by Jerilyn Bowen
Every day we are reminded that our country–and our planet–is in peril. We are bombarded with demented inflammatory Tweets from the usurper who occupies the White House amid reports of mass shootings and weather catastrophes; frightened children ripped from their parents and locked in cages; violence against minorities, women, and those of nonconforming gender; public schools in crisis; a rampant opiod epidemic; melting arctic ice and vanishing species; rising suicide rates; nuclear war hovering on the horizon and much more. Perhaps the worst of it is the unholy food fight fomented by Republicans in Congress, the national body that is supposed to represent the interests of the people. While Senate Majority Leader McConnell contrives to block any legislation that doesn’t increase the wealth and power of the 1% who own his party and the House dithers about impeachment under the myopic leadership of a corporate Democrat who lets Trump set the agenda, it feels as if the country is being precariously held together with chewing gum and duct tape.
No wonder talking about what’s going on has become an implicit taboo in certain social settings. No wonder so many are inclined to turn the news off and retreat into the familiar, seemingly secure cocoon of their everyday lives. And no wonder those of us who choose to face the disturbing music are hard pressed to know where to most effectively focus our efforts.
So: a myriad of dragons to be slain and a myriad of ways to go about that, all of them of value. Each of us can play a part by committing to the causes that call to us and doing the nitty gritty work they require. But what can we as progressives do to address the most pernicious and disempowering factor in the diabolical Trump/Republican equation? What can we do about their increasingly successful attempts to pit people against one another while at the same time destroying any standard of truth by which our differences could be peaceably mediated? To achieve their ends, they are quite literally driving the country mad.
We can of course call them out on their calculated sowing of division . Most if not all the Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination have been doing that. But few if any are addressing Republican use of disinformation tactics to confuse the public and undermine all objective means of determining what is true and what is not. So long as we (and the corporate media) let them get by with this, we will inevitably be drawn into their net. Even when–or especially when–we react by opposing their spurious allegations, we are letting them shape the public debate and drive the narrative.
To turn this around, we need first of all to identify exactly how their disinformation playbook works and develop ways of countering their moves out of a progressive people-power playbook that speaks truth in no uncertain terms. One place to start is by naming Trump’s fallback move: when called to account about anything, he immediately accuses his accuser of being guilty of the same (or worse) misdeeds. This creates a false equivalency that turns the story into a tale of two contending sides, often allowing Trump to play the victim to boot.
One egregious example of this in-plain-sight sleight-of-hand is Trump’s characterization of the investigations of his conduct as “a slow moving coup” and his concomitant call for the investigators to be investigated. If you have eyes to see and ears to hear, it’s clear that he’s the one who’s fomenting a slow moving coup–to wit, a blatantly law-defying authoritarian coup of our democratic institutions. He escapes being identified as doing so by spinning a narrative that paints himself as the hapless victim of a nefarious plot to undermine his presidency. A more transparently absurd instance of this typical move: after Tweeting a virulent racist attack on Representative Elijah Cummings, Trump responded to criticism of his racism by accusing Cummings of being a racist.
Examples abound. Whenever a finger is pointed at Trump, he’ll point a finger back. Then, with cries of fake news, he sows mistrust of media reports on what has occurred and in the minds of many thereby effectively undermines any standard by which the truth of the matter can be reliably determined.
Fact checking helps. The Washington Post has done us all good service by identifying (as of June 10th) Trump’s 10,796 false or misleading claims since he took over the presidency. But fact checking doesn’t cover it when the facts themselves are being called fake news, a hoax, and/or mere instruments of a witchhunt.
Human community depends on shared values, a shared medium of communication, and a recognized touchstone whereby what is and is not true can be ascertained. Trump and his Republican allies who act in service to the 1% know they cannot prevail by playing fair on these terms. In pursuit of victory at any cost, they weaponize language in such a way as to destroy the very basis of e pluribus unum in our nation, thereby creating an inherent instability that bodes ill for a future in which the upheavals generated by unfettered international capitalism and climate catastrophe must be faced.
To transform this dynamic before it’s too late, we are called to reclaim language as a means of trustworthy communication in our collectivity. For starters, rather than getting hooked on finger-pointing verbal provocations by reacting to them, we can hold our ground and say out loud just what Trump and his cartel are up to. We can name their disinformation tactics for what they are in much the same way as mature adults speak of a toddler’s tantrums, then set aside their misleading content and lay out the actual truth, framing the issues in our terms and generating a narrative that gives Republicans something to answer for.
There is an urgent case to be made for saving our democracy, not to mention our planet. It has been given to us to be the ones who figure out how best to make it.