The former Public Editor of The New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, has issued a harsh warning to all journalists and members of the press who try to hold President Donald Cobblepot accountable: A Hellscape of Lies and Distorted Reality. The Columbia Journalism Review notes that Trump acts more like a media organization than anything else, one that is heavily influenced by the tactics and tone of Breitbart News, formerly led by his top adviser Steve Bannon, and Fox News, formerly led by his mentor Roger Ailes: Donald Trump is a Media Organzation.
What happens when emotion-driven messaging dominates over policy-making and good governance? Propaganda. I hate overblown comparisons to Nazis, but let’s not forget that Hitler and Goebbels were masters of communication innovation and used the most advanced means at their disposal to spread their poisonous dogma. And that dogma plunged the world into war and caused the deaths of tens of millions of innocent people. They too acted like media organizations. I think a sober analysis of how their propaganda succeeded in what had been one of the world’s most advanced and cultured societies is worth our time and attention, to avoid going down the 21st century version of that road.
Remember the TV show The Twilight Zone? If you’re middle-aged, you probably do. It was famous for its unsettling introduction by narrator/creator Rod Serling, which always ended with the dark words: “You’ve entered … The Twilight Zone.” And thus would begin another episode of warped reality, almost like science fiction but set in the quotidian, humdrum, familiar environments of American homes, small towns, cities.
It has become ever more clear that with the election of Donald Trump, we are entering uncharted territory: the most powerful nation on earth is now led by a malignant narcissist with a tenuous grasp on the truth, a lot of hatred in his heart, and many unsavory supporters. I call him President Donald Cobblepot: “Only I Can Protect You…” . The coming years will severely test our culture and our democracy. Do you think “it can’t happen here”? Yes, it can. In fact, there’s a Twilight Zone episode about that very possibility: “He’s Alive”.
“Portrait of a bush-league Fuehrer named Peter Vollmer, a sparse little man who feeds off his self-delusions and finds himself perpetually hungry for want of greatness in his diet. And like some goose-stepping predecessors, he searches for something to explain his hunger, and to rationalize why a world passes him by without saluting. The something he looks for and finds is in a sewer. In his own twisted and distorted lexicon, he calls it faith, strength, truth.” Sound familiar?
And so in honor of Rod Serling, I am naming this era “The Gaslight Zone.” We have entered The Gaslight Zone. Donald Trump’s favorite method of communication, like abusive spouses and bosses, and tyrants everywhere, is the tactic known as “gaslighting.” He makes statements that are recorded, then baldly denies having made them. He sends outrageous “tweets” to distract the press and the public from his actions. He lies, then doubles down on his lies when caught. He attacks people and groups who correctly describe his statements and activities: from a teenager, to CNN, to individual journalists and Hollywood stars, to the BBC. He is a modern version of an American fascist, and he has fanatic followers whose chants at his rallies, pre and post-election, are eerily reminiscent of German brownshirts and whose “alt-right” neo-Nazi activities are clearly inspired by 1930s Germany: American Nazis Rising as Trump’s Armed Brownshirts to Target Jews.
Trump’s campaign included many “dog-whistles” to white supremacists and neo-Nazis. He has barely commented that they should “stop” when pressed on that point, and he has appointed one of the “alt-right”‘s chief spokesmen, enablers and promoters, Steve Bannon, to be one of his closest advisers in the White House. OUR White House. The house of the American people.
We must all work against the hatred and gaslighting that this administration will constantly inject into our government and politics. Check facts. Call out lies. Demand accountability from Trump and the GOP. Go to work at the grass-roots of democracy. Try to counter the tide. We cannot let this man take our country and the world down this road. We’ve been there before. It’s not a good place.
Before the election, I wrote about my sense that Donald Trump was portraying our country as the dark, dysfunctional Gotham City of Batman Returns, claiming “Only I Can Protect You…”. And I was optimistic that American voters would recognize that no, we don’t live in a failed Gotham City and we don’t need to elect Oswald Cobblepot, that sleazy, lying groper.
And then we — or some of us — did.
Not most of us, contrary to the claims of a “landslide.” In fact, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by the largest margin in U.S. history for a candidate who did not win the election: 2.5 million votes. But here we are, stuck with Donald Cobblepot as our President-elect.
And President-elect Cobblepot is now on a “victory tour” of rallies like the ones he used to whip up angry crowds before the election, calling for deeds like deporting millions of people, building a wall between us and Mexico, and “locking up” the former First Lady and Secretary of State who was his political opponent. Scary stuff, and it scared me.
But hey, now some of his handlers are making the rounds, claiming that there are no such things as actual facts any more — all that matters is how many people believe whatever lies the President-elect and his advisers spread in their “post-truth world”. Including the leader of the white supremacist platform Breitbart “News”, the President-elect’s senior adviser Steve Bannon. Sure sounds like propaganda to me, in the mold of the Big Lie — and apparently the libertarian magazine Reason agrees. Trump’s former campaign manager says the press takes “too literally” what the President-elect says and has said. Shucks, he doesn’t really mean any of those things! And yet he continues to repeat them, now, after the election, at the rallies that he so enjoys, with an ugly, triumphal tone that is as far as one can get from being a gracious victor.
And isn’t it weird that he is holding these “victory tour” rallies? Is that customary for U.S. President-elects? Well, no, it’s not. In fact, it’s not customary or normal for most elected leaders of Western democracies. The last Western leader who held post-election rallies like this, full of fire-breathing threats against vanquished enemies, was Adolf Hitler. No, that’s not hyperbole. Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek did the research.
I am really horrified by the spectacle of a President-elect whipping up the faithful into an angry frenzy when he should be learning the job he has so little training to do. His lack of training, or knowledge, or understanding, or even intelligence, has been amply demonstrated by his amateur meddling in foreign affairs and his disorganized communications with foreign governments. So far, he has: seized opportunities to discuss his business priorities with them and ask for favors; included his adult children, who will run the family’s global empire, with foreign leaders like the Prime Minister of Japan; offended the governments of China and the U.K.; undermined the credibility of NATO; and, apparently, endorsed the murders of thousands of Filipinos under the out-of-control president of the Philippines, Duterte. Yes, the one who called President Obama “son of a whore” for having raised concerns about those illegal killings of civilians without any legal process. They had a nice chat on the phone. The chat included the topic of Trump’s major real estate investments and development plans in the Philippines. But, we are told, there are no conflicts of interest between the incoming administration and public policy. Richard Painter, former head of the White House ethics office of President George W. Bush, begs to differ, calling those conflicts of interest real, unethical, and dangerous.
So what next? I hope that the few rational beings who have been named to the incoming Cabinet will be able to keep Trump from conflagrating worldwide conflict. Retired General Mattis seems both sensible and clear on the deference our military owes to the Constitution and civilian control. And I am looking to President Obama for help, though he certainly doesn’t owe this country anything after eight long years of service and having saved the world from another Great Depression. I believe he will do what he can, while he can, to put as many safeguards in place as are available for public lands and waters, voting rights, etc. And I am praying that he will deploy his considerable skills as a constitutional lawyer, community organizer, Senator, President and communicator to help rally organized, lawful opposition to the Cobblepot who will soon move into OUR White House. Let’s not forget that it belongs to us — and he works for US, not the other way ’round.