September 2020

Arts & Letters

Attack on language: ‘Surviving Autocracy’ and ‘Twilight of Democracy’

By Thornton McCamish
Masha Gessen and Anne Applebaum sound alarms on how ‘post-truth’ public debate leaves us mute in the face of autocracy

Like millions of others, the Cambridge politics professor David Runciman was stunned when he watched President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech in January 2017. “This is what the cartoon version of fascism looks like,” he thought, as he and his colleagues sat around the television listening in aghast silence to Trump’s apocalyptic turns of phrase. The speech was shocking to many people, including President George W. Bush, who, leaving the podium at its conclusion, was heard to mutter, “That was some weird shit.” But when Runciman watched the speech again he decided he’d overreacted. “It took me about fifteen minutes to acclimatise to the idea that this rhetoric was the new normal,” he wrote in his 2018 book, How Democracy Ends. It was a populist speech, Runciman reasoned, not explicitly anti-democratic. Nothing in what Trump said altered the orderly transition of power being enacted that day. “What matters in politics is when words become deeds.” 

The Russian-born journalist and author Masha Gessen was not so sanguine about the inauguration. Not then – when Gessen greeted the Trump presidency with a minatory, widely shared essay called “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” – and not now either. Several pages of Gessen’s new book, Surviving Autocracy, are devoted not to the inauguration itself, but the “battle of realities” that began the day after, when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway went on NBC’s Meet the Press. Host Chuck Todd was incredulous about then White House spokesperson Sean Spicer’s blatant lies regarding the size of the crowd. “Why put him out there for the very first time in front of that podium to utter a provable falsehood?” Todd asked. Conway chided Todd for the word “falsehood”. Spicer, she insisted, was just giving “alternative facts”. 

In 2018 Runciman saw democracy functioning more or less as it should, however distastefully to Trump’s opponents. Trump soon found himself ensnared by institutions that pushed back: “the demagogue is discovering the world of difference between words and deeds”. Gessen has a different take. In post-truth politics the attack on meaningful public language is the deed. 

Conway’s bizarre performance that day is, for Gessen, a paradigmatic example of “the Trumpian lie”. No mere porky pie, exaggeration or run-of-the-mill spin, the Trumpian lie is “the power lie, or the bully lie. It is the lie of the bigger kid who took your hat and is wearing it – while denying that he took it.” The truth has no purchase in what happens next. The point of Conway’s lie, says historian and journalist Anne Applebaum, author of another recent book on the rise of illiberalism, “was to make people afraid of the person who’s so powerful that they can lie … [Trump] was forcing people to conform to an alternate version of truth that everyone knew was wrong.” 

Gessen has been bearing witness to the absurdities and menace of illiberal politics for many years. The writer was fired from a magazine job in Russia when they refused to cover an event in which Vladimir Putin was scheduled to lead a flock of migrating Siberian cranes in a motorised hang-glider. Gessen, who identifies as nonbinary, left Russia in 2013 fearing that new laws against “homosexual propaganda” might be used to take away their children. Applebaum has skin in the game too. Her book Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends, comes out of her immersion in the rise of alternate-reality politics in Hungary and her adoptive Poland, where her outspoken criticism of the Law and Justice party government has exposed her to ostracism by former colleagues, online hate campaigns and harassment. 

Though the two books come from different perspectives – Applebaum’s political origins are in the milieu of centre-right Republicans and British conservatives of the 1980s and ’90s – both are short, deeply informed polemics about the destruction of trust in democratic government. Both provide valuable context, across time and space, to our present moment. Post-truth politics was not invented by Trump, Viktor Orbán or Jair Bolsonaro; it’s not unique to them either. “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy,” Applebaum bracingly remarks. “Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.” But what’s striking about reading these books together is they both want to show how illiberal attacks on the possibility of honest political speech connect Trump and Boris Johnson to a broader pattern of atrophying democratic norms around the world. 

The first political institution that closet authoritarians come for, they suggest, is meaningful public speech. “Fake news” may have once looked like a harmlessly stupid phrase. Trump and his enablers in the far-right media have deliberately used those two syllables to reap a whirlwind of manufactured unreality, destroying any hope of common ground wherever they go. “Fake news” is the ultimate Trumpian lie, and it’s very difficult for traditional journalism to discredit. Faced with historic levels of presidential mendacity, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker team decided to create a database to track all the lies and misinformation coming out of the White House. It was supposed to operate for the first 100 days of the administration. But the lies kept coming, and the team’s surreal labour, tallying grim daily body-counts of facts, had to continue. In Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth, the paper’s Fact Checker staff tell us that on the day before the 2018 midterms, they recorded fully 139 “false or misleading” statements. It was a presidential PB. 

One imagines a round of grim high fives in the office after a long day and a dirty job done well, but perhaps a creeping sense of futility too. For four years, Trump has mired the political debate in an Augean stable’s worth of shit that takes entire teams of experienced journalists to muck out, and he’s still going. Has anything changed? At least one thing has. In 2007 an Associated Press–Yahoo poll found that 71 per cent of Republican voters said it was “extremely important” for presidential candidates to be honest; in 2018, asked the same question, but in a Washington Post poll this time, only 49 per cent of Republicans did. Does that mean verifiable truth is becoming a moot point for some Americans? Perhaps it just means that Republicans don’t trust the “fake-news” Washington Post’s definition of the word “honest”.

For Gessen, the attack on reality goes deeper than overt lies. It works on words themselves. Deliberate violations of meaning can corrupt vital words right down into their DNA, tainting their histories and etymology. In Australia we are not, of course, experiencing anything like the “autocratic attempt” that Gessen believes is already underway in the United States. But Gessen’s account of the assault on meaningful public language, whether in the US or Russia, is instantly recognisable closer to home. In fact, Australian politics gets an inglorious special mention for innovating the use of the word “deterrence” in debates over asylum seekers. The “Australian far right, aided mightily by Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets, got about a decade’s head start on its American counterpart in this method of talking about asylum seekers,” Gessen writes. It’s the language of crime prevention: using it “reinforces the view of asylum seekers as criminals”. It’s also, of course, the language of the military. 

Words do shift in meaning over time – it happens naturally. It’s when it happens unnaturally that we need to be alert. “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words,” wrote author Philip K. Dick, who knew a bit about creating alternate realities. “If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” 

Australian progressives will recognise in Gessen’s analysis plenty of examples of how words are not just deliberately politicised, but unrecognisably twisted for the purposes of making it hard to think clearly about power. The word “elites”, for instance, was long ago pretzelled by right-wing commentators both here and elsewhere. “The people, not the powerful … have always formed the foundation of freedom and the cornerstone of our defence,” Trump said in a speech on Western civilisation he gave in Poland in 2017. As if, Applebaum notes, “Trump himself were not a wealthy, powerful elite businessman who had dodged the draft and let others fight in his place”. The considered use of “elites” by privileged speakers to whip up resentment against anyone who defies them, Gessen argues, is part of a worldwide pattern of rhetorical contempt for government and experts. It allows true elites to “traffic in this resentment even after they take office – as though someone else, someone sinister and apparently all-powerful, were still in charge”. Which, depending on who’s doing the dark muttering, can be Jewish bankers, the “deep state”, scientists, public broadcasters or advocates for drag-queen story time. Sometimes it’s a secret cabal of blood-sucking lizards from outer space. 

As Applebaum and Gessen see it, deliberate misuse of words is not merely a matter of decorum. When infected words shed their context and histories, rational debate becomes impossible. It was no aid to comprehension, for instance, when the term “witch-hunt” – which refers to actual historical attacks on persecuted women – was forced into service by Republicans to describe Justice Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hearing, during which he was obliged to respond to allegations of sexual assault. The word’s meaning duly disappeared into a black hole of absurdity, taking some salutary historical reality with it. As a result, Gessen writes, it may have been the first congressional hearing in which “people inhabiting the two non-overlapping American realities – one an autocracy, the other a representative democracy – were addressing two different audiences while speaking in the same room”. 

And while using the same words. How are Americans to discuss mail-in voting fraud, a phrase Trump has painstakingly soaked in the lighter fluid of disinformation, if any sentence containing it erupts into a partisan dumpster fire before it reaches its first verb? How are Russians to understand their political situation when Putin proclaims a “dictatorship of the law”, a phrase so incoherent, as Gessen points out, it renders both terms meaningless? 

If Gessen and Applebaum have it right, “dictatorship” is no longer the problem for citizens of Europe’s illiberal post-communist governments. The problem is finding the language for understanding exactly what’s happening to them. Applebaum argues that both the Law and Justice party in Poland and Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary are regimes that trade in half-baked conspiracy theories, a kind of falsehood she calls the “medium-sized lie”. In Hungary, most prominent is the idea that the billionaire George Soros is leading a Jewish plot to replace white, Christian Hungarians with brown-skinned Muslims; in Poland, that the 2010 plane crash in Smolensk that killed then prime minister Lech Kaczyński was the work of sinister forces. (Also, that the LGBT+ community, another covert enemy of the people, wants to destroy Poland.) None of these lies is a totalitarian violation of reality that forces citizens into terrified assent. They’re disinformation designed to fuel rage and resentment in some people, and resignation and inertia in everyone else. 

The lie is always carefully crafted, but doesn’t have to be especially credible, just enough to trigger genuine fear and anger in a large enough section of the population. But it’s good if the lie is also entertaining. Poland’s state media, Applebaum writes, airs blatantly edited footage for propaganda purposes and makes no effort to conceal it. “It draws attention to the fact that it is doing so. It doesn’t just twist and contort information, it glories in deceit.” It’s part of the illiberal joke on the liberals. Indeed, “the amusement to be had from offending the ‘establishment’ – a classic Breitbartian or Brexiteer sentiment – is the same in Madrid as it is in the United States”. Applebaum describes a video made by Spain’s “Make Spain Great Again” Vox party featuring its leader, Santiago Abascal, mounted on a steed riding across a southern Spanish landscape in a manner meant to evoke the patriotism of the knights who drove the Arabs out of Andalusia during the Reconquista. The anti-immigrant “Spain for the Spaniards” message was in deadly earnest. The hokey style of the video, complete with the theme music from the Lord of the Rings movies, was designed to be catnip for social media. 

Stuff like this is calculated to set the Twitter dogs barking, to unleash a hell of confusion and conspiracy. The mess itself is the goal for closet authoritarians; Facebook will do the rest. Applebaum sees the lack of ideas as characteristic of illiberal nativist politics, not merely incidental. Would-be authoritarians tend to lack any coherent philosophical beliefs to speak of, she writes; the authoritarian dreams of a one-party state as “a mechanism for holding power, and it functions happily alongside many ideologies”. Various regimes consolidate power in different, but always related ways, undermining independent institutions in the corrupt exercise of preferment and contracts, and promoting confected external threats. Authoritarians, Applebaum argues, want people to feel permanently besieged. They want history and future to disappear into an eternal present of victimisation and imagined attacks; they want the lessons of political possibilities that history might provide to disappear with them. And they want to deliver up to the aggrieved – for whom illiberalism “represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy, political competition, and the free market, principles that, by definition, have never benefited the less successful” – the joy of watching the “elites” blubber in frustration. 

Post-truth politics can indeed feel like a kind of gaslighting. “First he was impossible,” Gessen writes of Trump, “then he was president. Did that mean that the impossible had happened – an extremely hard concept to absorb – or did it mean that Trump was not the catastrophe so many of us had assumed he would be?” Is it him, in other words, or is it us? Gessen argues that we all tend to think of history as something that happens far from us, to people in the sepia elsewhere of the History Channel. So when something mind-boggling is happening – when Trump walks a path cleared of protesters by police using tear gas to hold up a Bible outside St John’s Episcopal Church, for instance – the fact that it is clearly happening on live TV means it can’t be compared to any previous descent into the authoritarian abyss. Trump, Bolsonaro, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and their kind all profit from this cognitive recoil, Gessen says. “If the word ‘unthinkable’ had a literal meaning, this would be it: thinking about it makes the mind misfire; it makes one want to stop thinking.”

Many people who live under totalitarian regimes, Gessen writes, find peace of mind by going along with the version of reality produced by the regime. Denying it can be isolating or actively dangerous. But even citizens of functioning democracies whose leaders openly lie to them can give up objecting, “stop paying attention, disengage, and retreat to one’s private sphere”, and seek solace in the privacy of irony or cynicism. 

That’s a temptation, Gessen argues, that must be resisted. Shoulder-shrugging cynicism is a form of complicity with the authoritarian lie; it’s a retreat to low expectations, to a mindset in which notions of civic virtue are somehow ridiculous. When words die, possibilities die with them. In Russia, Gessen tells us, words such as “justice” and “equality” have long since been emptied of meaning by exhausting repetition. Even the regime’s opponents only use such words ironically. “The entire vocabulary of principles and ideals has, after decades of abuse, been relegated to disuse … Russians will frequently apologize for using words or concepts that they feel are marked with ‘pathos’, a word that has come to connote not so much suffering as earnestness and loftiness of concept.” In public, Gessen writes, “a word like ‘democracy’ can be pronounced only with a smirk”. Given how important the “higher note” has been to the rhetorical history of moral protest, to the liberating language of Nelson Mandela, Lech Wałęsa or Václav Havel, this is a tremendous loss. “That higher note is a necessary condition of vision.” 

In Australia, our leaders still feel mostly obliged to perform a good-faith adherence to honest public speech. Demagoguery here, at least in the major parties, is mostly confined to dog whistling and attempts to whip up a bit of fear and loathing along identity lines when elections roll around. But here, too, we’ve seen ever more brazen attempts to distort public reality. The astonishing failure of energy policy, for instance, has been a 10-year lesson in obfuscation and the damaging influence of money in politics. The $17 million TV ad campaign run by the Minerals Council of Australia in 2010 to fight the Rudd government’s proposed levy on mining super profits – which implied that the levy imperilled the livelihoods of countless Aussie battlers, not just the unreasonable profits of a few billionaires and their major shareholders – was a display of plutocratic chutzpah that would have made the Koch brothers proud. Elsewhere, we’ve become habituated to toxic euphemisms (“on-water matters”) and ideological soporifics (“the quiet Australians”) aimed at inducing torpor at a time of fundamental disagreement about our national future. 

As a result, our politics are horribly gummed up. Perhaps, though, the threat of a changing climate, and the economic damage wreaked by coronavirus, will provide enough common cause to begin reinvigorating a sense of political possibility. Gessen’s advice: start with building a trust in public language that makes people feel, “not like spectators to a disaster that defies understanding but like participants in creating a common future with their fellow citizens”. Everyone who hopes for better, needs to use terms precisely, especially political language. “We can and should be more intentional when using it.” A focus on using words deliberately and intentionally will also “require that journalists accept a responsibility that anodyne headlines, equivocal statements, and the style of extreme restraint have helped avoid”. 

Lived experience of post-democratic regimes has only confirmed for both Gessen and Applebaum that democracy is a continuous, contingent activity, not an end-of-history style condition that is impossible to reverse. To rescue it, to improve it, we all need to demand clarity and accountability. Together, Applebaum writes, “we can make old and misunderstood words like liberalism mean something again”. 

It feels like a candle-powered light on the hill she offers. If Applebaum’s and Gessen’s books illuminate the damage done to democratic politics around the world lately, they leave the path at our feet hard to make out in the twilight. But for believers in the future of democracy, the path’s there. Participate, push back. Choose your words carefully, because, with their calculated lies and distortions, your enemies surely will.

Thornton McCamish

Thornton McCamish is a Melbourne-based journalist and author. His most recent book is Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead.

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