The NG Times Newspaper

by Roger Blockley

The matter of Donald Trump’s continual lying has attracted much comment, including by the editor of NGT. While, at present, it appears to be a problem of the USA, I am afraid that the technique and objectives that underlie it have far broader implications, and the now-notorious phrase ‘alternative facts’ offers a clue.

I have lectured on Roman history for a long time. I have observed more recently (that is, the past eight or so years) that the students prefer lecture notes to be posted on-line, and when that is done, they memorize both facts and opinions (or interpretations) indiscriminately. Now history is an enquiry based upon facts, or reasonable extrapolations from facts, and it is the enquiry (not the facts) that define history. To treat opinions as facts negates history. Yet this is what many students do, if they acquire their ‘history’ on line.

What is happening in the USA is an analogue of this process. There is an amount of evidence that reading electronically, rather than on paper, is often done alongside other activities and is often more superficial: and opinions are often registered as facts. In this context, the internet, and especially Twitter, offers brief statements (or headlines) that stick. Furthermore, USA-ians, especially, are conditioned to negative headlines (look at the papers and magazines at supermarket checkouts). Notoriously, one of the flacks during an earlier presidential election campaign (I think it was a supporter of the elder Bush), made a blatantly false statement, and when forced to retract it did so willingly with the observation that for every person who believed the retraction, nine would believe the original lie.

The strategy then, is obvious: tell a lie, and then accuse your opponents and the press of lying, after which a reasoned rebuttal will carry little force, especially with the true believers, whose outrage at the alleged liars will increase (remember Trump ran his campaign like a series of revivalist meetings). Moreover, over time, much of the media will move towards some kind of accommodation with the liars (Neil MacDonald thinks that this is already happening), and the Republicans (with the honourable exception of John McCain) will go along.

What is happening is not accidental, nor is it only a consequence of Trump’s obvious defects of character (though these play a role). Rather it is part of a carefully-contrived strategy. Parallels have been drawn with Nixon, but these ignore the fact that Nixon was not backed up by a legion of true believers. Parallels have also been drawn with “1984″ and “Brave New World”. But the closer parallel, in my view, is with “Animal Farm”.

If this were simply a USA-ian phenomenon, it might be merely amusing. But one can see traces of this already in Canada. Kelly Leitch is trying out this approach, and the on- line abuse of Justin Trudeau smacks of the same. One might hope, in these cases, that the good sense and moderation of Canadians will resist the hysteria and polarization that is so often characteristic of public discourse south of the border, and that the emergence of a Donald Trump (and his puppet master, Steve Bannon) will not happen here.


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