Notions of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’, which have seemingly popped up out of nowhere in a remarkably short period of time, have quickly become the primary justification for the Trump cabinet and the organisations around him (Breitbart et al.) to adhere to what is simultaneously an eclectic but coherent policy framework. Anything that counters the Trumpist narrative is derrided as fake news. Anything from Trump and his cabal proven to be less than factual, is transformed into an ‘alternative fact’. For most, this manipulation of the Truth (with a capital T) is deplorable. For the Trumpists however it is one of two things: a considered tactical move to ensure the Trump agenda (where there is one to speak of) stays on course, or the articulation of a worldview that sits in contrast with accepted norms (or indeed the Truth). This latter point I think is more interesting and potentially more worrying, as it informs the former.
How can the Trump administration stand there and talk about alternative facts, rather than admit that there is little truth to what is being said? Apart from the obvious issue that admitting you lied is not a shrewd move, it should be seen as part of a broader process of constructing an alternative conception of the world towards which Trump will govern. The organisations and people to which alternative facts stand against are depicted as ‘fake news’, the Mainstream Media (MSM), part of the ‘liberal agenda’ and so on. It is, basically, conspiracy theory 101 – the elites who pull the strings have spent decades constructing a particular narrative that can’t be questioned. Rather than an accepting an (alternative) fact as someone may see it, the elites proclaim this alternative vision of society is a lie. Evidence be damned. Look to other countries where populism has taken hold and you will see similar (though not quite so extreme) versions of the same phenomenon. Die hard Corbynistas screaming at the MSM for either not giving Corbyn enough space, lying about what he really said, intentionally disadvantaging him etc. The same goes for UKIP, rallying against an out of touch elite and unelected bureaucrats that control the flow of information. In such dangerous times who can you turn to? The only organisations/people you can trust are the ones espousing your worldview, especially if you feel under siege (cf. Corbyn, Trump, UKIP etc.).
The broader point here is not whether alternative facts are truthful or not (they have to have some truth to them in order for them to take hold, as well as needing to appeal to people’s hopes/fears/ambitions). Rather it is about in what ways, and how well, they are able to take hold. Once dominant in one section of society it is much easier for these alternative conceptions of political and social reality to spread. It is harder to eliminate them because it is highly unlikely that they can be combated effectively enough within their core constituency. Thus, once these ideas have taken hold strongly enough – and the difficulty is that this won’t be clear if they’re not in the public eye – it becomes significantly harder to deligitimise them; to write them off as lies, as deluded, as dangerous. This just increases the resolve of those who sign up to them.
For those of us who do not assign to the Trumpists’ ‘alternative facts’, who see them as dangerous and who may have their own understanding of how the world works not shared by orthodox opinion, it is absolutely crucial to frame the opposition to alternative facts as a concrete struggle, not only to prove these ‘facts’ as baseless and wrong(headded), but to also promote, instill and fight for a competing worldview. Something will fill the vacuum caused by any successful campaign to destabilise dominant rhetoric, discourse and ideology. If there is not something ready to fill that vacuum the original discourse will remain, and will probably become stronger.
How do ‘we’ do this? First, it is not good enough to signal disapproval, to distance yourself from these dominant discourses. The fact they’re dominant means they are becoming the rules by which you play the game. You will find yourself using the language and imagery of these discourses and framing your arguments within their logic. As soon as you begin to do that you tacitly accept the legitimacy of that position. This isn’t to say you can always successfully frame an argument without accepting the dominant logic; of course you can’t. But you must find ways to throw up contradictions and challenges to that logic.
This is clearly a complex process. We can liken it to the pop star who has become an ‘overnight’ sensation, when in reality they have been working hard with little recognition for decades. Discourses do not simply pop up. They are constructed. They are dialectical – they represent the worldview of a bloc/group/class, whilst also constructing a worldview (or a lens) through which blocs/groups/classes will come to see the world. This process is a result of the interaction of relations of force and production, and these relations’ interaction with the field of ideas. To paraphrase Gramsci, ideas themselves are material forces. Only highly organised groups are able to organise and influence discourse. It is not something that can ever be achieved through social media alone, or through petitions, or through marches. The individualism of liberalism, as well as the various logics of capitalism, promote the idea of the competitive individual above all else (think about it: even social and interventionist forms of liberalism argue that essentially helping others will benefit you personally).
Trump is a convenient figurehead who will go along with the script (he needed to be coached through the process of signing Executive Orders in his first days as President…). Behind Trump is a political machine that has been working for a significant amount of time to make what has happened in the US possible. The inability for the ‘left’ in America to take seriously this section of the right – even when the Tea Party became a political force – should be seen as at least partly responsible. Again, Gramsci provides a helpful illustration: when a class wins hegemony and becomes the ruling class, do its members sit on their laurels and pat themselves on the back for a job well done? No, they consolidate their power, they build in contingencies, they construct a complex system of coercion and consent to ensure their ideas and interests remain central to society, while providing the rest of the population with enough agency to feel in control of the situation. The struggle never ends: it’s hard when you’re not in the driving seat, but it’s even harder when you think you’re in the driving seat.
‘Alternative Facts’ have been deliberately constructed to sit alongside what we understand to be the objective truth, in order to question, critique and challenge perceived orthodoxy and to present what comes across as a coherent alternative (it’s not coherent, but that’s for a different post). This is not an off-the-cuff strategy that has popped up overnight. It is a cornerstone of the populist right’s political project, and without it they would not be where they are today – this goes for any country with a strong populist right. That the left and/or centre have been able to offer nothing in return demonstrates the current weakness of the left, in a social, political and economic world that is not the same as the one in which the modern left was forged.
If those of us against Trumpism continue trying to defeat it based on ‘rational’ arguments and appeals to ‘common sense’, we will lose. This is a struggle that must be fought simultaneously in the real world and in the world of ideas.