine, though allowed in, refused to attend out of solidarity with their banned colleagues.) We also now hear that the White House has been trying, if ham-handedly, to deploy hand-picked officials to ply media outlets with more favorable storylines and sow false doubt about the lingering issue of Trump’s Russian ties.
The moral here? Fake news is awful if you didn’t cook it yourself… and policy if you did.
Anyway, those rallies in Florida, aside from being the predictable recourse of an exponentially-deepening narcissist faced with tanking public support and threatened ego-supply, come right from the playbook of populist authoritarianism. Rulers and demagogues throughout history have appreciated that an energized, visible minority beats a quiet, confused, passive majority every time. If you can’t get reporters to stenograph your storytimes from above, the natural tack is to try and whip up a throng to terrify said reporters (and others) from below as well.
This could get very dark(er) very quickly—or, it could all pancake under the weight of sheer incompetence, trading tragedy for bathos. The Ninth Circuit’s stay on the travel ban and the inglorious exit of both Mike Flynn and Andy Puzder has given Trump’s critics a sense of reprieve, but the game isn’t even through the first inning. New orders are on the way, including an imminent re-issuing of the travel ban and a push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, even if the votes (and a plan for a replacement) aren’t there. Why take no for an answer from a so-called “coequal branch of government”? Repetition is the key to learning, after all—as long as it’s anyone but the Leader doing the learning.
The relationship between the human-created cultural-mental world and the objective, outside world has always been fraught—to put it mildly. But we now seem to be in the hands of a man who is vengefully incapable of distinguishing his own emotions from outside reality. As his fears and inadequacies grow more insatiable and aggravated, expect these distortions to grow more epic and hyperbolic.
But, unpopular or not, the man mirrors the disease of the body politic—the key reason this historical moment elevated him. In our age of disappointing progress, cost disease, cartoonish inequality, and glum prospects, there doesn’t seem to be much percentage in seeking truth—for any side.