Bloom Briefing 3: A Fecundity of Falsehoods; the ACLU; A Leaderless Movement
Welcome to the third edition of the Bloom Briefing, now subtitled, “Notes from the Resistance.” It has been a challenging first week-plus of the Trump administration. From the lunacy of the fight over crowd sizes, to the inanity of the border wall, to the immoral (and unconstitutional) ban on Muslims entering the U.S. from certain countries, this has been a demoralizing week for those fighting for the preservation of liberal democracy. Nonetheless, there remain reasons for hope.
A Fecundity of Falsehoods; Orwell, Hobbes, Mill
The week began with Kellyanne Conway asserting that mountain of evidence pointing to a relatively small (compared to Obama) inauguration crowd for Trump could be disregarded because the White House was going to proffer some “alternative facts.” David Graham wrote about this phenomenon for the Atlantic: “If you’re willing to lie about stuff this miniscule, why should anyone believe what you say about the really big things that matter?” Of course, Graham may have somewhat accidentally identified precisely the point of Trump’s falsehoods: Trump wants to erode the very idea of truth.
While Graham only referenced the “Orwellian” nature of this perspective in passing, Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker went full-Orwell in his assessment of Trump’s first week in office:
“And so, rereading Orwell, one is reminded of what Orwell got right about this kind of brute authoritarianism—and that was essentially that it rests on lies told so often, and so repeatedly, that fighting the lie becomes not simply more dangerous but more exhausting than repeating it. Orwell saw, to his credit, that the act of falsifying reality is only secondarily a way of changing perceptions. It is, above all, a way of asserting power.”
“When Trump repeats the ridiculous story about the three million illegal voters—a story that no one who knows, that not a single White House “staffer,” not a single Republican congressman actually believes to be true—he does not really care if anyone believes it, even if, at some crazy level, he does, sort of. People aren’t meant to believe it; they’re meant to be intimidated by it. The lie is not a claim about specific facts; the lunacy is a deliberate challenge to the whole larger idea of sanity. Once a lie that big is in circulation, trying to reel the conversation back into the territory of rational argument becomes impossible.”
The telling of lies, then, is not simply a means of convincing people of something, but of creating a kind of ennui with respect to the truth. One becomes so tired of fighting the lie that one simply gives up and accepts it. Trump’s fecundity of falsehoods is designed for precisely this purpose.
Orwell himself was concerned with this very phenomenon, as anyone who has read Animal Farm or 1984 can easily attest. Lesser known, but more explicitly topical is Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” There, he wrote:
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.”
But Orwell was thinking and writing about people who had coherent, understandable ideologies which they used mendacious language to achieve. They might be objectionable, but the ends were clear. Trump’s ends, however, remain vague. Reading David Cole (see below), one might think that Trump is out for personal enrichment. Reading Vox (or just now, the NYT editorial board) on Stephen Bannon, one might reasonably think the goal is a massive genocidal campaign waged against all non-white folk in the country. Or, reading this Guardian profile of Trump from July, you might think that the pursuit and maintenance of power are his only aim.
In all of Orwell’s works, we can easily recognize the last of these as the central motivation of the antagonists. They want to maintain their positions of power and they use language to obfuscate when confronted with reasonable arguments to the contrary. Trump surely wants the same, but one can’t help but wonder if his intention to blur the line between true and false is even more sinister.
Thomas Hobbes, in his magnum opus, Leviathan, made a case for an authoritarian leader. Many people, familiar with the history of 17th-century Britain understand that the massive bloodshed and chaos of the Civil War was a motivating factor in this perspective. Lesser known, however, is the role of language. Hobbes thought that because there could be no agreement on the meaning of words, that all communication was compromised, and that some type of central authority was required to enforce the meanings of those words.
In such a perspective, we see the seeds of Orwell’s exhausted protagonists accepting the state-sponsored falsehood for exhaustion. When there is chaos, when we cannot distinguish fact from fiction, when there are “alternative facts” on every Facebook post and Twitter feed, when the government itself puts out such untruths, it becomes exhausting to fight against.
I have bad news: there is no reprieve from this exhaustion. The resistance must simply commit itself to boldly, clearly, loudly speaking truth every time Sean Spicer or a government agency or Trump himself broadcasts a lie.
But I also have good news: John Stuart Mill, the fiercest defender of free speech (even purposefully deceitful speech) there ever was, believed that the truth would eventually win out. It will not be easy, but we have already seen the first successful attempts at truth-speaking from the Alternative National Park Service, intrepid park rangers, ensuring that the truth of man-made global warming not be covered up.
What we may never allow is even a modicum of movement in the direction of limiting free speech, for although Mill believed that truth would win, this is only true in a fair fight. If the fight isn’t fair, there’s no telling what may happen to the truth.
David Cole, National Legal Director of the ACLU, wrote a compelling piece for the New York Review of Books on how Trump is flagrantly violating the Constitution. This is probably a handy guide for convincing your “I’m not racist, but I support Trump” friend to reconsider. It lays out the history behind the Emoluments Clause you’ve probably seen referenced but, if you’re like me, didn’t quite understand. It explains how, comparatively, Trump is off the charts with respect to his disregard for ethics. And it provides a window into some of the less publicized ways the ACLU is bringing lawsuits forth on behalf of civil liberties.
David Cole is a name you should become familiar with. He has become probably THE public face of the ACLU, appearing on nightly news shows, writing opinion pieces, and giving interviews. The ACLU, particularly after having their greatest fundraising weekend ever, will be one of the organizations leading the resistance to Trump’s attempts to bring our democracy crashing down.
A Leaderless Movement
For the New York Times, Jonathan Martin (one of the country’s preeminent political journalists) wrote about how Democrats are playing catch-up to pop-up protests all over the place. He recounts stories of Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey showing up to a protest in white-tie attire. Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker have similarly rearranged schedules to be at public shows of defiance against Trump administration policies.
Martin gets a couple of things spot on. First, he describes the movement as organic, which it feels to be. It’s not one group or one set of groups setting an agenda, organizing protests, and motivating people to come out to the streets. It’s a whole series of communities of people who simply will not accept what is transpiring. Secondly, Martin, unlike many of the elected Democrats he discusses, notes that, “liberal voters [are demanding] uncompromising confrontation and resistance from their elected officials to a president they believe poses and existential threat to the country.”
But Democrats, so far, haven’t grasped the nature of this demand. Most senators have voted to confirm at least several of Trump’s nominees for cabinet positions. There hasn’t been uncompromising resistance to the idea of a Supreme Court nomination. And if any Democrat has been attempting to become a national leader in the fight against Trump, that hasn’t come through loud and clear.
But what might be a missed opportunity for Democrats could be a boon for the movement. A leaderless movement is dangerous—it can easily be pulled in many different directions. But if there are enough different people pulling the movement in one general direction, the movement may chart a kind of naturally compromised path, roughly approximating a middle ground for the group of people pulling it.
The lack of radicalism of the movement has come in for some critique in the days since the election, particularly in response to the Women’s March on Washington (overview of conflicts and rebuttals here). The best response I’ve seen to such critiques has come from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at the Guardian, who herself advocates for a more radical movement. If you want to change the direction of the movement, she argues, do something about it. Show up.
It’s fair to criticize people for not being in the streets before. It’s fair to be upset if you’re a hardcore socialist and the protest is driven by liberal-progressives. But as Taylor writes, “The movement to resist Trump will have to be a mass movement, and mass movements aren’t homogeneous – they are, pretty much by definition, politically heterogeneous. And there is not a single radical or revolutionary on Earth who did not begin their political journey holding liberal ideas.”
We’re in the early stages of the resistance. The trajectory hasn’t been set yet. Make it a point of interacting with people who hold slightly different views than you do when you go to protests. Talk to them about what motivates them and why they’re there. Ask them about related issues. If you’re passionate about immigration reform or transgender rights or Black Lives Matter or protecting the planet, then make a point of talking to people who don’t have the same passion you do and explain to them why you’re passionate about it. Oh, and make sure to listen to them tell you what they’re passionate about too.
This is a movement. It is up to each of us to use our individual bodies, our minds, our souls to influence its direction. Take ownership of that and help drive it in the direction you want to see it go.
Viva la Resistance!
You can see previous editions of The Bloom Briefing here.