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Words Gotta Be Perfecto

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I now get email from the president. I didn't ask to be on the list of recipients, but I don't mind skimming over the "real news President Trump doesn't want you to miss." A recent email quoted the president saying the military has "gotta be perfecto." The phrase brought me up short—like a speedboat hitting a sand bar. The wording obviously was purposeful. Someone in the communications office could have cleaned up the quotation to read, "the military must be perfect." But for some reason, the final draft favored a slang contraction and a Spanish adjective over Standard English. You may criticize it for being unpresidential, but you can't write it off to carelessness. Donald Trump and his lieutenants use words to advantage. I am not saying they have a deft touch or an orator's ear, but they've got chutzpah. And they are shameless. Think of Sean Spicer's dissembling; Kellyanne Conway's invocation of "alternative facts," or Sarah Sander's assertion that the truthfulness of the president's anti-Muslim tweeting is irrelevant because "the threat is real." A few weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) had given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a list of words to be deleted from its budget documents. On a Carlinesque list of seven words that might offend conservative lawmakers were: "transgender," "diversity," "fetus," and "science-based." Instead of writing "science-based," DHS officials suggested writing, "based on science in consideration with community standards and wishes." Said one critic of DHS persuasively, "It's absurd and Orwellian."

"Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind," George Orwell wrote in 1945. Manipulating language for untoward purpose is at the core of Orwell's concept of Newspeak. Conway engaged in Newspeak when she papered over Spicer's briefing-room lies with "alternative facts." Euphemisms such as "collateral damage" and "ethnic cleansing" are Newspeak because they bevel the hard edges of truth. Torture becomes "enhanced interrogation." Speaking of enhancement, Utah's stealth congressman, Chris Stewart, used a little Newspeak to enhance his upstart "Grand Staircase–Escalante Enhancement Act." If you believe Stewart is guileless, clap your hands along with Tinker Bell.

Distorting truth is one matter, subverting it is another. There was plenty of both in 2017. Truth limped into December with black eyes and a bloody nose. I don't know which was the most troubling realization after a year of Trump: that the president of the United States was a habitual liar or that millions of Americans didn't give a damn that he lied habitually. (The New York Times documented 103 lies in Trump's first 10 months in office as compared with Obama's 18 over 8 years.) In our post-truth world—where public opinion is often shaped by emotional appeals, not facts—Trump supporters acquiesced to Trump's practice of dismissing unflattering media coverage as, "More fake news!" He said it so often that Collins Dictionary chose "fake news" as the word of the year. Speaking for the dictionary company, Helen Newstead said, "'Fake news,' either as a statement of fact or as an accusation, has been inescapable this year, contributing to the undermining of society's trust in news reporting."

An axiom of Propaganda 101 states: the more often you repeat something (e.g. "fake news"), the more it becomes true. A year into the Trump presidency, lots of people now give credence to such Trump tropes as "fraudulent votes," "world's highest taxes," and, of course, "fake news." Even more people have been swept up in the wave of truthiness. For them, lots of stuff seems to be true even when it's demonstrably not—an unlocked door for Russian trolls. Truthiness is a factor in the cultural divide which separates the half of the country who believes Fox News traffics in fake news from the half that is convinced the Washington Post and CNN do, too. To make matters worse, social media create confusion between what is popular and what is true, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook vice president, observed on CNBC recently. The upshot is the fraying of the social fabric, he said.

Guys like Trump who debase truth out of either calculation or indifference also cause fraying. Orwell's novel, 1984, describes how a totalitarian government uses its Newspeak language to control the population. Newspeak upends truth with such slogans as "ignorance is strength." Trump undermines truth with his own brand of Newspeak. If we tolerate "fake news," if Trump lies with impunity, then each of us is complicit in the unraveling of the social fabric. Sen. Jeff Flake called Trump out with a reminder that to remain silent is to be complicit.

Dictionary.com cited Flake's words in choosing "complicit" as its 2017 word of the year. Cambridge Dictionary chose "populism" because of the noun's "implied lack of critical thinking on the part of the populace and the implied cynicism on the part of leaders who exploit it." After Trump's "America First" inauguration speech, George W. Bush was overheard to say, "That was some weird shit." A year later, we are knee-deep in weird shit, and egged on by flatterers like Sen. Orrin Hatch, Trump is clearly eager to press on. Not even a teleprompter can restrain him. But words are consequential. Facts matter. As the president of the U.S., Trump speak has gotta be perfecto. The office requires it. We ought to demand it.

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