Alternatives to Reality: Bush, Trump, Empire, and Alt-Facts

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”[1]

“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. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”[2]

Just three days in, it’s already clear that the petulant, pathological disingenuousness of the Trump campaign is carrying over into the Trump presidency. Whether the impact of this is heightened by the stature of the office Trump now holds, or whether his inarticulate self-promotion and need for applause (even if it must be carted around with him) are lowering the platform to his level, may be a matter of perspective. In any case, in addition to a “post-truth” politics we now have, courtesy of Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, “alt-facts”.

Not long after this label started trending people began to point out that it was George W. Bush’s regime that first explicitly distanced itself from what Karl “Ham” Rove described as “the reality-based community”. Minted in the days of the second Gulf War, at a point when many of the lies that had produced the conflict were common knowledge, this perverse formulation seemed to constitute the most brazen declaration imaginable that truth was irrelevant. (One might also, superficially, compare Conway’s weird claim that “There is no way to quantify crowd numbers” with Tommy Franks’s “We don’t do body counts“, though the contexts were very different. More pertinently, Bush predated Trump in his blanket dismissal of mainstream news organizations.) Others have baulked at the strange rehabilitation of Bush II as, if still a terrible president, yet not in the same despicable league as the Cheeto-in-Chief. It’s worth remembering that whatever else Trump has done, he has not had the chance to start an actual war. Yet.

Despite their superficial similarities and a very real overlap in contempt for criticism and for “reality”, however, it seems to me that the implications of Rove’s and Conway’s two statements are not at all the same. When Karl Rove derided “reality”, it was by way of contrasting those who study it with those who (like himself, and the imperial state for which he spoke) make, or remake it. Now, to believe one can alter reality to suit one’s preferences is undoubtedly hubristic; but it is also, arguably, one of the longest standing if not foundational ambitions of modern empire. And so it’s no accident, I think, that it was precisely in the context of embracing an American imperial destiny that Rove weighed reality and found it wanting. Since the earliest plantation and forced migration schemes, empire has often explicitly been about remaking reality: transcending the limitations — territorial, strategic, economic, or environmental — of the metropole, forcing people and resources into new channels that transform the world and, in large ways and small, annihilate history and geography alike. The results of imperial projects have frequently been disastrous, monstrous, or genocidal; the point is that the contempt for reality on which they rested was specific, programmatic, and purposeful. From that perspective Rove’s statement, though brazen, was really nothing new.

Conway’s case seems different. First, of course, there’s the pettiness of the triggering issue: not a foreign war or even a domestic policy debate, but instead asinine — and wholly characteristic — Trumpian bickering about how many people came to his party. Even forgetting differences in the context for its articulation, the idea of “alt-facts” seems to me to suggest no particular platform or vision for the US as a state or an empire, or for American society or politics. It indicates not a Rovian contempt for the world as it is so much as disdain for the interlocutor (read: the media), and in a larger sense for public discourse itself. Another contrast might bring this out. Shortly before Bush launched Gulf War II, Colin Powell famously addressed the United Nations about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The intelligence he presented was, of course, false, and Powell was misleading the UN. But he was doing so because an appearance of truth — a claim to have the facts, to have consulted the experts, to have ascertained the details — was seen to be important. As Trump has implied throughout his campaign, and as Conway now tells us directly, it no longer is. Rove embraced empire as a project; Conway embraces bullshit as an ethos. I don’t think that makes Trump less dangerous. Bullshit may turn out to be harder to fight.

Notes

[1] Kellyanne Conway, advisor to Donald Trump, speaking on  Meet the Press, NBC, January 22, 2017.
[2] Karl Rove, advisor to George W. Bush, quoted in Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush”, The New York Times Magazine, October 14, 2004.

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