“In the past, people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable. It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys.” —George Orwell
“Who cares whether they laugh at us or insult us, treating us as fools or criminals? The point is that they talk about us and constantly think about us.” —Adolf Hitler
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the federal government released the second volume of its Fourth National Climate Assessment, warning that global warming increasingly threatens our nation’s environment, our health and our prosperity. When asked the following Monday to comment on the assessment, the product of 13 government agencies and 300 scientists, President Donald Trump said simply: “I don’t believe it.”
That same day, Alex Jones’ conspiracy-fueled website, Infowars, cited a tweet by the president—“Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS—Whatever happened to Global Warming?”—to attack the report, impugning its researchers as potential “connivers for the United Nations’ carbon tax scam … shilling to fund Agenda 21 totalitarianism hysteria.”
And just like that, the president had all the rhetorical cover he needed to justify his anti-environmental policies.
Welcome to Alt-America, a topsy-turvy world of conspiracy theories, half-baked ideas and “alternative facts,” where trolls are real, and news is fake, where facts don’t matter, and lies don’t, either. This shadow realm was a favorite haunt of Donald Trump before he ran for president, and gained greater prominence with his election. We all live in Alt-America now, awash in its alternative realities, propaganda and the kind of doublespeak that George Orwell made famous in his 1949 novel, 1984, so it’s probably a good time to ask how we got here, and where it all leads.
In Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, journalist and author David Neiwert charts the emergence of alternative realities and their spread across extremist groups. This, he argues, primed the electorate for the rise of Trump and has buoyed him ever since. Neiwert traces this contingent of the president’s supporters back to the 1990s Patriot movement—a collage of anti-government groups—and the rise of online misogynists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other manifestations of extremism.
From its beginning, the Patriot movement promoted white supremacy, Christian identity and conspiracy theories, fearing FEMA-sponsored concentration camps, black helicopter surveillance, a New World Order and chemtrails. Patriot ideology fractured like light through a prism with the rise of right-wing radio, conservative cable TV and the internet—what David Foster Wallace called “a kaleidoscope of information options.” The more available these options became, the less the public was able to debate the facts. Ultimately, the improbable ideas of paranoiacs made their way into mainstream political conversations, online and at the table.
The Patriots and other fringe groups have since thrived. They have myriad manifestations—Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, sovereign citizens, border militias, constitutional sheriffs—but the movement still draws strength from “a deep vein of anti-government sentiment that had been simmering among conservatives for many years,” Neiwert writes. In August 2016, when candidate Trump suggested that the “Second Amendment people” do something about his opponent, Hillary Clinton, he was appealing to this group, showing that once-inconceivable political speech is now viable, even advantageous.
As Alt-America emerged, so did its Western corollary. Neiwert spends two full chapters on Patriot-supported standoffs between the Bundys and the feds. He recalls the racist speeches of Cliven Bundy outside Bunkerville, Nev., where the elder Bundy suggested “the Negro” may have been better off as a slave. Here, Neiwert correctly links the white supremacist roots of the Patriot movement to its resurgence under President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president. (Donald Trump’s first foray into alt-politics was his relentless support of the so-called “birther” conspiracy, which claimed President Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen.)
Neiwert links this kind of alternative thinking with Bundyism, the ideology that brought about the Nevada standoff; the siege of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon; the illegal “protest” ride of ATVs through Utah’s Recapture Canyon; and the militia-vs.-government conflicts over the Sugar Pine and White Hope mines, in Oregon and Montana.
These are all versions of alternate reality, self-reinforcing and powerful. “The internet made possible alternative universes such as the one inhabited by the adherents of the Patriot movement, or Alex Jones’ conspiracy milieu: constructed of fabrications based on fragments, interacting with others’ shared realities but operating almost entirely within its own framework,” Neiwert writes. “It began as a relatively small world limited largely to a fringe in the 1990s, but was resilient and grew steadily as the new century advanced. In the end, it gave birth not just to the alt-right, but also to the much larger universe of Alt-America.”
Where does this lead? Nowhere good. As journalist and literary critic Michiko Kakutani writes in The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, we now live in a place where “truth increasingly seems to be in the eye of the beholder, facts are fungible and socially constructed, and we often feel as if we’ve been transported to an upside-down world where assumptions and alignments in place for decades have suddenly been turned inside out.”
This helps explain why, she writes, “47 percent of Republicans erroneously believe that Trump won the popular vote; 68 percent believe that millions of illegal immigrants voted in 2016; and more than half of Republicans say they would be OK with postponing the 2020 presidential election until such problems with illegal voting can be fixed,” and why “25 percent of Americans believe that the 2008 (financial) crash was secretly orchestrated by a small cabal of bankers; 19 percent believe that the U.S. government had a hand in the 9/11 terrorist attacks; and 11 percent even believe a theory made up by the researchers—that compact fluorescent lightbulbs were part of a government plot to make people more passive and easy to control.”
These falsehoods gave rise to Trump, yes, but Trump is not the water; he’s a big ol’ catfish, and Kakutani gracefully describes the murky pond we all share with him. Some of this mental gunk comes from the passive intake of alternative reality through social media, but some is the active work of populists. One of their more insidious efforts, as Kakutani describes it, is “the populist Right’s appropriation of postmodernist arguments and its embrace of the philosophical repudiation of objectivity—schools of thought affiliated for decades with the Left and with the very elite academic circles that Trump and company scorn.” These efforts “deny an objective reality existing independently from human perception” and have attacked scientific theories as socially constructed, “informed by the identity of the person positing the theory and the values of the culture in which they are formed; therefore, science cannot possibly make claims to neutrality or universal truths.”
When Trump says he doesn’t “believe” the U.S. government’s own climate assessment, he is asserting that his belief is what matters. It’s a common mode now, feeling over fact, part of mainstream Republican thought, and easy to spot. Consider the following exchange, recounted by Kakutani, between CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota and GOP operative Newt Gingrich, at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
“The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are,” Gingrich said, in defense of Trump’s law-and-order remarks. “People are frightened. People feel that their government has abandoned them.”
When Camerota pointed out that statistics showing that the country was more safe, not less, weren’t “liberal numbers,” but rather compiled by the FBI, Gingrich countered: “No, but what I said is equally true. People feel it.”
Here, then, is the real danger. Right now, we live in a country not only fueled by raw emotions, but steered by them as well. This can be dangerous on either extreme of the political spectrum, but today it’s coming from far-right populism. People feel that immigrants are taking jobs, that America is unsafe and sullied. They believe that America was once great, with its white ruling class and people in their proper places. They feel afraid, and so have thrown open the door to authoritarianism. This distortion permits the president to co-opt terms like “fake news,” or to attack journalists as “enemies of the people,” invoking, incredibly, a term used by Lenin, Stalin and the genocidal leaders of the Khmer Rouge, at no political cost. It emboldens a president who lies for the “same reason that Vladimir Putin lies,” according to journalist Masha Gessen: “to assert power over truth itself.”
Suddenly, comparisons to 1984 (Amazon’s best-selling book in the month before Trump’s inauguration) cut too close for comfort. Kakutani quotes 1984 at length, as it describes how “the party and Big Brother exert control over reality” by controlling speeches, statistics and records, so that “no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness. … Thus history is continuously rewritten.”
Compare that fiction to reality, Kakutani suggests, when, after Trump’s Inauguration, “changes were being made to the climate change pages on the White House website,” as environmental activists “were frantically trying to download and archive government climate data—worried that it might be destroyed or lost or hidden by a hostile administration. Some of their fears were realized later in 2017, when the EPA announced that its website was ‘undergoing changes that reflect the agency’s new direction,’ including this Orwellian phrase: ‘updating language to reflect the approach of new leadership.’” Thus history is rewritten.
That was more than a year ago, a very long time in Alt-America. Today, the president doesn’t need to scrub information from his government’s websites. Why bother? The Fourth National Climate Assessment was required by law and therefore unavoidable, undertaken in good faith by public servants and scientists who still believe in facts and reality. None of that matters, though, because “I don’t believe it” is the only fact the great leader needs.
Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News, where this piece was first published.
Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump
By David Neiwert
464 pages, $16.95 (reprint edition)
The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump
By Michiko Kakutani
208 pages, $22