American Autocracy and the End of Meaning

Masha Gessen on Trump, Putin, and the Corruption of Language

Donald Trump’s autocratic attempt began with a war on words. As with other things he has done, in his attack on language Trump has resembled, or perhaps emulated, 20th-century totalitarian leaders and 21st-century autocrats like Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Totalitarian regimes use words to mean their opposite. In 1984, George Orwell imagined the Party dictating its slogans: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Real-life totalitarian regimes do not grant their subjects the clarity of juxtaposing a word with its antonym—they enforce order by applying words in ways that invert meaning. The Soviet Union, for example, had something that it called “elections,” usually referred to, as though more descriptively, as the “free expression of citizen will.” The process, which was mandatory, involved showing up at the so-called polling place, receiving a pre-filled ballot—each office had one name matched to it—and depositing it in the ballot box, out in the open.

The “free expression of citizen will” was not at all free, it did not constitute expression, and it had no relationship to citizenship or will. Calling this ritual either an “election” or the “free expression of citizen will” had a dual effect: it eviscerated the words “election,” “free,” “expression,” “citizen,” and “will,” and it also left the thing itself undescribed. When something cannot be described, it does not become a fact of shared reality. Hundreds of millions of Soviet citizens had an experience of the thing that could not be described, but they did not consciously share that experience, because they had no language for doing so. At the same time, an experience that could be accurately described as, say, an “election,” or “free,” had been preemptively discredited because those words had been used to denote something entirely different.

In the early 1990s, after the Soviet regime collapsed, Russian journalists faced the challenge of reinventing journalism, which had been a vehicle for propaganda, not information. Now language stood in the way. The language of politics had been pillaged, as had the language of values and even the language of feelings, because after decades of performing revolutionary passion on command, people had become weary of the very idea of passion. The new Russian journalists opted for language that was descriptive in the most immediate way: they tried to stick to verbs and nouns, and only to things that could be directly observed. In a bid to regain trust, they resorted to a drastically reduced vocabulary. They spoke only of what was in front of their eyes, had a shape that could be clearly defined, and a weight that could be accurately measured. They stayed away from matters of the mind and heart, because they knew that no one believed them enough to enable them to venture into the unseen. Writing in Russian was like navigating a minefield: one misstep could discredit the entire enterprise.

Then things got worse. When Putin rose to power in 1999, a new kind of damage to language commenced. Putin declared a “dictatorship of the law.” His main ideologue, Vladislav Surkov, advanced the idea of “managed democracy.” Dmitry Medvedev, who kept Putin’s chair warm between Putin’s second and third terms, declared, “Freedom is better than unfreedom.” These were no longer words used to mean their opposite. These were words used simply to mean nothing. The phrase “dictatorship of the law” is so incoherent as to render both “dictatorship” and “law” meaningless.

Trump has an instinct, perhaps even a talent, for mangling language in both ways: using words to mean their opposite and stripping them of meaning.

Similarly, when Orbán’s party obliterated the divisions between Hungary’s branches of government, the resulting regime was dubbed the “system of national cooperation.” Proclaiming the successful completion of this system in a 2018 speech, Orbán said, “It represents an honorable goal when one considers that what we have had throughout Hungarian history has been more a system of national compliance.” He went on to talk, at length, about censorship in Europe outside of Hungary—a country where nongovernment-allied media had become nearly extinct. He was invoking the specter of “political correctness,” the word “censorship” to mean its opposite—to refer to a social consensus he disliked rather than to government controls on speech—but the words “compliance” and “cooperation” became, in his speech, hazy signifiers. In the absence of agency (stripping branches of government of their agency had been the project), what was cooperation if not compliance? Then why were the two words used in opposition? Who had been “compliant” in earlier periods but had the chance to “cooperate” now? The more one dug for meaning, the less one found.

Trump has an instinct, perhaps even a talent, for mangling language in both ways: using words to mean their opposite and stripping them of meaning. His knack is for inverting words and phrases that deal with power relationships. In November 2017, for example, less than two weeks after the election, Vice President–elect Pence went to see Hamilton, the immensely popular Broadway hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers. Part of the audience booed Pence when he walked in. At curtain call, actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr, stepped forward to read a statement from the cast apparently drafted in the course of the show.

You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening. And Vice President–elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out.

And I encourage everybody to pull out your phones and tweet and post, because this message needs to be spread far and wide, okay?

Vice President–elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us at Hamilton: An American Musical. We really do.

We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents—or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir.

But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us.

We truly thank you for sharing this show—this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men, women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.

Dixon was addressing Pence in the standard language of American politics, which assumes the possibility of sharing reality across difference. It assumes that the phrases “inalienable rights” and “American values” have clear meaning even if politicians need to be reminded that these phrases apply to all people who live in the United States. It also assumes that politicians will accept the obligation at least to hear out all of their constituents. Pence, a supporter of the Tea Party movement who as governor of Indiana promoted anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant policies, nonetheless recognized the idiom in which he was being addressed. Asked for comment, he said, “This is what freedom sounds like.”

But Trump’s sensibilities were offended. “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton,” he tweeted. A few minutes later, he added, “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”

The tweets summed up Trump’s understanding of power. His election victory entitled him—and, by extension, those whom he saw as his people—to adulation. Criticism, confrontation, and even the simple acknowledgment of political difference amount, in his view, to disrespect. Being disrespected makes him feel victimized—and he claims his imagined victimhood with glee. This claim turns the reality of power upside down, enabling Trump to come out on top by placing himself at the bottom.

The phrase “safe space” was coined to describe a place where people who usually feel unsafe and powerless would feel exceptionally safe. Claiming that the second most powerful man in the world should be granted a “safe space” in public turned the concept precisely on its head. Trump performed the same trick on the phrase “witch hunt,” which he repeatedly claimed was being carried out by Democrats to avenge their electoral loss by launching the Russia investigation. Witch hunts cannot actually be carried out by losers, big or small: the agent of a witch hunt must have power.

Trump seized and flipped the term “fake news” in much the same way. Until roughly late fall 2016, “fake news” referred to false stories proffered by the likes of Breitbart, Russian internet trolls, or Macedonian teenagers who made a killing off gullible Americans by posting made-up tales on social networks. The term was unfortunate—something is either “fake” or “news,” not both—but briefly it was widely understood. Then Trump began applying it to news outlets he felt were too critical of him, especially The New York Times and CNN. The flip served a dual function: the classic one of a liar, caught red-handed, screaming “Liar!” at his accusers, and of positioning Trump as the victim. The president complains about “fake news” as though the legacy media outlets were more powerful than he is— powerful enough to treat him unfairly.

Trump’s other gift is for using words to make them mean nothing. Everyone he has ever mentioned while he was feeling disposed toward them is “great” or “wonderful,” and everything is “tremendous.” But any word can be given or taken away. In a January 2017 interview, Trump called NATO “obsolete.” In April, when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg came to the White House, Trump said that the alliance was “no longer obsolete.” These statements rendered the word “obsolete” meaningless—or, if one assumed that Trump was actually using “obsolete” to mean “obsolete,” they challenged one’s experience of time, which would have to run in reverse to render something “no longer” obsolete. They also created the conditions under which some commentators discussed the US relationship to NATO as a going concern—as in, not obsolete— while others continued to debate whether NATO was obsolete or maintain that it was. Shared political reality kept shrinking.

Trump’s word piles fill public space with static, the way pollutants in an industrial city can saturate the air.

A trademark Trumpian approach to attacking language is to take words and throw them into a pile that means nothing. In April 2017, he gave several media interviews to discuss his first hundred days in office. The AP published one that was almost all word salad.

Number one, there’s great responsibility. When it came time to, as an example, send out the fifty-nine missiles, the Tomahawks in Syria. I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is more than just like, seventy-nine [sic] missiles. This is death that’s involved,” because people could have been killed. This is risk that’s involved, because if the missile goes off and goes in a city or goes in a civilian area—you know, the boats were hundreds of miles away—and if this missile goes off and lands in the middle  of  a  town  or  a hamlet   every  decision  is  much harder than you’d normally make. [unintelligible] . . . This is involving death and life and so many things. . . . So  it’s  far  more  responsibility.  [unintelligible] The financial cost of everything is so massive, every agency. This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world.

A partial list of words that lost their meaning in this passage is: “responsibility,” the number “fifty-nine” and the number “seventy-nine,” “death,” “people,” “risk,” “city,” “civilian,” “hamlet,” “decision,” “hard,” “normal,” “life,” “the United States.” Even the word “unintelligible,” inserted by the journalist, became suspect here. While it is of course possible that an interviewee mutters something a journalist cannot make out, the convention of interviews with heads of state, whose words have real-life consequences, is to back up and clarify any word or passage. But the convention assumes that an interview is an interview and not a rant. The role of the journalist was rendered meaningless, too, in the most basic way: the interviewer was compelled to participate, interrupting this incomprehensible monologue with follow-up questions or words like “right,” which only served to further the fiction that there was a narrative or a train of thought being laid out that the journalist (and hence a reader) could follow, that something was indeed “right” or could be “right” about what Trump was saying—when in fact he was saying nothing and everything at the same time, and this could not be right.

Trump’s word piles fill public space with static, the way pollutants in an industrial city can saturate the air, making it toxic and creating a state of constant haze. The haze can be so dense that objects become visible only up close, but never in their entirety and never really in focus. In Trump’s America, every once in a while a journalist or a politician makes a statement clear enough to capture a fragment of shared reality—but it is only ever a fragment, and it is inevitably soon obscured by more language used to mean nothing or the opposite of itself.

In the second half of the 20th century, many philosophers and writers questioned the ability of words to reflect facts, and the existence of objective facts themselves. Was this not the Trumpian view, too? In 2018, former New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani published a book called The Death of Truth, in which she argued that postmodern thinkers enabled the Trumpian moment.

Broadly speaking, postmodernist arguments deny an objective reality existing independently from human perception, contending that knowledge is filtered through the prisms of class, race, gender, and other variables. In rejecting the possibility of an objective reality and substituting the notions of perspective and positioning for the idea of truth, postmodernism enshrined the principle of subjectivity. Language is seen as unreliable and unstable (part of the unbridgeable gap between what is said and what is meant), and even the notion of people acting as fully rational, autonomous individuals is discounted, as each of us is shaped, consciously or unconsciously, by a particular time and culture.

Kakutani, though, was conflating the intentions of postmodernist thinkers and Trumpian post-truth, post-language propagandists like Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, and the president himself. When writers and academics question the limits of language, it is invariably an exercise that grows from a desire to bring more light into the public space, to arrive at a shared reality that is more nuanced than it was before the conversation began: to focus ever more tightly on the shape, weight, and function of any thing that can be named, or to find names for things that have not, in the past, been observed or been seen as deserving of description. A shared language is essential to this exercise, and observing the limits of  this language is an attempt to compensate for them. As Hannah Arendt argued, the awareness of one’s subjectivity is essential to political conversation:

We know from experience that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it. If someone wants to see and experience the world as it “really” is, he can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates and links them, showing itself differently to each and comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it and exchange their opinions and perspectives with one another, over against one another. Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.

The “freedom of our speaking with one another” depends on a shared language. Trump’s attack on language is an attack on freedom itself. In his philosophy of the “rectification of names,” Confucius warned: “If language is not correct, then . . . morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.” Trump’s lies and his word piles both are exercises in arbitrariness, continued assertions of the power to say what he wants, when he wants, to usurp language itself, and with it, our ability to speak and act with others—in other words, our ability to engage in politics. The assault on language may be harder to define and describe than his attacks on institutions, but it is essential to his autocratic attempt, the ultimate objective of which is to obliterate politics.

What can journalists, writers, and everyday speakers of American language do to resist the assault or to recover from the damage once it’s done? The Russian poet Sergey Gandlevsky once said that in the depth of the Soviet era he was taken with the language of hardware stores. He mentioned “secateurs” (garden shears). It was a specific word; it had weight, dimensions, shape. When a person said “secateurs,” they could only possibly mean the distinct object the word indisputably described. The language of politics is less specific and more mutable than the language of hardware stores, even under the best of circumstances, but we can and should be more intentional when using it. The vocabulary of American political conversation is vague. “Authoritarian” is used to mean any regime or approach to governance that’s not democratic. The Trump era saw a surge in the use of such words as “fascism,” “coup,” and “treason,” often deployed less in reference to specific events or actions than to signal that American politicians were acting in ways American politicians ought not act. “Democracy” stands for everything we miss about the way politics used to be. But all of these words have clear, if sometimes multiple, definitions in political science, history, and law. If politicians, journalists, and even kitchen-table debaters adopted the habit of defining their terms, we would understand each other better—and begin the process of restoring language.

The damage done to American language is not yet nearly as profound as the century-long decimation of Russian under totalitarianism and Putinism, but the lessons of Russian journalists hold. Some words ought to be retired: “tremendous” can take a hiatus, for example. Essential words, in the debasement of which journalists have often been complicit, have to be rehabilitated before it’s too late. The word “politics,” or “political,” is an example. It ought to refer to the vital project of negotiating how we live together as a city, a state, or a country; of working across difference; of acting collectively. Instead, it is used to denote emptiness: hollow procedure, inflated rhetoric, tactical positioning are dismissed as “just politics.” But to use the word “politics,” or indeed any other word, and be believed, journalists will have to understand the words as meaningful and consequential. That, in turn, requires a reckoning not only with the damage Trumpism has inflicted on the public sphere but also with the conditions that made him so effective.

__________________________________

From Surviving Autocracy, by Masha Gessen, courtesy Riverhead. Copyright 2020, Masha Gessen.

Masha Gessen
Masha Gessen
Masha Gessen is the author of eleven other books, including the National Book Award-winning The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. A staff writer at The New Yorker and the recipient of numerous awards, including Guggenheim and Carnegie fellowships, Gessen teaches at Bard College and lives in New York City.





More Story
The Interview That Adrienne Rich Never Wanted Published We were together in the sound-proofed radio booth with the door shut, Adrienne Rich and me. Outside the room, above the door,...