By Laura Premack, Institute for Social Futures
November 8, 2017 marked the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States.
I remember Election Day very clearly. It was unusually warm for November in New Hampshire. I walked the mile to my polling place without a jacket, kicking leaves along the way. The line was short, and voting was quick. I filled in a few circles with a thick black pen and that was it. It wasn’t the choice I wanted to make — the bumper sticker on my car still read “Bernie!” — yet I felt a surprising sense of elation. A woman President, at long last. On my way back to work, I stopped in at the Hillary campaign office to pick up a sticker for my daughter’s baby book.
Cut to that evening, alone on the sofa, toddler asleep, husband thousands of miles away. The plan was to do prep for next day’s lecture while watching the returns. What actually happened, as the red seeped across the map: paralyzing shock, incredulous texts, a rising sense of nausea, fear, dread.
And now here we are, one year later.
I’ve just re-read 1984 for the first time since middle school, just become reacquainted with Winston Smith and his job as a re-writer of history. To refresh your memory: Winston is one of many Party workers tucked away in silent cubbyholes at the Ministry of Truth, re-making the past. The smallest historical detail must be corrected, so that there is nothing left on record that contradicts the Party’s current account of events. Newspaper articles are re-written, or invented from whole cloth. Photographs are destroyed and re-created from scratch in specially-appointed studios, Photoshops of the pre-digital age.
Big Brother’s Oceania and Trump’s ‘Merica make an obvious comparison. In both, facts are negotiable. News is invented. Photographs are altered. There is no need for empiricism. There is only need for trust: trust in the Party, trust in Big Brother, trust in Fox and Breitbart and your Facebook feed. Everything else? Fake news. Truth is whatever the Party says it is.
Last May in the Washington Post, Tony Schwartz, the man who ghostwrote The Art of the Deal — the book that made Trump — reflected on Trump’s relationship to facts. “Early on, I recognized that Trump’s sense of self-worth is forever at risk,” he wrote. “When he feels aggrieved, he reacts impulsively and defensively, constructing a self-justifying story that doesn’t depend on facts and always directs blame to others.”
Schwartz had spent a year and a half with Trump while writing the book. He got to know Trump better than anyone outside Trump’s family. He made a huge amount of money. And now he feels culpable. The book, he says, should have been called The Sociopath. As far as facts go, Schwartz claims:
The facts are whatever Trump deems them to be on any given day. When he is challenged, he instinctively doubles down — even when what he has just said is demonstrably false. I saw that countless times, whether it was as trivial as exaggerating the number of floors at Trump Tower or as consequential as telling me that his casinos were performing well when they were actually going bankrupt. In the same way, Trump would see no contradiction at all in changing his story about why he fired [FBI Director James] Comey and thereby undermining the statements of his aides, or any other lie he tells. His aim is never accuracy; it’s domination.
His aim is never accuracy; it’s domination. “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” This is the Party’s slogan. In other words, the past creates the future. In other words, narrative is powerful, and whoever controls narrative is all-powerful. In other words, the future rests on history, and history rests on historians. Who gets to write history?
History has never simply been a recounting of events, a listing of names, dates, and places. History is a constructed narrative, a piecing together of people’s actions, records, and memories. It has always been contested, from the very beginning. It has never been a monolithic, eternal truth.
This is the crux of revisionist history, allowing the writing-in of the wives, the slaves, the laborers, the colonized. In this sense, rewriting history is a good thing. It is an ongoing project of looking at the overlooked. History is always in process.
But what Big Brother, the Party, Trump and his supporters do is different. They do not reshape the past according to new, or newly attended to, information. Their rewriting is driven by lust, greed, and power, not by justice. What is true is what they want to be true. Mexican immigrants are rapists. The inaugural crowd was the biggest ever. White supremacists are very fine people. Those Civil War memorials were put up by grieving widows. Four fingers are five.
“All that was needed,” says Winston, to do the work he does, to be a good Party member, “was an unending series of victories over your own memory.” To get to the point where you no longer care if something actually happened or not. When all that matters is whether you believe it could have happened.
Julia, Winston’s lover — young, shrewd, and playing the system for all it’s worth — has mastered this. He is disappointed to realize how little basis her rebelliousness has in ideology. “Often she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her.” When, for example, Winston reminded her that Oceania’s military enemy had been changed four years ago, “‘Who cares?’ she said impatiently. ‘It’s always one bloody war after another, and one knows the news is all lies anyway.’”
When you get to this point — the point of disbelieving the news, of rejecting all media as propaganda, of believing nothing but your own desire for a warm stove, real coffee, good sex, a bit of lipstick — then, like Julia, you find the whole question of fact versus truth inconsequential. What you are fighting against is not lies, and what you are fighting for is not truth. What you want is pleasure, and someone, something, you can trust, at least for a little while.
It doesn’t matter who is in charge. Big Brother may not really exist. Trump may be a big orange smokescreen for folks intent on remaking American government. Because Big Brother is just a narrative device, and Trump is not about Trump. Trump is a window, a lens, a match.
Trump’s rise, and his actions in office, have blasted out the shadowy corners, stripped away the veneers, exposing the ugly, the broken, the hypocrisy, the hatred, the greed. We see clearly now, thanks to him, the forces he’s emboldened, the narratives he’s shattered. In all the debates — about Civil War memorials, Muslims, guns, taxes, immigrants, health care, sexual assault, climate change — what is at stake is how the past is understood and what that means for the future.
What is America? What does it mean to be American? Each American looks to the past and chooses a narrative — this is a country built by immigrants, or this is a country built on racial and economic injustice, or this is a country of sharp-shooting cowboys with hearts of gold, or this is a country of Christians, or this is a country of reinvention, freedom, and dreams.
America is unresolved.
Turn the Party’s slogan into questions. Who controls the present? Who controls the past? Who controls the future?
What story will we tell our children about these past months, and those yet to come?
I put that Hillary sticker in my daughter’s baby book anyhow. I wanted her to know that another future was possible. I want to believe that one may still be.