Crazy Donald John Trump is the 45th and current President of the United States
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George Orwell warns us in his dystopian novel 1984 that authoritarianism begins with language. Words now operate as "Newspeak," in which language is twisted in order to deceive, seduce and undermine the ability of people to think critically and freely. As authoritarianism gains in strength, the formative cultures that give rise to dissent become more embattled along with the public spaces and institutions that make conscious critical thought possible.
Words that speak to the truth, reveal injustices and provide informed critical analysis begin to disappear, making it all the more difficult, if not dangerous, to hold dominant power accountable. Notions of virtue, honor, respect and compassion are policed, and those who advocate them are punished.
I think it is fair to argue that Orwell's nightmare vision of the future is no longer fiction. Under the regime of Donald Trump, the Ministry of Truth has become the Ministry of "Fake News," and the language of "Newspeak" has multiple platforms and has morphed into a giant disimagination machinery of propaganda, violence, bigotry, hatred and war.
With the advent of the Trump presidency, language is undergoing a shift in the United States: It now treats dissent, critical media and scientific evidence as a species of "fake news." The administration also views the critical media as the "enemy of the American people." In fact, Trump has repeated this view of the press so often that almost a third of Americans believe it and support government-imposed restrictions on the media, according to a Poynter survey.
Language has become unmoored from critical reason, informed debate and the weight of scientific evidence, and is now being reconfigured within new relations of power tied to pageantry, political theater and a deep-seated anti-intellectualism, increasingly shaped by the widespread banality of celebrity culture, the celebration of ignorance over intelligence, a culture of rancid consumerism, and a corporate-controlled media that revels in commodification, spectacles of violence, the spirit of unchecked self-interest and a "survival of the fittest" ethos.
Under such circumstances, language has been emptied of substantive meaning and functions increasingly to lull large swaths of the American public into acquiescence, if not a willingness to accommodate and support a rancid "populism" and galloping authoritarianism. The language of civic literacy and democracy has given way to the language of saviors, decline, bigotry and hatred. One consequence is that matters of moral and political responsibility disappear, injustices proliferate and language functions as a tool of state repression. The Ministry of "Fake News" works incessantly to set limits on what is thinkable, claiming that reason, standards of evidence, consistency and logic no longer serve the truth, because the latter are crooked ideological devices used by enemies of the state. "Thought crimes" are now labeled as "fake news."
The notion of truth is viewed by this president as a corrupt tool used by the critical media to question his dismissal of legal checks on his power -- particularly his attacks on judges, courts, and any other governing institutions that will not promise him complete and unchecked loyalty. For Trump, intimidation takes the place of unquestioned loyalty when he does not get his way, revealing a view of the presidency that is more about winning than about governing. One consequence is myriad practices in which Trump gleefully humiliates and punishes his critics, willfully engages in shameful acts of self-promotion and unapologetically enriches his financial coffers.
David Axelrod, a former senior advisor to President Obama, is right in stating:
"And while every president is irritated by the limitations of democracy on them, they all grudgingly accept it. [Trump] has not. He has waged a war on the institutions of democracy from the beginning, and I think in a very corrosive way."
New York Times writer Peter Baker adds to this charge by arguing that Trump -- buoyed by an infatuation with absolute power and an admiration for authoritarians -- uses language and the power of the presidency as a potent weapon in his attacks on the First Amendment, the courts and responsible governing. Trump's admiration for a number of dictators is well known. What is often underplayed is his inclination to mimic their language and polices. For instance, Trump's call for "law and order," his encouraging police officers to be more violent with "thugs," and his adoration of all things militaristic echoes the ideology and language of Philippine President and strongman Rodrigo Duterte, who has called for mass murder and boasted about "killing criminals with his own hand."
At the same time, it would be irresponsible to suggest that the current expression of authoritarianism in US politics began with Trump, or that the context for his rise to power represents a distinctive moment in American history. As Howard Zinn points out in A People's History of the United States, the US was born out of acts of genocide, nativism and the ongoing violence of white supremacy. Moreover, the US has a long history of demagogues, extending from Huey Long and Joe McCarthy to George Wallace and Newt Gingrich. Authoritarianism runs deep in American history, and Trump is simply the end point of these anti-democratic practices.
With the rise of casino capitalism, a "winner-take-all" ethos has made the United States a mean-spirited and iniquitous nation that has turned its back on the poor, underserved, and those considered racially and ethnically disposable. It is worth noting that in the last 40 years, we have witnessed an increasing dictatorship of finance capital and an increasing concentration of power and ownership regarding the rise and workings of the new media and mainstream cultural apparatuses. These powerful digital and traditional pedagogical apparatuses of the 21st century have turned people into consumers, and citizenship into a neoliberal obsession with self-interest and an empty notion of freedom.
The ecosystem of visual and print representations has taken on an unprecedented influence, given the merging of power and culture as a dominant political and pedagogical force. This cultural apparatus has become so powerful, in fact, that it is difficult to dispute the central role it played in the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Analyzing the forces behind the election of Trump, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt provide a cogent commentary on the political and pedagogical power of an old and updated media landscape. They write:
"Undoubtedly, Trump's celebrity status played a role. But equally important was the changed media landscape... By one estimate, the Twitter accounts of MSNBC, CNN, CBS, and NBC -- four outlets that no one could accuse of pro-Trump leanings -- mentioned Trump twice as often as Hillary Clinton. According to another study, Trump enjoyed up to $2 billion in free media coverage during the primary season. Trump didn't need traditional Republican power brokers. The gatekeepers of the invisible primary weren't merely invisible; by 2016, they were gone entirely."