Oh, for the good old days of an earlier age of impeachment! Tell me honestly, wouldn't you like to return to the moment when our worst language crisis was parsing what "is is"? If you remember, in his classic explanation of the slippery issue of tense and intent, President Bill Clinton told a grand jury, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the -- if he -- if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not -- that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement... Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky -- that is, asked me a question in the present tense -- I would have said no. And it would have been completely true."
At a moment when "witch hunt" is a boringly everyday term, "coup" part of the ordinary language of Washington politics, "Little Shifty Schiff" a commonplace moniker, "treason" and "spying" everyday descriptors in the nation's capital, "fake" such a pedestrian adjective that "corrupt" is now taking its place, and "lynching" an acceptable description of the impeachment process, don't you pine for a time when only the definition of "is" was at stake?
If you do -- at a moment when what anything is may be in question -- it's worth taking a little journey with TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg through a Washington in which language itself seems in the process of being impeached. Tom
The War on Words in Donald Trump's White House
How to Fudge, Obfuscate, and Lie Our Way into a New Universe
By Karen J. Greenberg
These days, witnessing the administration's never-ending cruelty at the border, the shenanigans of a White House caught red-handed in attempted bribery in Ukraine, and the disarray of this country's foreign policy, I feel like I'm seeing a much-scarier remake of a familiar old movie. The cast of characters and the headlines are different, but the thinking underlying it all is, in many ways, eerily reminiscent of what we as a nation experienced during the early years of the Global War on Terror, particularly when it comes to the interactions between the White House and the public. As then, so today, there is distrust, there are conflicting facts, and there is little in the way of a widely agreed upon narrative about what's happening, no less how to interpret those events.
The most blatant attack on facts comes in the form of the unabashed lying of President Donald Trump, who obfuscates and changes his many stories with impressive regularity. By this October, after almost 1,000 days in office, according to the Washington Post's Fact Checker's database, he had made 13,435 false or misleading claims. He had lied about immigration, the stock market, the impact his sanctions and tariffs were having on the American economy, U.S. troop withdrawals from the Middle East, the size of his crowds, and even the weather, which, of course, is just the beginning of a far longer list.
Still, despite the breadth of his falsehoods, the president's behavior has actually been anything but novel at a fundamental level. After all, President George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, took this country to war based on an outright lie -- that there were weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's arsenal in Iraq -- a falsehood which cost the U.S. more than a trillion dollars and took staggering numbers of Iraqi and American lives, a war that has never really ended and is widely seen (as Trump and Bernie Sanders have both said) as the worst mistake in our history.
The corrosiveness of official lying has long been the subject of philosophers. Hannah Arendt, writing about the Pentagon Papers and the corrosive effects of falsehoods back in 1971, called "the right to unmanipulated factual information" basic, one "without which all freedom of opinion becomes a cruel hoax." But it's important to note that, when it comes to the Trump presidency, there is so much more to the strategy of degrading public discourse and debasing the facts than anything as simple and straightforward as mere lying. Political scientist Kelly Greenhill has aptly termed Trump's assault on the truth "extra-factual information," pointing to "distraction, threat conflation, normalization, and repetition" as among the methods he employs to make facts anything but what they used to be.
For Trump, lying is but the tip of the iceberg and in this he reflects far more than his own predilections. He reflects as well our moment, our age. George Orwell, that prescient twentieth-century observer, warned in his classic essay "Politics and the English Language" about one key aspect of such a lying mindset: the way "lack of precision" in language can pose a danger to society and to political stability.
When it comes to imprecision today, the dangers couldn't be more real. In fact, the strategies employed in Washington to confuse and mislead the public have subtly eaten away at the country's collective mindset, creating fertile ground for Trumpian-style lying to successfully take root. In many ways, the focus on Donald Trump's blatant and persistent lying only serves to obfuscate other no less destructive methods of deceiving the public that preceded him into the White House and helped create the conditions that make the president's lies so destabilizing.
Consider just six ways in which, in this century, imprecision and cloudiness have come to define American political discourse.
The Recasting of Language: The gutting of the customary uses of language and the substitution of new, imprecise replacements has, as Orwell warned, set the stage for lying and duplicity to multiply. Officials of the Bush administration, for instance, redefined basic legal terms specifically to circumvent the law. Instead of "prisoners" at their Guantanamo Bay detention center, they had "detainees." Instead of "lawful enemy combatants," they just had "enemy combatants," a term without a commonly understood or precise definition that conveniently skipped the idea of lawfulness entirely.
In her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt reminded us how new "language rules" became part and parcel of the Nazi propaganda world in ways meant to confuse the public about the changing German reality. The forced imprisonment of Jews in concentration camps was, for instance, referred to as a "change of residence." In The Death of Truth, Michiko Kakutani reflects on Trump's version of such an "assault on language," his penchant, in particular, for "the taking of words and principles intrinsic to the rule of law and contaminating them with personal agendas and political partisanship." As examples, she notes his use of words "to mean the exact opposite of what they really mean," particularly the way he took the words of his accusers and robbed them of meaning by turning them back on the accusers themselves. For instance, Hillary Clinton "colluded" with Ukraine, not he with Russia (ditto, of course, for Hunter and Joe Biden). Words, in other words, become exactly what he cares to make of them.
Uncertain Numbers: Numbers, which otherwise might seem so precise, have similarly been used to create a sense of imprecision in Washington. A short trip down memory lane should remind us of some of the ways in which vagueness and imprecision were instrumental parts of the war on terror in particular. For Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush's secretary of defense, numerical precision of a distinctly imprecise sort provided an effective means of refusing to offer any meaningful information to the media on the administration's illegal acts. He had, for instance, a penchant for referring to the number of detainees at Guantanamo in approximate rather than specific terms. "More than 150," for instance, sounded innocuously close to precise, but also served his purpose -- creating a lack of transparency around the administration's war on terror.
The detention of migrants at the border in the Trump years echoes Rumsfeld's refusal to share real numbers, but has gone even further in creating a kind of numerical imprecision around reality itself. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has, for instance, been strikingly obstructionist when it comes to announcing the numbers of migrants in its custody. Last July, for instance, Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan claimed that fewer than 1,000 children had been separated from their parents. As it turned out, he wasn't even close to accurate. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions alone, 2,800 families had been separated in this fashion. Only recently, a suit brought by the ACLU led to the release of government statistics showing that an additional 1,500 families had, in fact, experienced such separations.