Public anger and alarm in this country reminds me of the tumultuous antiwar protests and civil rights marches back in the 1960s and early ‘70s. I recall vividly the day Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated; the nation’s capital was burning, cars were set on fire, looting and vandalism was rampant in the city. I narrowly escaped by running a red light at an intersection near DuPont Circle.
It’s happening even here in Kansas City, in the middle of America, where politics is normally a taboo subject in polite society. But in contrast to the Vietnam Era, there is no objective reason for the tumult. The looming crisis is entirely artificial – man made, that is – and one man has made it.
Would-be dictators often seek to create a crisis out of whole cloth, sow fear and panic in the public mind, and declare a state of emergency. These contrived circumstances are then used to justify extreme measures aimed at repressing dissent and removing obstacles to arbitrary rule. Machiavelli wrote the prescription five hundred years ago in his chillingly logical little book, The Prince.
George Orwell’s 1984, a totalitarian dystopia resembling real life in Stalinist Russia, is selling out in bookstores across the country. Orwell creates a fictional society where the extremes of repression require the reader to suspend disbelief. But the idea of new technology – the telescreen – enabling Big Brother to be watching everybody all the time was prophetic. And “alternative facts” are the stock-in-trade of a government bent on wholesale historical revisionism.
“Thought police” enforce arbitrary laws and crack down on thoughtcrime. A new language called Newspeak obliterates the boundary between fact and fiction, while the Ministry of Truth propagate lies and rewrites history. Unwanted documents are burned in a “memory hole”. Anybody who dares to dissent is likely to be vaporized and become an “unperson”. All records that such a person ever existed are destroyed.
A half century ago, political scientist John Kautsky wrote a brilliant essay called “Myth, self-fulfilling prophecy, and symbolic reassurance in the East-West conflict” (Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 9, No.1, 1965). The self-fulfilling prophecy as a concept is most closely associated with the late Robert Merton, a sociologist, who defined it as,
…a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.
Merton’s concept was central to Kautsky’s psychoanalytical interpretation of the Cold War. Thus, the class struggle Karl Marx predicted laid the foundation for the October Revolution Lenin created. Marxism-Leninist ideology made the Cold War inevitable.
When it comes to history, Americans have a short memory and a shorter attention span. As a society, we were only too eager to close the book on the Cold War.
But history follows its own logic. With the rise of Putin’s Russia, the seizure of Crimea, and the Kremlin’s thinly veiled invasion of eastern Ukraine, the “East-West conflict” came roaring back. The old rivalry between Russia and the United States was no longer passé. Then came Donald Trump.
As a businessman, Mr. Trump broke all the rules and benefited. As a candidate, he regularly offended minorities, insulted opponents and critics, and sought controversy at every turn, even saying “Hillary Clinton has to go to jail.” All the while, he displayed an ignorance of basic facts and disdain for the truth, creating a plastic reality on the fly.
President Trump is the same man as the real estate tycoon and reality-show celebrity he always was. But now he stands astride a massive federal bureaucracy and is the Commander in Chief of the most powerful military force on the planet.
When Mr. Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, the reason was couched in the language of war. Ms. Yates “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.” There was also the bully’s personal attack: “Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”
As anyone who bothers to fact-check these two statements will discover, they are both false. Note the repetition of the words “protect” and “defend“ aimed at sowing fear and evoking a sense of imminent danger:
+ “It is time to get serious about protecting our country.“
+ ”It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country.”
+ ”I will defend and enforce the laws of our country to ensure that our people and our nation are protected.” – Dana Boente, who replaced Ms. Yates as acting Attorney General.
Absent a proximate attack, the purpose of this kind of language is not to protect but to provoke. What Mr. Trump is doing has nothing to do with defense or national security. Quite the opposite. He is creating a crisis atmosphere and provoking “troublemakers” at home and “terrorists” abroad to make it all come true.
The idea of “alternative facts” is ridiculous on its face but the perception that they exist is real. No society is ever free of myths about itself and its origins. Myths bind cultures and societies together – that’s the good news. The bad news is that the mass mind is notoriously fickle; the human propensity to follow a strong leader – especially in a real or imagined crisis – leaves societies wide open to manipulation.
“The myth,” wrote Georges Sorel, “must be judged as a means of acting on the present; any attempt to discuss how far it can be taken literally as future history is devoid of sense.” A leader who deals in relabeled myths called alternative facts, rewrites history, turns facts into figments, and creates a new language of politics? Think Orwell. And Newspeak.
And the coming crisis.
Thomas Magstadt is the author of five books, including a college textbook (Understanding Politics, 12th edition) and a book on American foreign policy (An Empire If You Can Keep It: Power and Principle in American Foreign Policy). Magstadt was a Fulbright scholar (Czech Republic); former CIA foreign intelligence analyst; and taught national security and comparative politics courses at the U.S. Air War College.