One of the first things an authoritarian government attempts to do when it comes to power is undermine public confidence in the fact-based press. We have seen such rulers as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan silence the opposition press in favor of news sources that the government controls. Government propaganda replaces fact-based reporting until a significant portion of the population of authoritarian-ruled countries are unable to distinguish between truth and government-propagated lies.
Now Donald Trump and his administration are applying the tactics of authoritarian government press control to the United States. Replacing truth with government-invented lies is more difficult in our country, because our constitutional guarantee of a free press is (still?) strong enough that the Trump administration cannot shut down news organizations. Instead, Trump and his cronies are discrediting them by countering facts with Trump-generated fiction.
In the first days following President Trump’s inauguration, we saw several attempts at de-legitimatizing news sources that attempt to stick to the facts. The most salient attack involved a news story that should have been trivial, the size of the crowd on the National Mall at Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony. Television coverage and photographs of the inauguration showed that there were considerably fewer people viewing Trump’s inauguration than had viewed Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. So what? Is that important?
To Donald Trump, it is. In a speech at the CIA, he called reporters “…the most dishonest human beings on earth” for reporting the low attendance at his inauguration while claiming that his swearing-in actually attracted 1.5 million spectators, far above the estimates of the crowd from photographs, which put the attendance at somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 people. If Donald Trump had not drawn attention to the attendance, most of us would have dismissed it as unimportant.
At the same CIA speech, Donald Trump stated, “I just want to let you know, I am so behind you,” thereby flatly contradicting his earlier tweet that the Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to “leak” into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
Not content to let the matter lie there, Donald Trump sent his press secretary, Sean Spicer, before reporters to double down on the untruths. Mr. Spicer gave greatly inflated figures for public transportation ridership on the day of the inauguration as well as inflated figures for the number of people gathered on the National Mall to witness Donald Trump’s being sworn in. In all, Mr. Spicer told five blatant lies in his appearance before the press corps and then left after refusing to take questions.
But were Trump’s and Spicer’s “misstatements” really lies? When I was growing up, falsehoods were definitely called lies, and when I told one, my mother threatened to wash my mouth our with soap. (Luckily, she never carried through with the threat.) However, in Trump-speak, lies are no longer lies. In an appearance on “Meet the Press” on January 22, Trump counselor came up with a new term for them. She told program host Chuck Todd “You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
I wish I had known as a child that my tall stories were not lies at all but just “alternative facts.” It might have saved me quite a few raps on the knuckles. In a world where verified facts are countered with “alternative facts,” we are moving closer and closer to authoritarianism. In his novel 1984, George Orwell wrote:
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
When the year 1984 finally rolled around, many years after the publication of Orwell’s novel, the truth was still considered to be the truth, and lies were still considered to be lies. That is not the case today. Perhaps Orwell should have titled his novel 2017. Luckily, we still have a press that is attempting to counter our government’s lies, but its readership is steadily declining.
Before you go, I hope you will check out my novel Running for President by clicking on the cover image in the left sidebar. It is about a Trump-like figure who is elected president of the United States. When I wrote it, I had no idea that something similar could actually come to pass. Amazon Unlimited subscribers can read the entire book for free. Others can read a free excerpt.