Thomas Jefferson was so dismayed by political deceptions that he coined a word for it. “Twistifications” referred to a brew of willful misinformation, tortured logic, and artful language designed to sway credulous audiences.
This would be a good moment to resurrect Jefferson’s term—to better describe the “post-truth” Donald Trump, especially after Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway’s stunning reprises of Baghdad Bob at the White House over the past weekend. For while all presidents occasionally lie or mislead (Tonkin Gulf, Iran-Contra, WMD), this president so habitually and strategically dissembles—and then indignantly repeats the falsehood—that the word “lie” isn’t remotely adequate. He’s instead embodying the famous comment of one Bush 43 aide (later identified as Karl Rove) who candidly admitted to journalist Ron Suskind: “We create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—we’ll act again, creating other new realities.”
A close study of Trump’s standard twistifications (and those of his mini-me’s) over the past 18 months leads to the Anti-BS Detector for the Trump Era below. For Trump and Rove are essentially mimicking, consciously or not, “Orwellian” propaganda which George Orwell in 1984 described: “The Party” could change reality by repeatedly “insisting that lies are truth.”
Just Say No. When all federal intelligence agencies concluded that Putin hacked the Democrats, Trump at first went into deny, deny, deny mode — in effect, saying “ignore that man behind the [Iron] curtain.” When that became untenable, he instead adamantly denied that the Putin-WikiLeaks combination had any impact on the political outcome . . . which was odd, since he cited WikiLeaks 164 times during the campaign’s final month to denigrate Clinton. It appeared that Trump the candidate disagreed with the president-elect.
Just Say So. Why bother with evidence when “content bias” convinces “low education” supporters (his term) to swallow whole Trump’s self-confident declarations? The “tells” are easy to spot: “believe me…trust me…right?” The British have a phrase for this: “perhaps wrong but never in doubt.”
So Trump insists that millions voted illegally in November, thousands of Muslims cheered the collapse of the Twin Towers and there was a record turnout for his Inauguration (aerial photos notwithstanding). One week, he thinks the CIA is like “Nazi Germany” — the next week, he goes to Langley to say he “loves” them despite what the lying media reported. What contradiction?
“We create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—we’ll act again, creating other new realities.”
This category includes those conclusory adjectives that he’s the “best, smartest, most successful” person around with “terrific, great” plans, not to mention really big hands and glands. O.K.?
Black Sheep. Imagine if a person implied that all sheep were black because he saw one. Universalizing the particular can work. Consider that quickly retracted report over last weekend that President Trump had moved the Martin Luther King bust out of the Oval Office, allowing his team to imply that one example proves a media conspiracy against them. Or any time a Republican says something blatantly or implicitly racial, for example, a Trumper will invariably ask “what about Bob Byrd?” (the West Virginia Democratic Senator who was briefly in the KKK in the ’30s before recanting).
So any stray stupid quote from any Democrat ever allows Trump allies try to explain away some blunder by maintaining that “both sides do it.” Like Reagan, Trump understands that anecdotage is more convincing than analysis.
Reverse Logic. Contrary to the scientific method of facts leading to conclusions, conclusions lead to facts in Trumpland. Since Iran is presumptively bad, he argues that a deal stopping it from developing a nuclear weapon for at least 180 months is worse than a nuclear-weapons break-out in three months. And since a major cornerstone of the GOP is the fossil fuel industry, that requires Trump to treat climate change as either a hoax or only a teeny weeny man-made inconvenience. For him, the ideological precedes the empirical.
BULLY Pulpit. There’s an old saw in the courtroom that if the facts are on your side, pound away at the facts; if logic is on your side, pound away at logic; if neither is on your side, pound the table. Hence all those tweets attacking anyone as an overrated loser, like that failed actress Meryl something and a local labor leader in Indiana who contradicted him. Powered originally by 17 million followers on Twitter and now the White House press apparatus, Trump can make potential critics think twice before speaking out.
False Comparatives. Trumpians can pretend that some craziness is exonerated by a different craziness. So he tried to tweet away Russia’s subversion of democracy because CNN’s Donna Brazile allegedly shared two questions with Hillary’s camp before a primary debate. Really? Brazile like Putin? Kellyanne Conway’s push back on possible Kremlin influence on the 2016 election was to claim that media bias also tilted the playing field, which blithely equates our First Amendment’s freedom of the press with espionage.
Word Play. President Lincoln cautioned audiences that “there’s a difference between a horse chestnut and a chestnut horse.” President George W. Bush understood that if he merely located “9/11” and “Saddam Hussein” in the same sentence, many listeners would — and did — correlate the two.
Notice, for example, how candidate Trump preemptively attacked others for things he himself engages in—psychologists call it “projection” —in order to neuter their use against him. Hence, he called Hillary Clinton “nasty…corrupt…liar…bigot…[a Putin] puppet.”
Shoot the Media Messengers. Skepticism about a particular story, journalist, or outlet is standard fare . . . but attacking “the Media” as “disgusting, dishonest, the worst” is quite simply an authoritarian tactic to sabotage a cornerstone of democracy. No president has gone so far. Nor was it reassuring when Trump joked at one campaign rally, “well, we won’t kill them [pause] . . . hmmm.”
There’s a method to his badness here—as his only press conference as president-elect showed, he now can merely shout, “fake news!” about any critical coverage and his core supporters will nod in unison.
Figures don’t lie, but liars figure. If you thought that no one would lie about specific, agreed-on numbers, you’d be mis-underestimating the 45th president. Hence, his claims that 85 percent of attacks on white victims are committed by blacks (it’s actually 15 percent) and that he won in a “landslide” (of minus 2.9 million votes), and his Inaugural had the biggest TV audience (except for those two others).
When Trump/Conway/Priebus/Spicer/Pence etc. rotate these twistificiations, they can erogenously excite a largely white, working-class base who reflect the axiom, “to the jaundiced eye, all looks yellow.” And they can easily fill 140 characters or a couple of sentences in a TV or radio interview.
Since Trump has been a successful dissembler for decades—and inherits a GOP Congress reminiscent of Kipling’s “shut-eyed sentry”—one doubts he’ll now abandon the habits that have gotten him to the Oval Office. But the White House is not the 25th floor of Trump Tower. Can he get away with his multiple misdirections for 1,460 days of intense scrutiny?
Eventually, this tug-of-war between Trump’s Ministry of Disinformation and the “reality-based” media will have a winner. The “Party” couldn’t hold the USSR together, Mandela was freed, Miami is often under water, and already Trump is by far the most unpopular new president since polling began—and we’ve seen millions marching on January 21, with massive new energies directed toward resistance.
So if the NeverTrumpers keep exposing daily his and their twistifications, I’m betting on the winning observation of Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
Mark Green was NYC’s first Public Advocate. Among his 23 books is the recent Bright, Infinite Future: A Generational Memoir on the Progressive Rise.