This article is adapted from The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time.
In 1985, critic and educator Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death, the most incisive, impassioned warning label ever issued on our media diet. To illuminate the danger, he contrasts two pivotal works of dystopian fiction: George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
In Orwell’s vision, he notes, we are crushed by a merciless oppression imposed by others, whereas in Huxley’s vision, we are seduced, sedated, and satiated. We enslave ourselves.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
Orwell feared that truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared that we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain.
In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us …
Orwell, who in 1948 was fixed on Nazi devastation and Soviet ascendancy, seemed to have nailed it. But 37 years later, Postman saw that in our time and place, it’s unquestionably Huxley. He portrayed a world that leads ineluctably to the election of Donald Trump.
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Trump’s campaign rhetoric pumped out endless streams of comedy and melodrama, apocalypse and deliverance, bitterness and bullshit. To some, it was enthrallingly frank. To others, Trump’s victory did not merely subvert America’s core values, it shattered their worldview. The codes more than half the nation devised to interpret the world, the channels they carved to divert the flow of incompatible ideas, collapsed. For these Americans, reality itself seemed threatened.
By far the greatest source of anxiety for those watching the edifice of reality collapse is the ceaseless cascade of lies. But it is not the lies that pose the existential danger to democracy. It’s the lying, the kind of thoroughgoing lying that gives rise to a whole new reality or, better still, to no reality at all.
Journalist Masha Gessen resists equating Trump with Putin, as American media are prone to do, but says they are kin in the use of the lie: “It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose—blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.”
The sheer abundance of lies demonstrates, again and again, that facts are disposable, confusing devices that do not serve you, that do not matter.
So, to the question endlessly asked by an incredulous public: Why, in the name of all that is holy, has no one confiscated Donald Trump’s cellphone? Hannah Arendt offers a partial answer in a 1974 interview:
… A lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows.
And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people, you can then do what you please.
During the campaign and ever after, the Trump team generated swarms of outrage, absurdity, and “alternative facts,” sending the media darting this way and that after shiny objects, too frantic to cull the crucial from the trivial, never pausing for the big picture that, in any case, they would not have recognized. However, many students of history did. They saw Trump not as a joke or an aberration but as a departure, a pivot point for a country at a crossroads.
This fantastical world of unkillable lies and impotent truths arose because much of the country had accepted Trump’s deal: Believe what he says, or don’t and assume with a wink and a nod that you are in on the joke.
But it was a deadly serious joke, because in spurning the facts that further understanding, Trump was not merely pitching his presidency to alienated voters, he was striking at the heart of democracy itself.
In an article on ThinkProgress, Ned Resnikoff explained how:
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.
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.
Even if each of our realities is unique, our common cultures and environments ensure that we share some fundamental principles. That is what enables consensus, and that is what is under attack.
By degrading the very notion of shared reality, Trump has disabled the engine of democracy. As Resnikoff wrote: “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.”
Trump dominates the ether to ensure that thorny facts find no purchase there. And if he can neutralize one institution in particular, an institution that is not an institution, the rest of the resistance can probably be managed.
Clearly, the press is vulnerable. In an era when the popularity of most American institutions is declining, a 2016 Gallup poll ranked TV news and newspapers just above the bottommost losers, Big Business and Congress. The media’s financial state is even more tenuous.
During the campaign, the mainstream media loved reporting on Trump. He made great copy and boosted audience, and his rising poll numbers made him legitimate news. But later, the liberal media lamented missing the bigger picture. They could not see it because their view was blocked by stereotypes based on past experience and validated by their echo chambers. Once Trump was nominated, they quickly corrected course and dug into his statements, his businesses, and his past.
Every president and every prospective president since Jefferson has chafed against an adversarial press doing what comes naturally. But never quite like this. Trump fired his first salvos on reporters from the campaign trail.
Atkinson, New Hampshire: “They’re horrible people. They are so illegitimate. …”
Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina: “Absolute scum. Remember that. Scum. Scum. …”
Grand Rapids, Michigan: “I would never kill ’em, but I do hate ’em. …”
The attacks intensified after he won the election. Finally, on Feb. 16, he called a press conference to issue his proclamation of war:
I’m making this presentation directly to the American people … because many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you the truth. …
If we don’t talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people … because the press, honestly, is out of control. … How does the press get this information that’s classified? … It’s an illegal process, and the press should be ashamed of themselves. …
The New York Times wrote a big, long, front-page story yesterday. … It’s a joke. … Russia is fake news. This is fake news put out by the media. …
The Wall Street Journal … did a story today that was almost as disgraceful as the failing New York Times’ story yesterday.
I watch CNN. It’s so much anger and hatred. … The public gets it. … They start screaming at CNN. They want to throw their placards at CNN. …
And so on. The reviews of his appearance were predictably mixed. CNN’s Jake Tapper called it “wild … unhinged.” Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly called it “bold and fresh.”
The president tweeted a summary of his remarks the next day:
Trump is drawn to catchy phrases whatever their provenance, but this one inspired a brief shiver, since “enemy of the people” was the phrase Hitler applied to Jews, Mao to the educated class, and Stalin to almost everyone. It was a clear statement of where Trump stood. He had declared that there was no free press in his America and no reason for one.
Feb. 18: “They have their own agenda and their agenda is not your agenda!”
In this, he took shrewd advantage of a situation he had no hand in creating. There had long been one media filter for liberals and one for conservatives. Before he arrived, the nation was already seeing double.
The confusion generated by the Trump fog machine is truly awe-inspiring, because its messages seep into and leech the clarity from even the sturdiest of minds. Ned Resnikoff described to On the Media what happened to Washington Post reporter Ben Terris in March 2016, when Corey Lewandowski, Trump campaign manager, violently shoved Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields. Ben Terris saw it and reported it.
RESNIKOFF: What happened afterwards was the campaign and many of the campaign supporters just came down on him incredibly hard.
You know, Ben Terris is a professional reporter and one of the things Trump has been very effective at using against reporters is our sometimes natural inclination to scrutinize our own perception, just to make sure that we’re not getting anything wrong. And so they used that against him. They just aggressively denied from the very beginning that this had ever happened. They just said, no, no, no.
Terris was asked over and over again by his own editors, “are you sure that’s what you saw?” and at some point he started to doubt his own perception. And then the video came out confirming exactly what Terris had said had happened, and the Trump team just pivoted.
Terris saw it happen, but adrift in a boiling sea of denial, for a brief moment, he wasn’t sure. In such circumstances, an honest person can lose his mind a little.
Trump’s Twitter finger taps out a dissonant melody and cranks it up to 11 to drown out reality. It’s stupefying. America is so very noisy these days.