From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
I commit to vote in 2018 because I’m worried about language in the era of Trump.
Passionate readers of Orwell know well about the destruction of language under totalitarian regimes. While doublespeak, doublethink, and newspeak date to 1984, published in 1949, George Orwell was thinking about the effect of politics on language even earlier, in “Politics and the English Language” (1946). Obfuscation is the enemy in Orwell’s essay, the sign of a fell purpose, and of the tendency of language to become vague in the political theater in order to mask the inhumanities of political regimes.
Our current situation, as regards usage in political speech, is so much worse than mere ambiguity or obfuscation that it renders Orwell’s predictive capabilities apparently quaint.
Trump’s assault on language began, on the campaign trail, with his reiterations of the bugbear of “political correctness,” which I have elsewhere pointed out amounts to a rooting out of a foe that does not in a practical sense exist. Opposition to the “politically correct,” like the preservation of religious liberty in a denial-of-services context, is actually pro-racist and pro-homophobic language which rhetorically finds its footing by meaning the very opposite of what it appears to mean. When “religious liberty” is uttered in a denial-of-services context, that is, what it means to do is to allow the utterer to freely prevent the liberty of others. When Donald Trump opposes “political correctness” what he is attempting to erect is a set of parameters for a “prejudicial correctness,” rhetorical guidelines for racist speech that will allow it to take place under a veneer of rectitude.
The same complete reversal of manifest content is apparent in the term “fake news.” This term clearly, to even the most casual viewer, signifies reporting that is verifiable but potentially damaging to the regime. To designate, for example, an entire network an “enemy of the people” is to attempt to create a climate of self-designed veracity in which language cannot render the factual without the approval of patriarchal regulatory entity. Not only does the term “fake news” damage the institutional credibility of the Fourth Estate, not only does it devalue factual investigation, but it also infantilizes the regime’s base, so that this base can tolerate only disseminatory pabulum from the regime itself.
This control of meanings, then, is very like the “freedom is slavery” model of propaganda in Orwell’s 1984. While we in the United States of the present are used to the control of the marketplace of ideas under totalitarian regimes like China’s or Russia’s, we are lucky enough to have avoided firsthand experience with the manipulation of signs in a totalitarian way. The breathtaking extremity of rhetorical control in the Trump era gives us a fresh experience of absolute manipulation.
The apex of the assault on meaning and language that orbits around Donald Trump comes to be in the concept of “truthful hyperbole,” which is his attempt to codify the practical application of pervasive mendacity to everyday life. This is a phrase that Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language,” would have found especially illustrative. The term is patently oxymoronic, since hyperbole by its nature is an overstatement of the facts, and the polysyllabic yoking together of these opposites, truthful and hyperbole, is a purposeful attempt to lipstick the pig. (An interesting feature of “truthful hyperbole” is that Trump used it first in The Art of the Deal, making the book a rare example of a non-fiction work that advertises itself as fictive.)
Orwell, in illustrating the totalitarian impulse, often depicts it as incremental. A great number of steps are required to deceive an entire nation. Trump’s assault on language is an opening salvo in a scaling up of dictatorial intent. Further signs of the impulse include, for instance, attempts to remove managerial personnel at the FBI in order to control the outcome of the Russia investigation.
Yes, democracy itself is at stake, and not just the meaning of the word democracy, which now appears to mean the opposite of what it formerly meant in the United States of America, now something closer to “the unyielding control of a large indigent population of low-wage workers by a plutocratic elite while persuading this indigent population that it needs and wants to be controlled” — not only in words, but institutionally, morally, militarily.
The key to overturning the rhetorical and moral decay of the Trump presidency is to retake the House of Representatives, thereby restoring checks and balances to the American government and the power of subpoena to the minority. Don’t stay home in November 2018.
Take action today:
For more information about creeping totalitarianism, read Animal Farm.
Rick Moody is a novelist, short story writer, and artist in residence at New York University. His most recent novel, Gardens of North America, was published in 2015.