Last week, I reached for my Philip Roth ― his splendid novel, The Plot Against America. This week, I reached for my George Orwell.
In 1946, as Europe was digging out from the ruin of World War II ― a genuine case of mass carnage as opposed to President Donald Trump’s fantasy carnage ― Orwell wrote the classic essay on the seductions of propaganda, “Politics and the English Language.”
Much of the essay, widely assigned in English classes, warns how stale writing leads to sloppy thinking. But the most original part is Orwell’s evisceration of propaganda.
Combined with his great novel 1984, written in 1949 as a dystopian warning about the way totalitarian practice becomes internalized in totalitarian thinking, these two great works gave us the adjective, “Orwellian.”
In 1984, we learned the official slogans of the party: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength,” only slight parodies of communism and Nazism.
“Freedom is Slavery” was not far from the infamous greeting at the gates of Auschwitz, “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
And “Ignorance is Strength” seems to be Donald Trump’s credo and operating premise — ignorance for both himself and his public.
Orwell’s target was the prettified euphemism, used mostly by extreme left-wing and right-wing parties and governments. If people could be persuaded to accept the re-framing, they might well alter their conception of reality.
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell made great sport of pretentious writing and mixed metaphors, such as “The capitalist octopus has sung its swan song.” But he was dead serious about the political point. He wrote:
Defenseless villages are bombed from the air, their inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts sent on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called ‘pacification.’ Millions of peasants are robbed of their land and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called ‘transfer of population’…
Note that Orwell was writing two full decades before the Vietnam War. Even before the advent of Donald Trump, the misuse of language in our own day has been in many respects more insidious and more corrosive than the plague against which Orwell was warning.
Orwell’s examples came from either totalitarian governments or far-left and far-right parties in the democracies. In America, a democracy, both major parties have increasingly used Orwellian language ― Republicans far more than Democrats.
Trump has taken the maneuver to a whole new low. But the earlier Orwellian efforts softened the ground.
There was a time when most laws had descriptive or technical names, such as the Glass-Steagall Act, the National Labor Relations Act or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Since former President George W. Bush, pieces of legislation have been treated as branding and marketing opportunities.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration hastily assembled a wish list of every overzealous prosecutor and surveillance agent. The initials of the legislation were tortured until they spelled out the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act, or the Patriot Act for short. What patriot could be against the Patriot Act?
And speaking of torture, that activity, prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, was rebranded as “enhanced interrogation.” Sending American captives off to prisons in allied nations where there were no limits on torture was called a “rendition.” If a document was censored, that was now termed “redacted.” Even the mainstream press, shamefully, has succumbed to that usage.
As Orwell would have appreciated, “censored” is plain English. Censorship sounds like something we might want to oppose or at least suspect. “Redacted” is a bland, unfamiliar and bureaucratic word that suggests a neutral and presumably defensible process. And the Obama administration found the word just as convenient as Dick Cheney, Bush and company did.
After the Patriot Act, it became standard procedure for both parties to give laws propagandistic names, though the Republicans were the repeat offenders. One of the worst pieces of bipartisan education legislation ever, later repudiated by both parties because of its overreliance on teach-to-the-test, was called “The No Child Left Behind Act.” Who could be against that?
Republican advocates of school vouchers, mindful of the well-established support for public schools, began rebranding them as the more sinister sounding “government schools.” When President George W. Bush sponsored a tax-subsidized drug insurance program run by private insurance companies, he made sure to brand it “Medicare Part D,” since Medicare was a broadly supported public program ― even though his drug program was pure windfall to the drug industry and had nothing whatever to do with Medicare.
This may seem like small beer, but it is one of several trends on the use of language that has misled and cheapened public discourse ― and laid the ground for Trumpism. At the extreme, the trend feeds the ability of demagogues to persuade citizens that up is down, or black is white.
Fox News, the most flagrantly biased of the cable channels, pioneered the trend with its slogan, “Fair and Balanced.” As any serious person knows, Fox is a propaganda organ, while the reputable news organs, from The New York Times to NPR, really do make an effort to separate fact from opinion.
Long before Trump, the “mainstream” Republican Party made lies a staple of its arsenal, from its lies about Obamacare to its bogus budget numbers to its false contentions of fraudulent voting.
Trump has embellished this technique by lying, then accusing his critics of lying, until the debate is hopelessly scrambled. Trump manufactures phony stories, then accuses the media of “fake news.”
Adolf Hitler was the first to describe the technique of repeating a lie so often that people would come to believe it. He called it the “Big Lie.”
From his denial of climate change to his denial that Obama was born in Hawaii, Trump has dusted off the Big Lie. But then he goes classic Big Liars one better ― by denying the denial.
As Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late.” A version misattributed to Mark Twain has it that “a lie is halfway around the world while the truth is putting its boots on.” You get the point.
Trump’s strategy is to flood the zone — to proliferate so many lies that by the time one lie is rebutted, he has put out several more, and he seems to believe even the lies that contradict previous lies. Ignorance really is Trump’s strength.
In his Inaugural Address, Trump claimed that America is succumbing to a horrible crime wave, when if fact serious crime is at a 30-year low. Republican demonizers of the Affordable Care Act bemoan the high out-of-pocket expenses, when in fact all the Republican replacements would raise deductibles and co-pays. And so on.
Trump has resurrected the Big Lie. But, pathetically, he also resorts to the Little Lie.
On his first full day in office, Trump’s main concern was whether his was bigger ― his inaugural crowd. Though it was easily verified that Obama’s inaugural had a larger crowd, as did the women’s march the next day after Trump’s show, a livid Trump sent out his press secretary to rail at the press for understating Trump’s size. The press spokesman, Sean Spicer, himself told at least seven easily verifiable lies.
I am feeling a little better than I did on Inauguration Day, in part because of the good cheer and political resolve modeled at the several women’s marches ― but also because you can sense the wheels starting to come off the Trump bus.
Call it the New Separation of Powers. Trump’s inner circle is a snake pit of intrigue between the likes of Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Trump is at odds with senior members of his own cabinet, who are at odds with each other. Trump’s ad libs, like his abrupt support for universal health coverage, regularly cut the legs out from under his Republican Congress.
Trump may wish he were a total dictator, but this is still a democracy. Lies can work during campaigns but at some point, when you try to govern, reality has a way of intruding. Eventually, the truth does get its boots on.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. Like Robert Kuttner on Facebook.