Donald Trump is winning the war on reality. Welcome to the age of nightmares.
All politicians lie. In a democracy, they usually tell lies to achieve a particular result: Maybe they want to conceal information that would damage their reputations, or take credit for something they had nothing to do with. Sometimes a falsehood can obstruct a piece of undesirable legislation, or facilitate the passage of a desirable one. But in each of these cases, a lie tends to be little more than a momentary deviation from the truth. It’s a brief sojourn outside the borders of our stable, shared reality.
Some political lies are more ambitious than that. Sometimes the goal isn’t to embroider reality as it currently exists, but to construct a new reality out of whole cloth.
That’s what the second Bush administration tried to do. President George W. Bush and his advisers — most notably deputy chief of staff Karl Rove —wove a parallel universe in which Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, Al Qaeda was in cahoots with virtually all of America’s enemies, and the United States was a messianic crusader that would eventually spread capitalist liberal democracy to every corner of the world. This apocalyptic vision had little in common with the actually existing global order, but it was a compelling story.
Creating an alternate political universe requires discipline. It requires the willingness to tell many little lies that add up to one big lie. All these lies need to be internally consistent, mutually reinforcing, and at least superficially plausible. Think of it like writing fantasy fiction; the spell woven by books like The Lord of the Rings only works if the worlds they depict obey a coherent inner logic.
If Bush and Rove constructed a fantasy world with a clear internal logic, Trump has built something more like an endless bad dream.
For members of the Bush administration, even their power to mold reality had a place in the universe they created. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” an anonymous Bush official, widely believed to be Rove, told the New York Times’ Ron Suskind in 2004. “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.”
President-elect Donald Trump does not create new realities. He tells lies that are seemingly random, frequently inconsistent, and often plainly ridiculous.
He says or tweets things on the record and then denies having ever said them. He contradicts documented fact and then disregards anyone who points out the inaccuracies. He even lies when he has no discernible reason to do so — and then turns around and tells another lie that flies in the face of the previous one.
If Bush and Rove constructed a fantasy world with a clear internal logic, Trump has built something more like an endless bad dream. In his political universe, facts are unstable and ephemeral; events follow one after the other with no clear causal linkage; and danger is everywhere, although its source seems to change at random. Whereas President Bush offered America the illusion of morality clarity, President-elect Trump offers an ever-shifting phantasmagoria of sense impressions and unreliable information, barely held together by a fog of anxiety and bewilderment. Think Kafka more than Lord of the Rings.
It is tempting to suppose Trump built this phantasmagoria by accident — that it is the byproduct of an erratic, undisciplined, borderline pathological approach to dishonesty. But the president-elect should not be underestimated. His victories in both the Republican primary and the general election were stunning upsets, and he is now set to alter the course of world history. If he does not fully understand what he is doing, his advisers certainly do.
Steve Bannon, former head of the white nationalist outlet Breitbart News, is Trump’s Karl Rove. He knows. In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Bannon suggested that the key elements in his strategy are dissimulation and “darkness.”
“Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power,” he said. “It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
That’s how Bannon ran the Trump campaign, and it appears to be how he’s running the transition team. Since the election, Trump has baited the press with a flurry of potential cabinet picks, instigated a bizarre fight with the cast of a Broadway musical, and concealed his true policy priorities behind a thicket of conflicting reports.
It’s working. The media’s coverage of the Trump transition is blurry and confused. Stories that should be real scandals — such as Trump’s apparent efforts to manipulate international diplomacy for personal financial gain — get lost in the shuffle.
Bannon is a skilled practitioner of the “darkness” strategy, but he is not its inventor. The real Master of the Dark Arts is another Karl Rove equivalent: Vladislav Surkov, a top adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Surkov, the documentary journalist Adam Curtis said in a 2014 film, is “a hero of our time.” He went on to describe the Surkovian method:
His aim is to undermine peoples’ perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening.
Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.
But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.”
A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is undefinable. It is exactly what Surkov is alleged to have done in the Ukraine this year. In typical fashion, as the war began, Surkov published a short story about something he called non-linear war. A war where you never know what the enemy are really up to, or even who they are. The underlying aim, Surkov says, is not to win the war, but to use the conflict to create a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control.
Bannon and Trump deployed that strategy with aplomb throughout the primary. Because of the constant media focus on his campaign, Trump was able to bombard the airwaves with an unending stream of surreal falsehoods. At the same time, Bannon turned Breitbart News into a Trump Party organ and used it to disseminate further confusion. Independent of Trump and Bannon, a number of other fake news sites — an improbable number of which happened to be headquartered in Macedonia — inundated social media with inaccurate information. There is some evidence to suggest that Surkov’s employer contributed to the process as well, using the website Wikileaks as a conduit.
Many of the stories promulgated by Trump, Bannon, and their allies — such as Trump’s claim that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was somehow involved in the Kennedy assassination — were obviously false and easily debunked. But the sheer volume of these stories had their intended effect. When fake news becomes omnipresent, all news becomes suspect. Everything starts to look like a lie.
The relentless downpour of inaccurate or useless information can make people lose trust in even their own minds. It happened to Washington Post reporter Ben Terris during the election.
In March, Terris reported that he had seen Corey Lewandowski, then Trump’s campaign manager, physically attack journalist Michelle Fields. The campaign lied about the incident and said nothing had happened. After days of being told his report had been wrong, Terris began to doubt what he had seen. Even when video was uncovered corroborating Terris’ report, the Trump campaign evaded the issue.
“Trump gaslighted me,” Fields later told Terris for an article about the incident. “I worry now that he’s gaslighting the country.”
In a world where nothing is true, the only real choice available to voters is between competing fictions. Trump offered a particularly compelling set of fictions, but he also found various ways to telegraph that he knew what he was doing. Through irony, evasion, self-contradiction, and obviously ridiculous claims, he let his supporters in on the joke. If everything is a lie, then the man who makes his lies obvious is practicing a peculiar form of honesty.
The president-elect is speaking the language of dictators.
It makes sense that the man who would pioneer this style of rhetoric in an American context is someone who used to host a reality television show and appear in pro wrestling events. Both The Apprentice and the World Wrestling Federation are staged; they’re contests that are meant to look superficially real, even though everyone knows that the outcomes are rigged and the “heroes” and “villains” are reading canned lines. The thing that makes these spectacles so entertaining is that they don’t try to hide their artifice. Everyone knows pro wrestling and reality television are “fake,” and laughing at how fake they are is part of the fun. The savvy viewer gets rewarded for seeing through the veneer. But that same viewer keeps tuning in, and may even become emotionally invested in the game.
For Trump, politics is a reality show. That’s why, as tech billionaire and prominent Trump supporter Peter Thiel argued during the campaign, many of the president-elect’s most devoted followers refuse to take his statements literally.
“One thing that should be distinguished here, is the media is always taking Trump literally,” said Thiel during an October appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. “It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take him seriously but not literally.”
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.
Consensus is the bedrock of democracy. For differences to get resolved in a properly democratic fashion, there needs to be agreement over the terms of the debate. Interlocutors must be aware of their shared rights and responsibilities, and they need to be capable of proceeding from a common set of facts and premises.
American democracy has always been deeply flawed, but political actors used to at least agree on a set of shared premises and ground rules. President Barack Obama bemoaned the erosion of this consensus in a New Yorker article published shortly after Trump’s election.
“Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” Obama told New Yorker editor David Remnick. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.”
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.
To men like Surkov, that is exactly as it should be. Government policy should not be set through democratic oversight; instead, the government should “manage” democracy, ensuring that people can express themselves without having any influence over the machinations of the state. According to a 2011 openDemocracy article by Richard Sakwa, a professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, Surkov is “considered the main architect of what is colloquially known as ‘managed democracy,’ the administrative management of party and electoral politics.”
“Surkov’s philosophy is that there is no real freedom in the world, and that all democracies are managed democracies, so the key to success is to influence people, to give them the illusion that they are free, whereas in fact they are managed,” writes Sakwa. “In his view, the only freedom is ‘artistic freedom.’”
This “artistic expression” can be nominally political, insofar as it takes on the guise of political rhetoric. But it is also fundamentally anti-political, both because its primary aim is self-expression, and because it has little effect on political power itself. It is essentially a form of narcissism. And it is harmless to authoritarian despots.
How to fight a shadow
If the United States is to remain a liberal democracy, then Trump’s non-linear warfare needs to fail. Politics needs to once again become grounded in some kind of stable, shared reality. It’s not clear how that could happen. But there are at least a couple of steps that anti-authoritarians can make right away to ensure that the Surkov style of rhetoric does not go unchallenged.
First, social media companies need to be held accountable for facilitating the spread of misinformation. Men like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, through their greed and stupidity, have shepherded authoritarianism to power in the United States. By embracing a facile definition of “openness,” they’ve sought to reap the traffic benefits of right-wing propaganda while ignoring its disastrous social consequences. They’ve since taken some small steps to rectify their errors, but for now, at least, it’s too little too late.
Second, journalists need to understand what Trump is doing and refuse to play by his rules. He is going use the respect and deference typically accorded to the presidency as an instrument for spreading more lies. Reporters must refuse to treat him like a normal president and refuse to bestow any unearned legitimacy on his administration. They must also give up their posture of high-minded objectivity — and, along with it, any hope of privileged access to the Trump White House. The incoming president has made clear that he expects unquestioning obedience from the press, and will regard anyone who doesn’t give it to him as an enemy. That is the choice every news outlet faces for the next four years: Subservience and complicity, or open hostility. There is no middle ground.
The same goes for every other organization, both public and private, whose job it is to safeguard political liberalism. For the next four years, Donald Trump will seek to shred any institution that threatens his ability to unilaterally determine what is real. That will likely include the courts, universities, unions, and even executive branch agencies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
If he fails, then the United States may yet keep its republic. But if he succeeds, then the very notion of political reality will have been reduced to little more than a bad joke. The logic of democratic discourse will have been wholly replaced with the surreal anti-logic of nightmares.