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A Dialogue of Brutes: the Successful Attack on the Free Press

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All that’s left is constant snorting, rummaging through the garbage heap for an edible morsel. Our language has degraded into a pile of censored insults and sensitivies; our press soon nothing more than congratulatory think pieces on Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. The president’s administration has one main prerogative—more urgent than the wall, the immigration ban, or repealing healthcare: making all dissidence slander.

When Bannon spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, it was the first time he appeared in public since Trump’s inauguration, his aura of putrid steam billowing across the ballroom like a hypnotic glaze. Supporters finally saw their man—the pale greased-up beast, occasionally scratching himself under his bristled chin—as they’d nod and reassure each other how smart a human turnip actually could be.

He sat there hunched. His gelatinous belly heaved over his sweaty and suffocating crotch, the liver spots that dazzle his face almost peeling at their corners. His eyes, tired and cavernous, are the eyes of complete and impenetrable nihilism—as if he was forced to stare at nothing but cat memes for thirty years, and now seeks revenge on the entire world.

His speech made the usual allegations, posturing conservatives as the underdog, as if they are the political embodiment of Rocky Balboa, knowing well that we humans root and holler for such figures. He said they were being unjustly attacked by the “corporatist globalist media that are adamantly opposed” to their agenda. It’s more a sophomoric tantrum than political rhetoric. It’s what they always blame liberals for doing: snowflakes who “cry and weep” when things don’t go their way—then Trump turns and tweets that SNL is “really bad television” because they made fun of him.

As chief strategist of the White House, Bannon is paralyzingly void of political acumen. He’s squirmish in his suit and tie—his natural, more charitable state is in a bulging-tight wifebeater (because it’s not an undershirt, it’s a way of life)—slouched in his sticky sofa, cursing at the news personality on the television as bits of uncooked pork rocket from his mouth. His ‘strategy’ from the beginning has been to silence dissidence, to insult those who question Trump’s infallibility. In late January, he said “the media”—in general sweeping terms—“should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and listen for a while.” In a way, it makes complete sense for Bannon to hate the news. He was, after all, executive chair of Breitbart News.

The patterned formula for Trump’s cabinet positions is to nominate someone who condemns the mere existence of that position. Betsy DeVos hates public education. Scott Pruitt sued the EPA many times before being appointed its chief administrator. Rick Perry once said he wanted to dismantle the Department of Energy (he actually forgot the name of this department, but later admitted that this was what he meant). They’re like schoolchildren giggling for wearing their underwear over their pants during Backwards Day, almost purposefully mocking the public for making us accept it.

Everything is reversed. A media tycoon hates the media. A 70-year-old baby plays with his toys of the world’s most advanced nuclear arsenal. Language is meaningless. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. We’re all floundering in the dark, trying to grab hold of something real.

Writers have long waded into the depths of cliché by referring to the actions of the opposition political party as “Orwellian” (a queer and unfitting word, as George Orwell made a career of opposing tyranny). His concept of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four is used to describe the more disparaging antics of both the left and the right ad nauseam, leveraged to whatever paranoia is most fitting: from the flailing pettiness of political correctness that spawns from scrawny self-abusing leftists, to the Nixonian litigation of the War on Drugs, condemning every magical cabbage that sprouts its head. But Trump’s administration is something entirely new: a band of shit-smeared pigs haphazardly shuffling pieces on a Scrabble board, squealing triumphantly when they get a three syllable word. When journalists from the New York Times, CNN, and Politico were recently barred from attending a Spicer press briefing—and Breitbart and America News Network greeted quickly in—a new narrative unfolds: only praise will be allowed.

Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes, and other professional conservative trolls who pose as free speech advocates, suddenly lose their platform. Their reality-show ideologue hates the freedoms of those who disagree with the minutia of his brutish declarations of absolute power. If he could, he’d fire every dissident, every skeptic and examiner of the truth.

But he doesn’t really need to. A storm cloud of disinformation has overwhelmed the modern political dialectic. The fake news phenomenon is more a pop-culture phenomenon than anything else—it’s yet another symptom of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called the “culture industry,” the churlish beast of mass culture that anesthetizes an entire generation through its pageant of entertainments. In Adorno’s 1951 book, Minima Moralia, he writes:

“Lies have long legs: they are ahead of their time. The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power, a process that truth itself cannot escape if it is not to be annihilated by power, not only suppresses truth as in earlier despotic orders, but has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false, which the hirelings of logic were in any case diligently working to abolish.”

The bucktoothed carnies are in charge now, chanting their new vocabulary, requiring us to debate only in grunts and farts, the most repulsive one winning a garland of Easter basket nesting in order to better resemble their god. Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” moment was testament to this—a lazy-eyed performance art of Gustave Flaubert’s famous remark, “There is no truth. There is only perception.” She tours one news station after the next, her procedural drawl resembling a sticky-fanged bobblehead, a wax paper automaton smiling larger when she lies, shifting her aching buttocks in front of another green screen. It demonstrates the annihilation of truth is a necessary prerequisite for the rise of authoritarianism—it leaves a void that is naturally occupied the quickest by power and aggression.

And it clearly works. A Fox News poll marked Americans’ distrust of “reporters” deeper than their distrust of Donald Trump. The slithering reality-show host who launched his political career by alleging that Barack Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya, and then officially endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, has more favorability than the grossly generalized populace of journalists and talking heads. Bannon’s comments are not actual threats to shut the media up—he’s simply gloating that he can say this and get away with it. He thrives on the inflammatory, on offending entire populations of fragile leftists into yet another frenzy.

Orwell never wrote anything that argued specifically against fascism. He took it for granted that Cartesian common sense wouldn’t let a generation go entirely mad. He was, however, obsessed with language. In one of the most important political essays, Politics and the English Languagewritten a year before Trump shoved his veiny head out of his mother—Orwell conferred that we “ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language.” He meant the hyper-intellectualization of language—speech used by many economists, politicians, academics with the intent to confuse the reader or listener under a glaze of jargon. He criticized use of ‘pretentious diction’ and ‘meaningless words’ as confabulatory, stupid, and manipulative. If Orwell could look upon today’s political arena, and listen to the level of debate and discourse, he may very well enjoy a fiendish delight in even his most pessimistic concerns being surpassed. There is nothing Daedalean or exaggerated about the Trump-Bannon-Conway approach to their speech, but rather a literal degradation of language, a dogmatically stubborn defense of adult retardation assuming the highest office in the world.

Early-stage fascism is the most opportunistic and consequential, and yet also the most fragile. As the Trump administration takes its first steps forward, it momentarily glances around to see if it can still get away with it—Trump’s affinity for Putin is obvious, as he restricts the press and puffs his chest as he does it. But he succeeds only through the sordid apathy of the public, through our splendor of the culture industry, like bugs flying stupidly towards a florescent lamp.

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