Of all the over-the-top controversies about the Donald administration so far, the one I find most interesting is the reaction to Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway’s use of the phrase “alternative facts” to describe the difference between Trump’s estimate (opinion) of the size of the crowd at his inauguration as compared to the estimate of the size of Barack Obama’s crowd.
This atrocity occurred on Meet the Press when host Chuck Todd asked Conway, “Why the president asked the White House press secretary [Sean Spicer] to come out in front of the podium…and utter a falsehood about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. Conway responded that Spicer “gave alternative facts to that.” Todd claimed that alternative facts are falsehoods. Conway’s use of the phrase alternative facts set off an explosion of outrage both in the media and the anti-Trump community. It also caused copies of George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel 1984 to fly off the book shelves both here and abroad; it rose to the top of the list of Amazon’s best sellers.
Trump critics claimed that alternative facts was synonymous with either the Orwell- coined terms “Newspeak” or “Doublethink.” The website George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty Four – Appendix: The principles of Newspeak defines Newspeak as not only “a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of [Big Brother], but to make all other modes of thought impossible…This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.” An example: “The word free still existed…but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’..It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free.'” Doublethink means the ability to hold two contradictory opinions at the same time and believing in both. Doublethink in 1984 was a method of controlling memories.
So how are Newspeak and Doublethink like Conway’s alternative facts? Not at all. Now I am sure that Obama drew a bigger crowd than Trump, and I don’t need Park Police estimates or aerial photos or experts using the so-called Jacobs Method (Google it if you wish) to reach that conclusion. Obama was the first black president and had the support of the public service unions who are fabulous at turning out large crowds. He also had lots of adoring supporters in the Hispanic, black, youth, single woman, and intellectual communities among others. These folks love to attend such events. Trump’s approval rating was lower than Obama’s when entering office, and his supporters are mostly people who don’t have the time to attend demonstrations or inaugurations. Trump’s claims about the size of the crowd at his inauguration could be considered gratuitous and unnecessary.
So if alternative facts has nothing to do with Orwell’s inventions, what are they? Facts, true or untrue, are used to support an opinion. Every argument, whether in writing or conversation, employs facts for that purpose. But in any argument, there is also an opposite point of view. If there were no facts (let’s call them alternative facts) to support that different view, there wouldn’t be an opposing argument, although some people express opinions despite the lack of facts to support their opinions.
Authors, journalists, lawyers, and anyone else who has an opinion he or she wishes to argue deals in alternative facts. One of the rules for prosecutors and defense lawyers in criminal trials is that the prosecutor must share with the defense lawyer all the evidence (facts and informed opinion) he has accumulated, both inculpatory and exculpatory. Of course,when they go to court, the prosecutor uses only the inculpatory evidence to support his opinion that the defendant is guilty, and the defense lawyer uses only the exculpatory evidence to defend his client. So the defense lawyer is using alternative facts. Opinion journalists also know that there is an alternative opinion supported by alternative facts, but, again, they use only the facts that support their argument.
Sometimes people are unaware of some alternative facts when discussing an issue. A few years ago, I was in London visiting friends. One evening we discussed the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. They were pro-Palestinian. At one point I mentioned that former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak had agreed to an extremely generous peace proposal devised by President Clinton. I also mentioned that Barak’s successor Ehud Olmert offered even more generous terms to the Palestinians. Both proposals were rejected by the Palestinian leaders. However my British friends were completely unaware of these facts because, I believe, they get their news and opinion exclusively from the anti-Israel BBC and the ultra- left wing newspaper, The Guardian.
Yes, Trump knows the crowd was smaller at his inauguration than at Obama’s. Why do he and his people keep harping on it? Barton Swaim, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal has one theory:
…A troll is someone who deliberately kindles acrimony by making outrageous, offensive or confusing remarks. Often it’s used as a verb, as in: Donald Trump has spent the past year and a half trolling the news media.
And he has. But few journalists have appreciated the degree to which Mr. Trump’s entire political and governing strategy depends on trolling them. They’ve mostly assumed his penchant for exaggeration and invention was the result of psychosis, or just ego. By now, though, it ought to be apparent that he’s doing it intentionally, and strategically.
…Mr. Trump has little but contempt for the mainstream media. Or at least he wants the media to think so. He realized some time ago, as many a Republican presidential candidate realized before him, that most journalists covering his campaign would interpret his pronouncements and decisions in the worst possible light. Mr. Trump decided not to play their game. Instead, he would troll them. Constantly, mercilessly troll them.
The effect was to stop them from covering his candidacy in the usual ways—with the kind of one-sided analysis guaranteed to make his Democratic opponent look superior—and instead to send them off on crazy “fact checking” errands in search of intrinsically worthless data. Did “thousands and thousands” of Muslims celebrate the 9/11 attacks in New Jersey? Did he really oppose the Iraq war, and when? Is “The Art of the Deal” really the bestselling business book of all time?
Now that he is president, reporters assigned to Mr. Trump are in a tough position. They have to pay close attention to what the White House says, but they know the White House may give them garbage and dare them to spend an entire working day trying to verify or debunk it. Meanwhile Mr. Trump will make the ordinary decisions any president must make—court nominations, executive orders, negotiations with foreign leaders—while reporters are off trying to disprove some idiotic claim about the president’s approval ratings. They’ll feel as if they’re in an impossible bind, trolled into looking the other way, futilely insisting on their authority as the nation’s guardians of truth.
Swaim’s theory seems plausible to me. If Trump is clever enough to figure out what many in the country wanted in a president and then win the Republican nomination and the subsequent election, he is clever enough to come up with a new and possibly effective strategy to disarm the hostile news media. As Swaim says: “… Trump has decided, rightly or wrongly, that the press is not the people. A ridiculous ‘lie’ to the press, in his view, is not a lie to the people.”
Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” may be a part of that strategy.