… the manipulation of reality using words and images till reality is no longer anchored to anything but the will of the powerful …
In an excellent little book H.G. Frankfurt writes about bullshit (1). The concept is particularly pertinent at the current moment although the word may be misleading as it is regularly misused. Contrary to popular belief, bullshit is not about lying. Bullshitters don’t lie. In fact, they are indifferent to how things are. Like liars, they are trying to get away with something by telling a story, but contrary to liars, they firmly believe the “reality” they are spinning whereas liars know what they are saying is not true. Bullshitters throw all their energy into maintaining their ‘reality bubble’ as its potential collapse hangs like an existential threat over them. In many ways, their identity depends on it. The dynamic of this situation which requires them to ignore they are scaffolding a false reality blinds them to the real reason they continually feel threatened. What’s more, the further their ‘reality’ shifts from the way the world is, the more effort maintaining it requires. Under normal circumstances the ever growing pressure of keeping up appearances leads to a collapse of the whole project. At one extreme, the system becomes progressively rigid and finally grinds to a halt. At the other, it becomes increasingly frenetic till it explodes, unable to contain its contradictions. The pursuit of bullshit leads ultimately to the breakdown of reason and the eruption of folly.
The Trump administration however has taken bullshit to a whole new level, discovering ways to lay ambitious foundations for a lasting alternate, nightmarish reality that thrives on the cusp of chaos. Part of the success of their strategy no doubt lies in what Naomi Klein calls shock doctrine (2) which Trumpism has extended to an all-out assault on every facet of society. Rather than seeking to create some resemblance of reasonableness, their alternate reality is so outrageous and shocking if not life-threatening, it has people reeling and unable to respond. Migrant children ripped from their parents and imprisoned in camps in the desert. Victims of a hurricane-devastated island blamed for incompetence and refused aid. The voting rights of those who oppose them systematically suppressed. The brazen claim that an admittedly criminal president is above the law because he knows what’s ‘right’ for the people. The media, the administration, the parliamentary system, the judiciary, the education system, the healthcare system, the mechanisms for protection of the environment, the defence of human rights, the basis for international trade, the functioning of bodies for collaborative, world-wide governance,… all derided and undermined. Rather than redistributing wealth to lessen the gap between rich and poor, advantages are heaped on the rich and powerful at the expense of the under-privileged. Rather than seeking an all embracing society, large sections are demonised and marginalized, if not excluded or eliminated. Coloured people, women, the gay and transgender, the indigenous folk, the poor and down-and-out, migrants, all are targeted.
All this while language is systematically manipulated, doing one thing and proclaiming the opposite in a way and to an extent that George Orwell (3) foreshadowed in his 1984 grim reality. Such an abuse of the relationship between language and the world is tantamount to a denial of the distinction between truth and lies that ultimately undermines reality leaving the stage free for a ‘reality’ untethered from the checks and balances of the real world. Welcome to Trump World. In such a world, neither justice nor democracy can function correctly as the recent impeachment trial of Trump so frustratingly illustrates.
Another aspect of this bullshit of chaos that Trumpism epitomises is breaking down the distinction between government and cheap television along with social media. Not only are favorable but incompetent TV talk-show hosts co-opted to enact government, but government discourse is voided of reasoned policies and replaced by a stream of enraged, ill-thought-out tweets, snippets of opinions cast to an avid media pack under the incessant whir of a departing helicopter and televised mass-rallies that are a cross between the third Reich incitation to hatred and a reality show in which the self-important, but very-definitely-mad king has turned buffoon to the delight of his supporters and the bemused dismay of his detractors.
One of the central techniques of hypnosis is the bewilderment of the would-be subject by a string of incoherent pronouncements or actions that put him in a trance and make his manipulation so much easier. The shrug of the ignore-it-it’s-just-Trump or the snigger at another slurred word or incoherent sentence are just symptoms of a collective deadening to the onslaught of a would-be wheeler-and-dealer that is threatening the very foundations of our world, of our reason. Wake up world! This man has us sleep-walking on the road to chaos and the cliff edge is only inches away.
- Frankfurt H.G., On bullshit, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005.
- Klein N., Shock Doctrine, Penguin, London, 2008.
- Orwell G., 1984, Penguin, London, first published in 1949.