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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Language and political manipulation: Why everyone is reading 1984 again

by John MacBeath Watkins

My bookstore started running out of copies of 1984 immediately after Kellyanne Conway used the term "alternative facts" to describe a lie told by presidential spokesman Sean Spicer.

That was on Meet the Press, Jan. 22, 2017. People really needed to start reading it sooner, such as in 2008, when Paul Gottfried first used the term "althernative right" to refer to white supremacists.

That proved to be the most successful bit of rebranding since the Rapeseed Association of Canada realized in the 1970s that women would be more willing to buy rapeseed oil if it were called canola oil.

Consider the case of Steve Bannon, President Trump's chief strategist and a member of the Principles Committee of the U.S. National Security Council. Prior to attaching himself to Donald Trump during the primaries, he ran a "news" organization called Brietbart, which he described last year as "the platform for the alt-right."

Had he described Brietbart as "the platform for white supremacists," would Trump be able to have him as his closest adviser?

And Bannon is now engaged in a new exercise in rebranding. At the Conservative Political Action Conference Feb. 23, Bannon said that President Trump made all his cabinet appointments with the goal of the "deconstruction of the administrative state."

Prior to that speech, deconstruction meant to apply a particular brand of critical theory to the reading of texts. Here's the Merriam-Webster definition:

1. a philosophical or critical method which asserts that meanings, metaphysical constructs, and hierarchical oppositions (as between key terms in a philosophical or literary work) are always rendered unstable by their dependence on ultimately arbitrary signifiers; also: an instance of the use of this method -- a deconstruction of the nature–culture opposition in Rousseau's work.
2. the analytic examination of something (as a theory) often in order to reveal its inadequacy.
This is clearly not what Bannon meant. Trump did not appoint Scott Pruitt to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency so that he would perform some sort of literary criticism of the agency. He's there to destroy it. He is there to ensure that our air and water become polluted, much like what Bannon and Conway are doing to our language.

Bannon is rebranding "destroy the government of the United States" as "deconstruction of the administrative state." That sounds so much more civilized, even abstract. Destroying the government sounds like treason, and to people reliant on the government for keeping the country peaceful, prosperous, and a reasonable place to live, it would sound likely to create chaos. Telling voters you were trying to destroy the government would be about has helpful as a canola farmer trying to impress his date by saying he was in the business of producing rape oil. Except, of course, that if his date knew what he was talking about she wouldn't mind, whereas if voters understood what Bannon was saying, most would be appalled.

But "deconstruction of the administrative state," now, that sounds really intellectual. Let's try to keep up with the development of the Trump administration's Newspeak, shall we? After all, we don't want to commit thoughtcrime.

We can begin our glossary of Trumpspeak:

Administrative state, noun, the agencies of the executive branch of the government.

Alternative fact, noun, A lie.

Alt-Right, noun, white supremacist.

America first, noun, originally a movement in the 1930s and '40s that thought America should not oppose fascism. Used by Trump and his surrogates as a term for a 21st century movement that feels America should not oppose fascism. Alternatively, a person who cooperates with the intelligence apparatus of a hostile foreign power to win public office.

Birth certificate, noun, a talisman of authenticity that, even when produced, cannot be real.

Coastal elites, noun, people who possess expertise, regardless of location.

Corporatist, noun, A word that had several meanings prior to Trump. He and his seem to have borrowed the left-wing meaning of a corruption of public policy by business interests, a sort of crony capitalism, except that the Trumpettes only use it to describe people who are not cronies of Trump. They might give the example of George Soros as a corporatist, but never Charles or David Koch unless they cross Trump.

Criminal enterprise, noun, a non-profit organization that spends its money on good works, rather than using it to buy politicians.

Deconstruct, verb, to destroy.

Disaster, noun, a successful government program.

Dishonest, adjective, used to describe people who report accurately on Trump.

Economic nationalism, noun, a policy of political bluster intended to conceal ignorance of how economies actually work.

Enemy of the people, noun, a reporter or news organization that does not propagandize for Trump.

Fake news, noun, a term that once meant lies intended to mislead, used by Trump and his surrogates to mean reporting facts that are inconvenient to Trump.

Globalist, noun, people who are not economic nationalists.

Loser, noun, a person who is not Donald Trump.

Radical Islamic Terrorism, noun, a magical phrase which, if said with sufficient conviction, will cause our enemies to humbly surrender.

Saying it like it is, verb, saying what you think people want to hear.

Strong leader, noun, either a foreign dictator or a blustering, insecure person who obsesses about the size of his inauguration crowd.

Truth, noun, a lie that confirms prior bias.

Unwatchable, adjective, a television show that Trump watches and reports on to his audience..


Orwell's pioneering work in his 1948 novel has given us a framework, but it will take years to assemble a workable glossary of Trumpism. Please add to the comments list any words and definitions you think should be added.

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