From the moment Donald Trump took his hand off the Bible, every day has been an endless spigot of news. Dawn to dusk — and sometimes before and after hours — it’s been a dizzying mashpot of orders signed, meetings taken and canceled, statements made and walked back, tweets and counter-tweets, rallies and counter-rallies, bewildering speeches and surreal interviews.
And because of 24/7 coverage on cable TV, news websites and social media; their insatiable appetite for all things Trump, good and bad; poisonous partisan politics; and Trump’s out-of-the-gate pace, we lurch from crisis to crisis and sound bite to sound bite with a breathlessness that sometimes precludes sober analysis.
The wall, immigration, refugees, tariffs, torture, trade wars, health care, secret overseas prisons, the Supreme Court, abortion, inner-city crime, pipelines, infrastructure spending — some worthy of debate, some not, some inscrutable — all of it was on the menu in Trump’s first week.
But there was spice, too, in that heavy diet — his absurd claims of massive voter fraud in the election, and the continued attacks on the media by him and key strategist Stephen Bannon.
Why, both critics and supporters moaned, can’t Trump and company stay on message? Why get distracted from the very real issues facing the country? Are they trying to distract the rest of us from the stuff of substance?
Those are the wrong questions. Because these alleged tangents are much more than evidence of Trump’s inability to stay on message. And they aren’t distractions from his agenda.
They ARE his message and his agenda, as much as any policy.
Start with the axiom that information is power. Despots and demagogues get it. It’s why they seek to control their countries’ media.
Trump and Bannon’s rhetoric is intended to sow distrust. If the public refuses to believe the media, then leaders can say anything and it’ll be accepted. When you deal in untruths and deceptions, and Trump is unlike any president in this regard, information control is critical. Because if the media can’t hold him accountable, who can? Not the Democrats. Their criticism would be easily dismissed as partisan politics.
After the National Park Service tweeted crowd photos from Trump’s inauguration and Barack Obama’s in 2009, Trump ordered the agency’s acting head to produce other photos that might prove his audience was bigger than reported, according to The Washington Post. What’s next? Orders to other agencies to produce other data to prove other alternative facts?
It’s no wonder “1984” — George Orwell’s 68-year-old novel about a totalitarian state that distorts truth to control its subjects — became the best-selling book on Amazon.com last week.
Now consider Trump’s thoroughly debunked claim that 3 to 5 million people, including immigrants here illegally, improperly voted for Hillary Clinton. Yes, he is very worried he will be deemed illegitimate because she won the popular vote. But focus instead on how that’s morphed into a call for an investigation into voter rolls — which indeed are poorly maintained by inefficient boards of election that don’t remove many people who’ve moved or died. But there’s no evidence those souls are voting in any significant numbers.
By claiming they are, Trump buttresses GOP attempts to tighten voting regulations, which always target people who don’t typically vote Republican. The problem in this country has never been that too many people are voting; it’s that not enough vote.
If you can create your own universe of alternative facts that are not questioned, and stack the deck of people who will pass judgment on you at the polls, you’re on your way to 1984.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.