So this is an essay that I’m writing at the moment, for a particularly edgy module called “States of Damage”, which focuses on contemporary American culture and politics.
I’m writing this mostly because I think it’s interesting, but also because I’m struggling to get my thoughts together on the subject. When you write an essay it seems necessary to phrase everything in the most complex language possible, using ten words where one would do. For instance, though I’ve called this blog post “Donald Trump and Doublethink”, my essay is titled “To What Extent Did Doublethink and Doublespeak facilitate the socio-political context, events, and result of the 2016 US Election?” When every sentence sounds like that, it’s often difficult to get your thoughts straight. I wish I didn’t have to do this just to feel that my essays are up to the necessary academic standard, but it’s got me to degree level, so here I am.
But this is genuinely interesting stuff. I’ve finally got to the stage in the study of English Lit where I can write about events which are going on now, and contribute my two cents towards what it all means. And all I had to do to get here was sit through twelve years of Shakespeare analysis.
So here goes:
- The world is fucked. A bigoted egomaniac sits upon the throne of the “free world”, and all of us minions are looking at ourselves and thinking: how the fuck did we end up here? My thesis (which is hardly original, by the way) is that he was helped by the concept of doublethink, which originated in George Orwell’s seminal novel, 1984.
- Orwell defines doublethink as “The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed”.
- If that sounds like complete fuckery to you, I’m in agreement. But that’s kind of the point, since “even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink”. Basically, doublethink is like lying, but on steroids: you’re so convinced by your lie, that you sort of believe it. Of course, when you can believe a lie, you can believe anything, and from that point on, you can pretty much shape reality the way you choose. Under the rules of doublethink, I can believe I’m married to Emma Watson no matter how many restraining orders she sends me.
- Doublespeak is basically the same concept, but in speech.
- America has been using doublethink for a long time. America gained its place as the world’s most powerful country in the immediate aftermath of WWII. This is the only instance that any nation has ever used nuclear bombs in warfare, until the next time Trump gets drunk. When then-President Truman announced that the bomb “Little Boy” had been dropped on Hiroshima, he claimed “the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima because we wished in the first attack to avoid, in so far as possible, the killing of civilians”. His claim that America tried to avoid killing civilians, and yet had just killed 80,000 civilians, is textbook doublespeak: claiming two statements are true, despite the fact that they contradict.
- Since the end of WWII, America has established itself as the only true superpower nation, with fingers in pies all over the globe. Instead of controlling through open invasion and imperial control, like the British did with their Empire, America created an unofficial Empire of trade. It set up the International Monetary Fund, helped poor nations out of economic strife, and then used the debt those countries owed them to force them to comply with American interests. Over the years, America has fucked over a staggering number of countries:
- During the 50s Iran elected a progressive reformist called Mohammed Mossadegh to be Prime Minister. When he tried to nationalise their oil fields, he was overthrown by the CIA and MI6. Mossadegh lived the rest of his life under house arrest, for the crime of suggesting money from Iranian oil should go to Iran.
- in South America America it backed military coups by fascists in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, against left-wing governments. They usually claimed these lefties were communists.
- When Cuba successfully fought off a US coup, the US blocked them off from all trade with its allied countries. Then the CIA tried to kill Castro 600 times.
- The list goes on: if you want more information about America’s dodgy dealings, I’d recommend reading The Wikileaks Files, although it’d take you about a year. But the point is, America did all this under the banner of spreading democracy, freedom and liberty: you’ve heard them espouse these words, which have become conveniently meaningless. America wants control. It backs democracies when it wants to, but it also backs fascist dictators when it pleases too. For decades, America has lied about its role in the world, and people are beginning to catch on.
- Sometimes, its lies become so complex that they begin to contradict themselves. The most ridiculous example of this is America’s relationship with Colonel Gaddafi, ex-leader of Libya. Coming to power in a coup in 1969, he soon established a dictatorship where he could do as he pleased: Sacha Baron Cohen’s parody of him in The Dictator is alarmingly close to the truth. The problem was, Gaddafi saw himself as a global revolutionary, writing a book called the “Third International Theory”: an alternative to both capitalism and communism. I haven’t read it: you haven’t read it: no one read it. In addition, Libya were unable to create any of their own nuclear weapons: Gaddafi was feeling a bit impotent.
- Fortunately for him, over in America they’d elected a right-wing cowboy who’d jumped from the TV right into politics, the kind of thing that could never happen these days. Ronald Raegan wanted to simplify foreign diplomacy a bit, and present America as a definite force for good in a scary world. The Middle East in the 80s was a bit of a mess (largely because of American intervention), and instead of attempt to combat the complexity of it all, Raegan just wanted someone to blame. Enter Gaddafi.
- In the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Rome and Vienna airports in 1985, Raegan decided to blame Gaddafi, despite intelligence insisting the attacks came from Syria. Instead of denying Raegan’s claims, Gaddafi jumped at his chance to be on the international stage, calling Raegan a “stinking, rotten crusader”. America and Libya became locked in a cycle of mutual reinforcement: America blaming Libya because it was most convenient, Libya taking the blame because it gained Gaddafi, and his book, attention.
- However, further down the line, the Western portrayal of Gaddafi switched. George Bush and Tony Blair had taken their turn at fucking up the Middle East through the Iraq War (which America called Operation Enduring Freedom: lol). After sending Iraq into a predictable shitstorm, they needed some sign that the Middle East had improved. Enter Gaddafi, only this time, in the costume of a liberated tyrant. Gaddafi claimed that he was dismantling his nation’s nuclear weapons, and Bush and Blair applauded him. Blair even went over to Libya to shake his hand. A happy ending: only thing is, there is still no evidence that Libya had ever succeeded in making nuclear weapons, so in all probability, this was all just another lie.
- Then, the story changed yet again. As the Arab Spring kicked off in 2011, and the peoples of several Middle Eastern nations attempted to overthrow the US-backed tyrants that oppressed them, the US agreed to military intervention in Libya. It was a US drone which blew up Gaddafi’s escaping convoy, after which Gaddafi was raped and murdered. This was presented as yet another victory for democracy and freedom.
- Gaddafi was first a tyrant, then a hero, then a tyrant again. The US perpetrated lie on top of lie on top of lie, the lies all contradicting themselves: this is doublethink.
- There are many other examples of this, that I won’t go into. The US’ treatment of Saddam Hussein is another good example: they eventually executed him for crimes committed with American support. For more info, watch Adam Curtis’ documentary Hypernormalization.
- Over the past 70 years, America has created a culture of both doublethink, and oversimplification. By adding lie on top of lie on top of lie, the American electorate no longer know what to think, except that politicians are inherently untrustworthy. And they’re god damn right, to be honest. Politicians have become fluent in doublespeak: they’ve become so good at lying that they’re no longer aware of the lie. The difference between truth and fiction has faded: truth is such a vague concept, so far from our conception, that it has become irrelevant in politics. As a result, we get post-truth politics. (This is a gross oversimplification, and there are many other factors which have contributed towards post-truth politics, but you know what, just go with it.)
- In Post-truth politics, it no longer matters what is verifiably right or wrong. The public, bowled over by decades of political deception, of lies on top of lies, can no longer discern truth, so decide it for themselves. They decide it based on their ideologies, their emotional tendencies, what their friends and families and cultural products tell them to believe. In addition, humans are naturally bad at overcoming bias once it’s there: I know I am. Once someone has established a political position, or the support of one candidate, nothing can change their mind.
- The 2016 US Election was the first to take place in the era of post-truth politics. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were both immensely unpopular, and polarized the nation.
- Clinton is seen by many as an archetypal career politician, and this is a definite disadvantage. People have caught on to the decades of deceit peddled by the US government, and some of that deceit was peddled by Clinton while she was Secretary of State under Obama. She lied about keeping confidential emails on a private server, some of which were confidential. She’s flip-flopped on important issues such as marriage equality. And a release by Wikileaks quoted her telling bankers that it’s important to have a public and a private persona to be successful in politics. She’s literally quoted as saying a politician should be two faced: or in other words, to use doublethink. If you asked 100 people to describe the kind of politician they hate, your end result would be something like Hillary Clinton.
- Clinton also talked like a politician: using ambiguous political language to cover up the mound of crap she was spewing. Trump took a linguistic sledgehammer to ordinary political language. He spoke in monosyllables, using the simplest possible language to get his points across: language that anyone could understand. He dismissed his opponents with effective soundbites: “Little Marco” Rubio, “low-energy” Jeb Bush, “Crooked” Hillary. His policies were simple: you know them. And what’s more, he was entertaining: he was, dare I say it, funny, in a repulsive sort of way. If there’s one good thing to be said about Trump, he knows how to get his points across, even if the points themselves are fucking abhorrent. I believe it was this aspect - his apparent authenticity, his contrast with typical politicians such as Clinton — which appealed to such a widespread audience.
- The depressing twist is this: Trump merely replaced Hillary’s deception with a new, more direct, form of doublespeak. Donald Trump lies like no politician ever before him. Trump is the epitome of doublespeak. Tony Schwartz, the guy who wrote his book The Art of the Deal, has said that “ lying is second nature to [Trump]. More than anyone else I have ever met, Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true”. He believes he can build a wall and make Mexico pay for it: he believes he can ban Muslims from entering America. He may even believe he can make America great again.
- Instead of cover up his deceptions in indirect language, he just confirms the lie, replaces it with another lie, or just shouts “WROOONG.” He’s allowed to do this because in our post-truth political theatre, people no longer care whether a political figure is telling the truth or not. They care about their emotional response to what’s being said: if that was positive, they keep supporting Trump, if that was negative, they continue not supporting him. Helped by the online phenomena of echo chambers, nothing changes. Even when Trump’s own business acumen was debunked, as details of his multiple business failures and bankruptcies were leaked, it made no difference. Even when he admitted to sexual assault, it made almost no difference. His supporters can use doublethink on themselves, and disbelieve it just like that.
Since the end of World War II, America has cultivated a culture of doublethink: intentionally misleading its citizens about its actions in the world. This misleading took the form of outright lies, deceptions through reframing, or oversimplification. All three lead to an uncertainty among the American public over what the truth was. Eventually, American society was so distanced from the truth in politics that it no longer mattered, and America entered the post-truth age. And in an age of doublethink, where politicians were distrusted, people craved simplification, and the truth no longer mattered, Donald Trump could win the presidency.