In his first few days in office Trump and several members of his team attacked the media for underestimating the size of the crowd that attended the Inauguration. Trump argued that, “I turn on the networks, and they show an empty field. I’m like, wait a minute. I made a speech. I looked out, the field was, it looked like a million, million and a half people.”
This could have been labeled just another off-the-cuff remark that has endeared Trump to political-incorrectness-fundamentalists, but later that day the baton was passed to his Press Secretary Sean Spicer who expanded on Trump’s argument claiming that, not only had Trump’s crowds and viewership been larger than the media reported, but that it had been “the largest crowd ever to witness an Inauguration”.
Ever. The largest crowd ever.
With her eye on the finish line, Trump’s Senior Counselor Kellyanne Conway took the baton and argued that Trump’s false “million [or] million and half” claim and Spicer’s even more false “largest crowd ever” argument, were not lies, but “alternative facts”.
These shenanigans reminded me of Trump’s repeated claims that his campaign is a “movement”, because when a thing is in motion – when it is doing what it is adapted to do – it has a way of revealing or masking itself depending on your vantage point. A creature that hopes to take flight effectively must overcome drag and lift. Most species have evolved to address this need in similar ways: with wings, or feathers, or a thin membrane that allows it to glide. But bats are mammals. Birds aren’t. Birds lay eggs. Bats don’t. Both have evolved to take flight, but they are different in most respects.
The same is true of typical political messaging compared to fuckery.
Political messaging puts demands on the political team that require most to behave in similar ways. They are all sometimes evasive with the Press. They all have an overarching message that is vague enough to accommodate all sorts of little messages. They all have “talking points” and a “narrative”. They must all fly, but they don’t all depend on extravagant and audacious lies to stay afloat.
We’ll look at Trump’s Inaugural relay race of fuckery in reverse. Kellyanne Conway’s claim that Trump and Sean Spicer’s statements were “alternative facts” seemed like Orwellian newspeak or euphemism to many, but there was something completely transparent and brazen about the claim. Here is how Merriam dictionary defines euphemism:
“Alternative facts” barely if at all meet these criteria. It is hardly agreeable, particularly to those in possession of the actual facts. And it is offensive to most people who hold the truth in high regard. The Nazi label for mass shootings – “aktions” – is a euphemism. The term for colonial conquests and mass murder – “pacification campaigns” – is a euphemism. The label for unpaid professional college athletes – “student-athletes” – is a euphemism. They all hide something that create a backlash if exposed. “Alternative facts” hides nothing. It’s not supposed to.
Here’s what I said about the difference between Orwellian language and fuckery in The Birth of Fuckery:
Thanks to writers like George Orwell, we are usually on the lookout for political language that says one thing, but implies another. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell writes that “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” hence the need for euphemisms, “question begging” and what he calls “sheer cloudy vagueness”. Fuckery reinterprets Orwell and defends the indefensible in the least-imaginative way possible. Why? Because the audacious lie creates the “spectacular display of power.”
When Kellyanne Conway argues that the Trump administration can and will present “alternative facts” she is not making an argument, she is demonstrating power. Trump believes that he can dictate truth. Remember he has the “best words”.
Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, was roundly mocked for his inability to find the “best words”, but this is judging him by the wrong standard – confusing a bat for a bird. Spicer’s argument was just the kind of “spectacular display of power” that makes fuckery so appealing. Consider the audacity of the claim itself. He implied that media – presumably in a coordinated way – lied about Trump’s crowd turnout and then he went much further than necessary, by arguing that they had the largest crowd turnout and viewership “ever”. In the information age this can be easily fact checked and disputed, but that is exactly the point: to demonstrate disregard for facts and fact checking.
Fuckery is the performance of this disregard for facts. It often mirrors a movie or play with no real plot and ridiculous characters, but with all manner of visual pyrotechnics. Here is what I wrote about fuckery’s approach to plot and spectacle:
Aristotle outlined the elements and rules of tragedy back in the fourth century B.C., arguing that there were six main elements. In order of importance, they are plot, character, diction, thought, melody, and spectacle. Plot is the “life and soul of tragedy,” according to Aristotle. The other elements contribute in important ways, but for Aristotle, “plot is the end and purpose of tragedy” and spectacle is “the least artistic of all the parts.” Fuckery flips this hierarchy.
What matters is the ‘yuge-ness’ of it all: the pageantry, the size of the crowds, the shock and awe. Fuckery reverses Obama’s maxim of “audacity of hope” and finds hope in audacity itself.
Fuckery finds hope in audacity itself, so Sean Spicer can’t just exaggerate or “spin” the size of the crowd, he has to lie in the most conspicuous and “big league” way he can think of. Trump would have preferred a genuine, authentic spectacle: huge crowds along with missile launchers and tanks to demonstrate both the popularity and power of his new administration. But reality (as most of us conceive of it) and the Department of Defense did not cooperate, so he used fuckery to create the spectacle that circumstances would not provide.
A few journalists and pundits wondered about the need to lie at all about the size of the crowd. Nick Baumann, of Huffington Post, pointed out before Trump’s showdown with the media, that Trump’s base might not have the funds to take off of work and travel to Washington DC – that it was “super-expensive” to go the Inauguration.
During Trump’s fuckery blitzkrieg, David Frum of The Atlantic listed four alternative responses Trump could have used to explain his anemic turnout. The first appealed to the historical event that was President Obama’s first election victory. The third blamed Obama’s “economic mismanagement” for hard-working Americans not being able to afford to attend. The second and fourth were forward looking and optimistic – pointing to Trump’s desire to measure his administration’s success based on jobs and his desire to win the support of all Americans. Frum advised against the anti-Obama message, but tweeted that the other three would have been acceptable. And they probably would have been, but they would not have been fuckery.
The acceptable responses would have reinforced a popular though questionable interpretation of Trumpism and its appeal: that he is a populist and speaking for the little guy. But the more Trump has to actually govern, the more dangerous those kinds of arguments become because it’s too easy to point to obvious contradictions. It’s much safer to engage in spectacular showdowns and standoffs.
On the day of the Inauguration, Trump signed two Executive Orders that will likely have a greater impact on the “little guy” than the Inauguration crowd turnout. One of the Executive Orders rolled back a reduction in mortgage insurance for FHA backed mortgages and the other reduced regulations on the Affordable Care Act. At least that is what we think they mean, because those Executive Orders and subsequent explanations actually do use the euphemisms or “sheer, cloudy [vague]” language that Orwell warned us about. Here is a bit of Trump’s Executive Order regarding The Affordable Care Act from the New York Times:
“In the meantime,” the order said, “pending such repeal, it is imperative for the executive branch to ensure that the law is being efficiently implemented, take all actions consistent with law to minimize the unwarranted economic and regulatory burdens of the act, and prepare to afford the states more flexibility and control to create a more free and open health care market.”
Ok. Does this mean the Individual Mandate will not be enforced? What about the Employer Mandate? There is nothing there about the “terrific replacement” aspect of Trump’s healthcare plan.
The release that the Department of Housing and Urban Development sent out to announce the rollback, was pretty clear if you understand mortgage lingo. If you don’t then we would expect the Trump team’s statements to provide some of that “straight talk” to explain it. As of this writing they have issued no such statement.
So, if Trump had made any arguments that drew attention to the “little guy”, he would have drawn attention to the fact that on his first day in office he undermined the very group he claimed to most represent. A clear coherent plotline would have made this contradiction apparent, but fuckery buries it. What it hopes for is a compliant media transfixed by the audacity of it all – transfixed by the wonder of fuckery taking flight. And this weekend, to their credit, CNN was not cooperating.
CNN refused to air Sean Spicer live, anticipating his lies. They did not give him a platform for spreading falsehoods then come back later and “fact check” him. They tackled the fuckery in the moment. The same is true Chuck Todd’s interview with Kellyanne Conway. Rather than allow her to present a series of “alternative facts”, like Specials on a restaurant menu, Todd immediately challenged her arguing that “alternative facts are falsehoods”. While Conway attempted to shift the conversation to Obamacare or the MLK, Jr. bust or Trump’s trade plans – all important – Todd pressed her on why the Trump team would send out their Press Secretary to “litigate a provable falsehood” or lie about something as petty as crowd sizes.
The answer of course is that for the Trump team spectacle is not petty. It’s everything.
A week after the Inauguration Trump’s team continues to make a spectacle of its new powers and its indifference to precedent or application. They issued an Executive Order that banned immigration from seven Muslim countries, creating what is morphing into a constitutional crisis. They appointed Steve Bannon to the National Security Council, paving the way for a security crisis. And the EPA has been instructed to “identify at least two existing regulations to be repealed” for every new regulation added, which analysts are struggling to interpret. Crises and confusion abound and that is deliberate and intended, because that is what this creature is adapted to do.