In the past few days, George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, has rocketed to the top of Amazon’s book bestseller list. One of its most famous passages is, “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command … if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth.” Orwell may have gotten the year wrong, but in 2017, his book is almost nonfiction.
Many have stated that the most important ritual of our democracy is an every-four-year peaceful transfer of power in Washington. But we saw the most important manifestation of that democracy in the millions of people who peacefully protested against that transfer of power to someone unqualified, undeserving and dangerous. Protest marches and rallies are often billed as speaking truth to power. But with the Trump administration, exercises of protest might be better characterized as making sure that truth becomes power, because Trump’s problem with the truth, on full display during his campaign, is now rapidly being institutionalized in the White House.
Many other politicians and presidents have danced on the edges of reality and the truth, and some have fallen off. One of George W. Bush’s senior advisers, presumably Karl Rove, was even quoted as saying, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too, and that’s how things will sort out.” In 2012, one of Mitt Romney’s aides said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
But Trump jumps off the cliff virtually every time he speaks, expecting us to follow after him. Trump’s strategy is clearly an attempt to delegitimize any source of information that has the temerity to challenge or tarnish him. Any hope that Trump would be chastened after taking the oath of office by laying his hand on the Bible of “Honest Abe” has been quickly laid to rest. Within minutes after the inauguration, the Trump team took down the climate change page from the White House website. This may have been Trump’s very first act as president. There are signals that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website will likewise be cleansed of any “inconvenient truths.”
Of course, making climate science magically disappear is one thing, but the priority given this sleight of hand is also a symbolic gesture of how thoroughly the putrid fog of climate denial will permeate the new administration. It reminds me of 2008, when I visited China and learned that many Chinese youth know nothing about the famous Tiananmen Square student protest because the government had made it magically disappear.
Since the election, government scientists have been in a panic to protect critical climate research from a possible Trump purge. It looks like their fears were entirely warranted. With a blackout on communications with the public, Trump has essentially shut down the EPA. Other agencies are being threatened as well. This is the equivalent of book burning, a funeral pyre for science.
We’re living in a new era, where an unverified report about possible, unsubstantiated rumors of alleged, unconfirmed evidence hacked from an undisclosed source competes on an equal footing with real information. But “Making America Great Again” goes even further, and is apparently code for “Making America Ignorant.”
The second day of Trump’s administration was spent with his press secretary delivering a full frontal assault on the press, using demonstrable lies about the size of his inauguration crowd as ammunition, and claiming the press was the one doing the lying. Anyone can look at the pictures and see who was doing the lying. This was followed up by his spokesperson, Kellyanne Conway, making statements with her haunting, waxed grin, that this administration wasn’t lying, but using “alternative facts.” I expect next week she’ll be named the head of Donald Orwell Trump’s “Ministry of Truth.” Then Conway threatened, as she and other Trump surrogates have many times in the past, that criticizing Trump will have consequences — I assume enforced by Trump’s soon to be “Minister of Love,” Ted Nugent.
Real news and real science contradict the Trump agenda, so his cabinet is a basket of Orwellian deplorables. We have someone poised to run the EPA who is the archenemy of both the environment and public health, and a secretary of state whose entire career was spent maximizing the profits of ExxonMobil, the arch enemy of any attempts to deal with the climate crisis. We’ll have a secretary of energy who knows less about nuclear science than Homer Simpson. Top to bottom, the White House has become a Legion of Doom for the climate, and a Mad Hatter’s tea party of scientific absurdity. Look for Trump to find someone for surgeon general who denies the existence of bacteria.
The US now has a reality TV star as president who is already building a wall separating us all from reality and believe me, we’re all going to pay for it. Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Environmental protection is human protection — protection of your life and my life, protection of our children and future generations, protection of our collective future and of humankind as a species. To deny that will become the greatest of all atrocities.