Donald Trump’s start as president brings to mind George Orwell’s “1984,” a novel in which a regime and its leaders impose their own reality, creating a false “truth” to serve their political purposes. Orwell wrote, “The Party told you to reject all evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
Calling on others to reject evidence came early for the White House. When questioned about the administration’s blatant dishonesty, presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway stated that Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer was using “alternative facts.”
Conway’s phrase involved a minor matter for which facts were clear. The president and Spicer promoted falsehoods about how many people attended and watched the ceremony and even how many took mass transit that day.
According to a top fact checker from The Washington Post, everything Trump and his team said was false. Photographs show far fewer people came to Trump’s inauguration than Obama’s. The parade route was noticeably uncrowded. The media audience was not the highest ever. Metro usage was less than on an average work day. Obama’s first inaugural holds the record for the most Metro trips.
The Women’s March in Washington, D.C., drew three times as many people as the Trump inaugural. Another 20,000-plus energetic, determined people assembled in Maine. Millions more gathered in the U.S. and vowed to continue to speak out against Trump’s policies. Yet Spicer lied about them, claiming the women’s marches were not anti-Trump.
This pattern of blatant lying, which also occurred during the campaign and transition, is bad for three reasons. First, no one can assume anything Trump and his team say is true, thus damaging trust and national security.
Second, such dishonesty undermines our democratic system. As Republican strategist Steve Schmidt put it, “purposeful deceit, willful lying by a government spokesperson, is the hallmark of a totalitarian or an authoritarian regime. It’s absolutely pernicious in a democracy.”
Third, pervasive lying from the president and his staff makes it harder for journalists to discover and report what the administration is doing and why.
But this doesn’t add up to a fully Orwellian system. Trump and his team lie easily and often but they are not able to control the media or political institutions. Citizens therefore can discern reality, and they and leaders can constrain Trump.
Journalists should change how they operate. As Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post argues, the old structure of White House press briefings are no longer useful. And, as journalism professor Jay Rosen argues, interviewing people like Kellyanne Conway serves no purpose because reporters often come away with less clarity about the administration’s actions and motives. Investigative reporting using documents and low-level sources is more important than ever.
Civil servants can provide information to reporters and may become whistleblowers, particularly if the administration lies about data gathered by the government.
Transparency laws force information into the open, but this takes time. Groups, the press, private individuals and businesses, and state attorneys general can bring legal cases requiring document releases. Investigations, like the one the FBI is conducting about ties between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, may deliver new information to the press and public.
While Congress can be effective in bringing oversight and accountability, thus far Republicans seem uninterested in limiting the president’s conflicts of interest and blocking Trump’s noncompliance with the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause.
Citizens should encourage legislators to take these responsibilities seriously. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree should hold regular town hall meetings to hear from constituents, answer questions and model transparency in a way Trump has not. With big policy changes on the docket, involving health policy and other critical matters, legislators should embrace openness.
Trump is creating an Orwellian reality apart from the world of facts, focused around buttressing his ego. Press Secretary Spicer declared that criticism of Trump is “demoralizing” to him. Trump’s strongest loyalists get the message that they should only trust in Trump, who signed a proclamation declaring his inauguration day a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion.”
Still, we can constrain and counter Trump’s Orwellian approach. As reporter Chuck Todd told Kellyanne Conway, “Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.” The women’s marches showed that citizens are paying attention and will stay engaged to protect our democracy.