The War on Words in Donald Trump’s White HouseRoundup
tags: Hannah Arendt, impeachment, Trump
Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, as well as the editor-in-chief of the CNS Soufan Group Morning Brief and the foreign-policy blog Vital Interests. She is the author and editor of many books, among them Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State and The Least Worst Place: Guantánamo’s First 100 Days. Julia Tedesco helped with research for this article.
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.
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