Last week, Sean Spicer claimed that more people attended Trump’s inauguration than any other inauguration, despite clear photographic evidence. This brazen lie seems to be setting the tone for the presidency. It confirmed that the Trump administration need not be daunted by inconvenient truths, when instead it can make use of ‘alternative facts.’
Spicer has been appointed as Trump’s Press Secretary, and is working alongside Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, (and doubtless, many others) to manipulate popular perception. The key ways this is being done is through discrediting the press – anything published against Trump is ‘fake news’ produced by a corrupt media elite – and casting doubt over the notion of truth at all. The visceral attack on the press comes at a time where trust in journalists is at a historic low. It presents a catch-22 for anyone writing in opposition to Trump; whatever they write will be read by Trump supporters as validating the President’s paranoid claims. This well-timed attack on the press is partly what helped Trump win the election in the first place – for his fans, all press was good press, especially since the majority of mainstream press outlets were pro-Clinton, ‘proving’ his claims of conspiracy to his supporters.
The concept of alternative facts is another way of discrediting the media, but it goes deeper than that. It is the gaslighting of an entire nation. Its aim is to dismantle the idea of a singular truth. Ultimately, it is a loyalty test of how far Trump’s supporters and cabinet members are willing to go for Trump. And, yes, US press secretaries have obviously lied to the public before – but the level of doublespeak we’re seeing is more brazen than ever before. It is a project of mass cognitive dissonance. Without a fixed, ‘knowable’ truth, rationality can be discredited as an elitist, unpatriotic perspective that will shut down any attempts at exposing the Trump administration’s lies and incoherent strategies. After all, Trump’s policies are drawn up around emotion rather than reason, constructed around the mass discontent that was effectively tapped into during his campaign. Even if they weren’t morally reprehensible, policies like building a wall, banning abortion and stopping immigration from certain Muslim countries are ineffective, economically costly and harmful to the US. But an ideology of hate and anger speaks louder than reason.
The attack on the press and reality’s credibility is Trump’s ultimate tool to divide and conquer. It aims to increase the polarisation of the US electorate that we saw during the campaign. The goal is to create a rift so wide that people who belong to Trump’s class of ‘undesirables’ are discredited by virtue of their alignment with the ‘corrupt media.’ Ultimately, the goal is to create chaos. Doubt about the nature of the political situation has the potential to stop people from taking action against the system. It is important not to underestimate Trump’s administration, particularly chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has now been appointed to the National Security Council and has stated that he “wants to destroy the state… to bring everything crashing down.” Bannon is not stupid, and is clearly able to manipulate people’s underestimation of Trump for personal gain. To laugh Trump’s cabinet off as nothing more than ignorant is dangerous.
At the end of the day, much of Trump’s strength lies in this popular underestimation, as was made clear during the campaign. The attack on the press and on the credibility of the information people receive is a tactical move to create confusion and paranoia, both of which make people feel overwhelmed and unable to take meaningful action. Arguably, this is a leaf out of Russia’s book; Putin’s advisor, Vladislav Surkov has been described by Adam Curtis as key in directing the ‘postmodern dictatorship’ through misdirection and a continuous state of ‘destabilised perception’ rather than through straightforward propaganda. This is so effective because by undermining people’s perception of reality through his own brand of political theatre, Surkov creates a situation where people are not sure what is real and what isn’t, making organised resistance futile.
The Trump administration is not quite there yet. But it is telling blatant lies in the face of statistical evidence – among many other things, about voter fraud and US crime rates. This must not be batted off simply as stupidity. There are strong forces at work behind the orange face of the presidency, and they will continue to manipulate truth to divide the nation. It has only been eight days – this is just a preview. More than ever, it is important to support independent journalism, and to stay vigilant; ultimately, by underestimating Trump, you’re supporting President Bannon.
Image Credit: Don Irvine