Writing Resistance In The Age Of Trump

You can't fight big lies with little truths.
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U.S. President Donald Trump (R), flanked by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly (L), delivers remarks at Homeland Security headquarters in Washington, U.S., January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump (R), flanked by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly (L), delivers remarks at Homeland Security headquarters in Washington, U.S., January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The terrifying Age of Trump has begun with the celebration of "alternative" facts, gag orders on civil servants, journalist harassment and arrests, the disappearance "inconvenient" government data on climate change, proposals to eliminate government departments that support inconvenient programs (for women and minorities) or produce "inconvenient" data that would not adhere to the "party" line. These opening moves are strands of a narrative that is being woven into a mythical reality designed to enable Mr. Trump to establish and maintain unrivaled personal power. These bold power moves underscore a prescient message from George Orwell's masterpiece, 1984, published in 1949 and once again on the bestseller list..

"Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me."

That chilling passage from a great work of literature, of course, had real world roots and has real world ramifications. Orwellian empowerment depends in large measure upon the more chilling reality of "The Big Lie." In the words of Joseph Goebbels:

"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State."

I wish I could suggest another scenario, but doesn't it seem like the Trump administration is playing a very dangerous game that will undermine what's left of our democracy and eviscerate long standing American values -- the value of civic debate, the necessity for a free and open press, institutional transparency, and respect for science and scientific truth? These longstanding bedrocks of American civil society are now under brutal attack

They must be defended.

There is no shortage of outcry about Trump's freedom-bashing moves. Journalists and scholars will spend much of their time refuting the scores of false claims that Trump and his surrogates have already made and will continue to make. I am confident that there will be a sustained critique in the press and on social media in which intelligent writers -- journalists, dissenting public officials and scholars will point out the dangers to be found on an authoritarian path littered with Trump's big lies. Sadly, such a critique is not likely to have much of an impact.

You can't fight big lies with little truths.

There is a way, however, to combat Trump's Big Lies is an effective way -- ethnography. At first glance this suggestion may seem silly or naïve. Here's why I think that ethnography, the description of social life as lived, could provide a powerful counter-narrative to Trump's incessant lying. Big Liars use misinformation and fear to create a master narrative of control -- a narrative in which "truth is the enemy of the State." Factual scientific refutation, which is usually expressed in the bloodless prose of scientific plain style, is no match for the hyperbole of Trump's mythic narrative. Ethnographic counter narratives, however, can be an effective response. In ethnographic narratives, writers (journalists, dissenting officials and scholars) describe the conditions of social spaces and places to tell the stories of a person or group of people. How will their lives be inalterably upended by Trump's proposed policies on health care, taxes, the environment, foreign policy or civil liberties? What are the human costs of living in a mythical world constructed of Big Lies? Put another way, ethnographic narrative dramatically links personal experience to larger social, political and economic issues. A continuous stream of well-crafted ethnographic narratives can have a powerful effect on general audiences of people who read blogs, listen to podcasts, or watch short and/or feature films on social platforms like YouTube or Vimeo.

The ethnographic blog is perfectly suited to writing resistance. A factually informed plain language counter-narrative can be published immediately on any number of social media platforms. If you are a scholar who wants to learn how to write resistance, ask your institution to organize a blogging or ethnographic writing workshop. In my experience, these workshops produce very positive results, for they encourage specialized writers to step into the public sphere. Such participation can become a sustained way of writing resistance to dispute big lie narratives with powerful ethnographic counter narratives that can begin to lift the fog that is quickly obscuring our social vision.

In the end The Big Lie builds a mythical social edifice that has no foundation. Writers of factual ethnographic counter-narratives know well that on the path of life "you cannot walk," as the Songhay people of Niger and Mali are fond of saying, "where there is no ground."

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