Trump is inaugurated and the sparsity of the crowds, in comparison with recent inaugurations, is noted. The next day, Trump’s Press Secretary delivers a 5 minute angry vituperation to the assembled press corps in the White House Briefing Room, in which he asserts both that no one can know the true numbers that were present and also that “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period.” The day after, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway tells NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that Spicer had merely been offering “alternative facts.” The Guardian reports that this phrase “was received with widespread astonishment.”1 Why astonishment? It’s not as if this is anything new?
In 2004 Ron Suskind of The New York Times was told by an aide for the Bush White House:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
The disdain that the Bush staffer felt for the “all of you” is shown in the way he referred to the “reality-based community,” as if that were indicative of some moral failing.2
Again, why the surprise?
Siegfried Kracauer noted in 1947, that Totalitarianism meant what the description said: it was a totalizing approach to life. Nothing, nothing, was exempt from its desire and ability to rewrite what was not part of the narrative. Rather German Totalitarianism:
…endeavoured to supplant a reality based upon the acknowledgement of individual values. Since the Nazis aimed at totality, they could not be content with simply superseding this reality—the only reality deserving the name—by institutions of their own. If they had done so, the image of reality would not have been destroyed but merely banished; it might have continued to work in the sub-conscious mind, imperilling the principle of absolute leadership.3
As Chico Marx asks, in that classic movie of political suspicion, Duck Soup, “Well, who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?”4
The answer that Kracauer and Conway both give us is that in this unreality-based brave new world, there is no real choice.
- Jon Swaine, ‘Donald Trump’s team defends ‘alternative facts’ after widespread protests,’ The Guardian, Monday 23 January 2017. [↩]
- Ron Suskind, “Without a Doubt,” The New York Times (New York, October 17, 2004), sec. Magazine. [↩]
- Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 298. [↩]
- Chico, and not Groucho as Jonathan Freedland mistakenly remembered in his comment piece in The Guardian this morning, before it was amended with a subclause correction. Perhaps it is an alternative fact that Groucho said it first? Jonathan Freedland, ‘Sean Spicer is a Groucho Marxist, asking us not to believe our own eyes‘ The Guardian, 23 January 2017 [↩]