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 Reince Priebus, Peter Navarro, Jared Kushner, Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon watch as President Trump signs an executive order in the White House on Jan. 23. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

The Management of Unleashed Insanity

Trump perfects the role of Propagandist-in-Chief.

Todd Gitlin


Richard Nixon lied about wars and cover-ups, but otherwise his evasions and spins were in the mainstream of American political discourse. He was not in the regular practice of calling black white. By the end of his second term, Ronald Reagan was so mentally impaired as to make it unclear what he knew and when.

But the present situation, a regime that systematically assaults truth, is unprecedented.

Trump’s gamble is that the ardor of the true believers can be weaponized into an assault on the doubters, knocking them back on their heels, shaking their faith in their own judgments…

One critical mass of citizens, Trump’s true believers, live in a mental universe composed of falsehoods poured steadily into their eyes and ears by a kept propaganda system, a system of untruth which they either affirm or, one way or the other, make their peace with. A second critical mass, the systematic resisters and doubters, is troubled beyond measure, but they are, for the moment, after years of default, powerless. Trump’s gamble is that the ardor of the true believers can be weaponized into an assault on the doubters, knocking them back on their heels, shaking their faith in their own judgments; and that the rest of the population — the independent, the agnostic, the confused, the overwhelmed — can be neutralized, reduced to occasional whimpers or paralyzed by fear.

Is the production of such barely controlled chaos a strategy? Is there a conductor in charge of the cacophony? We need not assume so. Consciousness is not required; unpredictability is. Deliberate or not, Trump’s approach is to bury the nation in an avalanche of mind-scrambles, to unravel the comforting myths of a more-or-less stable society — the separation of powers, the wisdom of crowds, the inevitability of moderation, the assumption that all the political players, however divergent, however misguided, are of goodwill — while his plutocrats laugh their way to the bank.

Not for the first time, we discover that George Orwell has been here before. “The prevailing mental condition,” Orwell wrote in 1984, in the voice of his fictional bête noire, Emmanuel Goldstein, “must be controlled insanity.” Trump’s way goes beyond propaganda. It undermines meaning altogether.

Keeping the leader’s audience suspended, bewildered and off-balance has been Trump’s modus operandi for 40 years, through all the phases of his ongoing and mutual embrace of the media. Spinning himself into a legend was his modus operandi when he was a developer of glitzy hotels and casinos. Entertaining outrages of self-display were the modus operandi of the playboy when he endlessly leaked tales about his prowess to the tabloid press. They were his modus operandi when he sponsored beauty contests and starred in a television “reality” series featuring unabashed power displays. They were his modus operandi as a sponsor of the “birther” lie to the effect that Barack Obama was Kenya-born. When antagonists object, or stare, aghast, you denounce them as elitists and dance away to your next accusation.

When Orwell wrote 1984 in the late 1940s, television had barely arrived. But Big Brother dropping old lies into a memory pit and supplanting them with updates prefigured Big Trump with the consistency of his inconsistency. The motto was: Never retreat, never apologize, never yield an inch. As was the case of Big Brother, the regime’s hope is to administer its brand of controlled insanity, saying what it likes, whenever it likes, and treating objections as a distemper. Thus the insistence by Trump & Co. that “fake news” is “the enemy of the people.” “Fake news” is a floating signifier for purveyors of statements the Trump crowd dislike. The phrase is not meant to communicate meaning so much as to communicate impunity and belligerence. The hope is to arouse howls of assent from the 35-40 percent of the American public who still champion Trump and to distract and paralyze the rest who voted for him.

The question arises: Do the members of Trump’s inner circle really believe what comes out of their mouths? Have they hypnotized themselves? Are they liars, BS-ers, morons or fools? It’s anyone’s guess. Trump forces us to ask what it means to “believe” in America today. As sociologist Rogers Brubaker says, the point of apocalyptic nationalism in America today is to belong, not to believe. You belong by affirming. To win, you don’t need reasons, only power. To inquire into belief in the case of Trump and his epigones — Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller and others not yet well known — presupposes an out-of-style, uncool model of sincerity. To object is to signal that you don’t get the joke, you don’t get the air-quotes. You’re a rube.

If that’s not crazy-making enough, you’re also an elitist.

So it does not avail to point the finger at Trump’s subministers of propaganda and accuse them of making things up. To the true believers, it is plausible that The Bureau of Labor Statistics was “manipulating” unemployment figures and committing a “hoax” when Barack Obama was president, but is telling the truth now when it reports jobs growth. Government agencies lie, except when they don’t. “Believe me,” Trump says. And enough craven Republicans are willing to play along in the hope that when the regime collapses under the weight of one or another scandal, they will inherit the rubble.

Do the members of Trump’s inner circle really believe what comes out of their mouths?

In 1984, Orwell well anticipated the mental gymnastics required of a leadership gang. The inventors of doublethink — so wrote Goldstein, Orwell’s master interpreter of the totalitarian order — knew it was “a vast system of mental cheating.” Apart from their cardinal commitments to national bravado and plutocratic rule — to the sucking up of mountainous quantities of capital out of the nation’s collective product — Trump and his chief propagandists will believe anything and nothing, because belief, for them, is no more than a transitory instrument of power. Belief is what gets people excited, and the excitement of people — of their people — is, aside from money, their chief resource.

Orwell wrote:

It is in the ranks of the Party, and above all of the Inner Party, that the true war enthusiasm is found. World-conquest is believed in most firmly by those who know it to be impossible. This peculiar linking-together of opposites – knowledge with ignorance, cynicism with fanaticism – is one of the chief distinguishing marks of Oceanic society….

As Hannah Arendt noted, the combination of cynicism and gullibility was the bloodstream of totalitarianism. Having pulled off a hostile takeover of a reeling semi-democracy, the unregenerate fabulist Trump and his enablers have some reason for confidence. Not that he necessarily heralds a new totalitarian order, though given sufficient panic resulting from, say, a terror attack, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he might usurp, or be granted, the powers to do so. For now, he will be content to gamble that journalists will get exhausted, that the resistance can be out-waited and that the larger public can be mind-boggled into stupefaction. After all, he’s a gambling man who owns the casino.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License.
Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of sixteen books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition

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