In my previous post on “fake news,” I touched on three branches of the phenomenon: (a) garden variety, money-making schemes; (b) grand moral narratives—often based on “false flag” events— designed to justify wars of aggression; and (c) fog-of-war propaganda, such as what we see coming out of the White Helmets in Syria and regularly rebroadcast on cable and network news.
Imperial states invest heavily in the second and third form of fake news. For anyone with doubts about this, Anthony DiMaggio’s essay “Reviewing the History of Fake News and Propaganda” is a must-read.
This post considers Trump-speech as another form of fake news. By Trump-speech, I mean the exaggerations and outright falsehoods President-elect Donald Trump throws out like so much confetti at a street parade, uttered with apparent sincerity and a straight face. Because it’s coming from the President-elect, it’s news and gets reported as such, even though it’s usually unhitched from reality.
Of course, all politicians lie. DiMaggio reports that “non-partisan fact checkers at Politifact concluded that, after examining hundreds of Trump’s statements, just 15 percent could be classified as ‘mostly true’ or ‘true’.” This compares to Clinton’s 50 percent.
So the specific problem with Trump is that he is wrong or mistaken extraordinarily often. Most of the time, he’s apparently not even trying to be accurate; instead, he seeks to convey an attitude or approach. And he does this through a kind of rhetorical impressionism, much as a painter creates the feeling of being in a scene by applying the paint in an imprecise manner.
There are obvious dangers in Trump’s style. It creates division between those who document how flatly wrong he is on the facts and those who insist he is conveying a deeper kind of truth. And it confuses people. Indeed, confusion is such a predictable result that we might describe it as Trump’s purpose.
But why would the President-elect deliberately confuse us?
Perhaps what we see in Trump is the full flowering of an attitude of cynical nihilism, which some say is part of the zeitgeist of our time in the decadent West. Within this worldview, there is no such thing as truth or facts; there are only personalities, subjectivities, endless spin. Megan Garber’s fine essay, “The Image in the Age of Pseudo-Reality,” illustrates this point of view with her comparison of Donald Trump with P.T. Barnum.
Or perhaps what we see in Trump is “gaslighting”—a deliberate attempt to make an audience doubt its grasp on reality and capacity to interpret what’s going on in the world. The term comes from a 1940s-era movie in which the antagonist manipulated the emotions of a victim, thereby convincing her she was delusional and rendering her unable to defend herself.
Ned Resnikoff sees such malevolent purpose in Trump. Writing at ThinkProgress.org, Resnikoff calls it “non-linear warfare” and describes Trump’s closest advisor, Stephen Bannon, as an accomplished practitioner. Writes Resnikoff:
“When political actors can’t agree on basic facts and procedures, compromise and rule-bound argumentation are basically impossible; politics reverts back to its natural state as a raw power struggle in which the weak are dominated by the strong.
“That’s where Donald Trump’s lies are taking us. By attacking the very notion of shared reality, the president-elect is making normal democratic politics impossible. When the truth is little more than an arbitrary personal decision, there is no common ground to be reached and no incentive to look for it.”
“It is tempting to take solace in the belief that, if Trump cannot be taken literally, his extreme rhetoric might conceal a secret moderate streak. But that hope would be misplaced. Non-linear warfare is intrinsically authoritarian. The president-elect is speaking the language of dictators.”
I take Resnikoff’s view seriously. Regrettably, he frames it as a manifestation of Russia’s influence on Trump, a framing which is propaganda in and of itself. But Trump’s 17 million Twitter followers and his mastery at manipulating the media position him to powerfully impact public opinion. In other words, he already has considerable capacity to quash dissent and stigmatize opposition, if he’s so inclined.
Pepe Escobar, a journalist long acquainted with the endless smoke-and-mirrors of imperial deception and deceit, agrees with Resnikoff’s view that Trump’s troubling communications style is highly strategic. But Escobar then goes on to describe a potentially positive outcome. In an essay entitled “Lenin Comes to the White House?” Escobar first describes our context as a state of perpetual war-making by the neo-liberal elite against the rest of us. Then he writes:
“’America First’; but for whom? The key question is who will end up defining America’s real national interest; true nationalists embedded in Team Trump, plus the proletariat ‘elite’, or the usual – globalist – suspects able to infect and corrupt any notion of nationalism.” In other words, in the unrelenting war against the 99 percent, Trump's subversive style equips his Administration to overthrow neo-liberalism itself.
A third perspective—less speculative than Resnikoff’s and Escobar’s—is offered by Russian Marxist Boris Kagarlitsky in his essay, “Once Upon a Time in America.”
Kagarlitsky begins by noting how Trump’s electoral victory has refuted conventional political analysis on the right and the left. Though derisive of both liberal and conservative gloom-and-doom scenarios (“we will have four years of apocalypses, and then – business as usual”), Kagarlitsky perceives economic changes to have shifted the earth beneath our feet. Specifically:
“Trump’s victory is not a result of an unpleasant coincidence; it is a result of a systemic social-economic crisis due to the fact that the current capitalist model of development is completely exhausted. It is not that the system will collapse because of the Trump’s success, but rather his success is caused by the collapse of the system.”
Needed now, says Kagarlitsky, is a politics that fits this new economic reality:
“The 2016 elections signified the collapse of the politics of political correctness, and created the preconditions of its substitution by the politics of solidarity. . . . Both Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and voting for Trump, demonstrated, the last one to a higher degree, that the lower classes of the society are willing to consolidate, independently from the appeals of the self-proclaimed ‘defenders of the minorities’.
“An African-American laborer realizes that he has much more in common with a ‘white male’ laborer than with a privileged liberal smugly reasoning about the need for political correctness. A single mother fighting for survival understands how alien are the interests and the views of a feminist who distributes multimillion gender related grants among her friends and clients.”
So where does all this analysis take us?
Trump’s fake news is a genuine threat. It may take us into fascism. It may take us into new political alignments that address more equitably the bleak world we’ve inherited from 35 years of neo-liberal rule. Or it may do both.
We’d better pay careful attention and we’d better start preparing now by building strong relationships with potential allies. More about that in a future post.
Speaking of fake news, let’s not be fooled by what the Western mainstream media are reporting out of East Aleppo.
Although the reports of horrible fighting are accurate, what’s not being reported is the Syrian success against al-Qaeda forces there and the liberation of thousands of civilians from al-Qaeda imposed hostage status. Those liberated are receiving humanitarian assistance in West Aleppo through Syrian, Russian and United Nations-provided resources, though they continue to be killed by artillery shells reportedly targeted by the empire’s technicians and launched from the parts of East Aleppo still held by outside forces.
The defeat of al-Qaeda in East Aleppo is a defeat of the US-led empire. Stop for a moment and reflect on this fact, which is seldom spoken in the West, the land of fake news.