Winston Smith, the rebellious protagonist of 1984, realizes in the iconic novel that his state’s repressive rule rests on citizens trained to deny the data of their own senses.
“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command,” he broods. “The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended.”
That excerpt from George Orwell’s renowned book ricocheted around the Internet last weekend, responding to the extraordinary first days of Donald Trump’s presidency, a spectacle of lies, unhinged rants, and a full-throated declaration of war against the press.
“I have a running war with the media,” Trump proclaimed during a bizarre diatribe during a stop at the CIA. “They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”
HOW THE DEAL WENT DOWN. Trashing the media, of course, is nothing new for the 46 percent 45th president, who did so throughout the campaign. Still, the spleen venting was astonishing for a new chief executive the day after taking office, a time historically known for more soothing tones.
At first glance, the focus of Trump’s ire seemed a silly matter of small consequence to the Leader of the Free World — his unhappiness with reported crowd estimates at his swearing in.
“But you know, we have something that’s amazing because, we had, it looked honestly, it looked like a million and a half people. Whatever it was. But it went all the way back to the Washington Monument,” he told CIA officers at an appearance earmarked for more substantial purpose.
“And I turn on, with my steak … and I get this network shows an empty field. And it said we drew 250,000 people.”
Aerial photographs confirmed, however, that his audience extended nowhere near the monument; it was demonstrably smaller, not only than either of Barack Obama’s inaugurals but also than the anti- Trump Women’s March taking place at the same time his head exploded.
A few hours later, Press Secretary Sean Spicer made his first appearance in the White House pressroom to double down on Trump’s lies.
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,” he bellowed, then stomped out without taking questions.
The next day, things went from worse to worser.
Trump adviser and designated equivocator Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer on Meet the Press, by saying he merely was presenting “alternative facts.” All righty then.
WHY IT MATTERS. The Twitterverse, led by Merriam-Webster, swiftly noted that “alternative facts” are not, you know, Actual Facts.
“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” denizens of the dictionary tweeted.
The blow-up was laughable, except for this unnerving Actual Fact: Trump began his term by challenging not merely journalistic accuracy — but the nature of reality itself.
That’s an ominous sign for those fearful of how his shameless serial lying links to an aggressively authoritarian nature.
“The issue is small, trivial and stupid — but the act of dishonesty and arguing about it is a big deal,” the Republican strategist Steve Schmidt told Politico.“Purposeful deceit, willful lying by a government spokesperson, is the hallmark of a totalitarian or an authoritarian regime. It’s absolutely pernicious in a democracy.”
BOTTOM LINE. “Who are you going to believe,” Groucho Marx famously quipped, “me or your lying eyes?” For centuries, more solemn scholars have warned of leaders who take such a formulation seriously.
In a recent, chilling Huffington Post piece titled “A Message to My Doomed Colleagues in the American Media,” Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev closely compared Trump’s behavior to Vladimir Putin’s.
“This man owns you,” he concluded. “[H]is fans will not care if he lies to their faces [and] while you’re busy picking his lies apart, he’ll spit out another mountain of bullshit and you’ll be buried under it.”