Alternative Facts and a Post-Orwellian World

For all the environmental devastation, attacks on civil liberties and aggression both overseas and at home that President Trump will likely bring, his greatest crimes thus far are certainly those he and his administration have committed against the English language. Nowhere has this been clearer than in White House Councilwoman Kellyanne Conway’s defense of a number of outright lies told by new Press Secretary Sean Spicer during his first press conference. The contents of Spicer’s lies were puerile: Spencer claiming that the size of the crowd drawn by Trump during his inauguration not only dwarfed that of his predecessor, Barrack Obama (a claim that was easily refuted through photographic and other factual evidence), but also an even more flagrant claim that this was the largest inauguration crowd for any world leader.

What was curious was that, when pressed on Spicer’s falsehoods by host Chuck Todd during an appearance on Meet the Press, Conway replied that the administration had ‘alternative facts’, instantly launching a thousand memes and igniting torrents of mockery and incredulity on social media. While Todd was quick to point out that ‘alternative facts’ are no facts at all, the tortured construction seems to be indicative of the Trump administration as a whole, and have caused many observers to declare the administration Orwellian. But, as perverse as the terminology ‘alternative facts’ is, it is not really an Orwellian formulation. Rather it is something both more banal and more disturbing. Much as the George W. Bush Administration was able to launch a war on the abstract concept of ‘terror’, this administration appears to be preparing to launch a war on the very concept of Truth itself.

But first, let us take a moment to discuss Orwell. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell examined how political speech was often used to intentionally distort or obfuscate meaning to serve political ends. These were observations that he expanded upon and used in his seminal novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell was particularly concerned with the types of convoluted, bureaucratic blandishments that would narrow the scope of discussion and dissuade dissent. When he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell had taken the concept of crafting political language in such a way that it limited dissent a step further.

The totalitarian regime in Nineteen Eighty-Four conducted its communiqués through totalitarian new language called “newspeak”. This propagandistic language operated through stringently limiting vocabulary and the types of concepts that could be expressed, particularly in the political sphere. Thus, though “newspeak”, any criticism of the regime or its policies was suppressed altogether by simply eliminating the ability to put that criticism into language. Throughout the novel, the hero, Winston Smith is forced to contend with such odious and contradictory linguistic constructions as “double plus good” and “war is peace”. The goal of ‘newspeak’ is to insure that contradictions, while explicit, cannot be discussed as the very framing embraced places them beyond debate.

The Republican Party used to be masterful at genuinely Orwellian abuses of language, largely through the work of former communications czar, Frank Luntz. Luntz created several perfect examples of modern ‘newspeak’. Examples include the naming of a logging bill ‘the Healthy Forests Initiative’ and the rechristening of global warming: ‘climate change’. In both cases negative outcomes around the issues or bill are downplayed as the language serves to actively reframe outcomes. The logging bill would (somehow) ‘make forests healthier’. The climate was not warming, which should ignite cause for alarm, but is ‘changing’, something that sounds more natural and as something inevitable and thus to be embraced.

The Orwellian nature of what he was doing was not lost on Luntz. During a 2007 interview on the NPR program Fresh Air, Luntz discussed Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” at length with host Terry Gross. Luntz, seeing himself as something of an acolyte of Orwell, defined the type of speech recommended by Orwell to avoid the tendencies he warned against in his essay as: “to speak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers something happening… and to do so without any pejorative whatsoever.” Luntz was correct in summarizing Orwell’s main points in the essay, indeed it was Orwell’s belief that political expression must be exhibited in such a way that it could be adequately grasped by the man on the street, as opposed to the rampant equivocation and inveiglements that have come to characterize political expression as a whole. Curiously, Luntz seemed to not be aware of his role in promoting the very opposite of what Orwell outlined, despite the (admittedly, not terribly rigorous) questing of host Terry Gross.

Luntz and the Republicans were not alone in this Orwellian approach to ‘issue framing’. Berkley linguist turned Democratic operative George Lakoff’s 2004 book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, offered a similar approach for the Democrats to follow. In the book, Lakoff repeatedly hammers upon his great theme: Democrats simply need to “reframe” the debate such that the linguistic reality of political topics aligned with their world view (this quashing dissent before it could spring up) rather than through the more traditional approach of addressing issues in such a way that they might more greatly align with the wants and needs of potential voters. Lakoff’s ideas were treated as gospel at the time by former DNC head Howard Dean and seen as the means by which the Democrats were able to retake Congress from a Republican majority in 2006, and subsequently the presidency in 2008. The alternate explanation of mere voter fatigue around the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and 2007-2009 financial crisis were largely ignored by the Party elite at the time.

To Howard Dean and the rest of the DNC, it was not merely the quality of ideas that were at stake; rather what was important was how those ideas were framed. This approach and Lakoff’s reasoning were not without its critics. Harvard linguist Steven Pinker was particularly ruthless towards Lakoff’s theory in a scathing review in the New York Times, but as the Democrats retook Congress (only to lose it again, fantastically in 2010) and the presidency, Lakoff’s theories became embedded in political thinking. Meanwhile, the wider public grew increasingly habituated to the frame-based labeling of legislation. The need to constantly ‘doublethink’ (Orwell’s formulated response to ‘doublespeak’, wherein text and propagandist subtext were grasped simultaneously) had burrowed itself deeply within the consciousness of the American voter so much so that ‘doublethink’ fatigue in the face of increasing income inequality led to its eventual rejection by many rust belt voters. This rejection not only made light of the absolute bankruptcy of ideas that has dominated political discourse over the previous thirty years but also laid the groundwork for the rise of the plainspoken though equally ideologically bankrupt Presidency of Donald Trump.

In theory then, the plainspoken approach to language that has characterized the political pronouncements of Donald Trump, seems to fit the Orwellian model of how to conduct political speech, at least more so than the inveiglements of Luntz. Despite the meandering, often confused, largely dishonest and frequently aggressive pronouncements of Trump, he does say what he means and, in the moment that he delivers them at least, probably means what he says. Upon closer examination however, this assessment falls flat. Trump’s outbursts were loaded with racist and other subtext, easily picked out by acolytes who were then able to project whatever they wanted back on to Trump: be it the white supremacy of the neo-Nazi Alt-Right or the class warfare desired by many rust belts workers who had suffered through 40 years of declining incomes relative to inflation and uncertain future employment prospects. These dog whistle elements of this speech undercut the model that Orwell would have us follow. Vague and easily exploitable subtext, to Orwell, was very much part of the problem and it was what propelled Trump’s campaign. So was the Trump camp reverting to political form and using the type of political language that Orwell warned against in his essay and novel?

A phrase like ‘alternative facts’, while deeply disturbing, lacks the sinister, dissent-limiting undercurrent that Orwell feared in that it is frankly too stupid, too explicit and too on the nose. Further, an insistence on ‘alternative facts’ is just a roundabout way of saying “we will actively believe whatever we want to, regardless of the actual accuracy or factual content”. This is different from ‘newspeak’, which as noted previously, functioned by directly framing the discussion such that information divergent from political propaganda would be rendered unspeakable due to linguistic contortions. Here, those truthful ‘facts’ can still be spoken but rather are then contrasted with the untruthful ‘alternative facts’. This is a subtle distinction, but an important one. For one, it demonstrates that the administration isn’t even smart enough to effectively craft and wield propaganda. What it does do, however, is attempt to call the very truth of all facts into question. While ‘alternative facts’ may be less truthful, they are what those in power are insisting on abiding by.

The idea of ‘alternative facts’ also does pose an interesting secondary epistemological question. Is the Trump administration pushing back on what it feels are distortions of truth by the media as a whole? Can ‘alternative facts’ merely be an (albeit clumsy) way of challenging the media on claim to be arbiters and disseminators of truth. Some of the lazier ‘fact checking’ of Trump, particularly by the Washington Post and the arbitrariness with which news outlets declared various percentages of Trump’s statements to be false according to PolitiFact ‘fact checks’, an issue that journalist Nathan J. Robinson raised in an essay in the journal Current Affairs. The problem with this assessment is that though, as Robinson also notes, the media has frequently been arbitrary in its ‘fact checking’, Trump does say an awful lot that is, provable through empirical means, false or inaccurate. As biographers about Trump have noted, he is a habitual liar. The administration may feel hard done by to some extent, but these feelings largely stem from the individual venality and narcissism of Trump himself and difficulties around political expediency rather than from some deep commitment to challenging the laziness of many reporters’ narratives. If the Post and all are not always entirely credible in their claims, this does not make Trump and his cadre any more credible. Trump’s approach to dealing with epistemological considerations has more in common with widespread science denial of the Creationist movement than it does with René Guénon.

A new wrinkle was added to the question of “alternative facts” by Spicer’s follow-up press conference, which seems to have provided a hint as to what the administration actually intends. When pressed recently on his willingness to represent information truthfully, Spicer acknowledged the need to be as honest and transparent as possible when talking to the American public. He swiftly then moved to qualify this statement by adding: “but sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” This presents a new ontological conundrum: after all what are facts if not indisputable? To knowingly argue with ‘the facts’ is to simply be wrong, and worse, knowingly so. While an initial glib response may be that the administration simply needs to settle on a consistent way of letting the public and press corps know they are divorced from reality, the real goal here is to denigrate factual content to the ‘alternate facts’ (which are in truth, really just opinions) of the administration.

This is not then the Orwellian manipulation of language; it is simply dishonesty, lies and bullshit that is a wider foundational attack on the very nature of Truth itself. Truth matters in an Orwellian view of the world, which is why the powers that be work, through linguistic contortions to limit the ability of that truth to be spoken. Here, truth does not matter at all. The administration is questioning the basis and necessity of Truth in and of itself. Under this view, it does not matter that you are wrong or lying because the alternative (accuracy and honesty) don’t matter anyways. The worldview of this administration is one of a swirling maelstrom of views, some truthful, other untruthful, but where ontological proof is derived from power rather than from the accuracy of claims. Orwell would be horrified, for here is a new formulation of politics where the contents of language no longer matter along with the political content. We stumble blindly forwards into a world that is loutish, thuggish, post-rhetorical, post-truthful and thus post-Orwellian.

Alex Deley is an urban planner, writer, record collector and musician. He received his MS in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has worked in the US, France, and in West Africa. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Alexander, or visit Alexander's website.