In July of 2018 Donald Trump said, “Just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” In other words, whatever the fake news media is saying about me is a lie. And the adoring crowd at his rally goes wild.
When a reporter asks a question he doesn’t like, Trump routinely replies: “You’re fake news,” to make the news go away simply by asserting it’s fake, without any facts or evidence.
That what-you’re-seeing is-not-what’s-happening quote at the top appears on page 1 of a new book titled “A Brief History of Fascist Lies,” by Federico Finchelstein, chair of the history department at the New School for Social Research.
Finchelstein specializes in the history of fascism.
In the opening of the book, the Trump quote from 2018 is paired with two other quotes by two of the most famous and most dangerous liars of the previous century. They were:
Adolf Hitler, who said (in the group of quotes): “A struggle between the truth and a lie is taking place. As always, the truth will emerge victorious.” Like Trump, what Hitler meant was that what he said was the truth, and what others said were lies.
And the other quote from Finchelstein’s page 1 is from Benito Mussolini, who said: “You must believe me because I have the habit – it is the system of my life — of always and everywhere telling the truth.”
Hitler and Mussolini, the two most famous fascists of their time, came to power without getting the majority of the vote until after they were in office (as did Trump, nor even a plurality) and their leadership ended badly for their countries.
I need to add quickly and clearly that I am not literally calling Trump a fascist. Nor, I gather, is Finchelstein, who grew up in Argentina and lived under the quasi-fascist dictator Juan Peron.
Being a historian with Ivy League credentials who specializes in the history of fascism gives Finchelstein some expertise in the matters above. And he is, rather obviously, troubled by certain similarities between Trump’s methods (including lying frequently while always claiming to be telling the truth) and those of Hitler and Mussolini.
“What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening” symbolizes one of Trump’s tricks, part of which is to condition his followers to not only believes his lies, but to disbelieve whatever they might see, read or hear that questions what he has said.
Trump, if you haven’t noticed, is in the habit of using what Kellyanne Conway once categorized as “alternative facts” to sell his soap. Not “lies.” Just “alternative facts,” many of which are actually falsehoods, in other words lies.
“What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening” comes dangerously close to this: “The facts are lies, and my lies are the truth.”
In the happy stories on which we were raised, such people eventually get caught in their lies and lose their following. But does that always happen, and how far down the road to perdition do we get before we, or at least enough of us to remove the liar from power, stop believing that that happy ending is possible?
I’m quite comfortable calling Trump a liar of colossal proportions. But this column makes me slightly fearful of running afoul of “Godwin’s Law.” So I spent a little Google time to see how others dealt with the boundary issues. I found this is in a 2017 column by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who handled it deftly:
Trump is no Hitler, but the way he has manipulated the American people with outrageous lies, stacked one on top of the other, has an eerie historical resonance. Demagogy has a fixed design. …
Trump has found a way to couch the lies so that people believe they don’t emanate from him but pass through him. He is not a producer but a projector.
One way he does this is by using caveats — “I was told,” “Lots of people are saying” — as shields.
Jenna Johnson of The Washington Post addressed this in June 2016, writing about Trump’s use of the phrase “a lot of people are saying”:
“Trump frequently couches his most controversial comments this way, which allows him to share a controversial idea, piece of tabloid gossip or conspiracy theory without technically embracing it. If the comment turns out to be popular, Trump will often drop the distancing qualifier — ‘people think’ or ‘some say.’ If the opposite happens, Trump can claim that he never said the thing he is accused of saying, equating it to retweeting someone else’s thoughts on Twitter.”
The full Finchelstein book is very brief (barely 100 pages) and deals with Trump appearing in the Introduction. Finchelstein then spends the bulk of book describing the relationship between lying and fascism in previous periods and other countries.
Then the epilogue, which is pretty much about Trump and Trumpism, emphasizes Trump’s utter disregard for factual accuracy or truth and his heavy reliance on lying without ever saying that this makes Trump a fascist.
If Finchelstein’s take interests you, I should tell you that I stumbled on him and his book via an online event that I, in my search for things to write about while social distancing, recently watched in which Finchelstein was interviewed by the editor of the University of California Press, which published “A Brief History of Fascist Lies.”
The interview is only 13 minutes long. The California Press guy who conducts the interview starts it out by saying: “I would prefer your book to be less relevant to the world we’re living in today, but that’s not the world we’re living in right now.”
The interview is viewable here: