Trump called fake news “an enemy of the people.” (He said it in a tweet, of course, and the obnoxiousness of his childish and gaslighting tweets is a post for another day.) As a Washington Post article explains, this phrase actually started out being used by oppressed people to refer to the extremely evil emperor Nero. Incidentally, the article also demonstrates Trump’s pathetic but not surprising lack of originality in his use of the phrase. The phrase was, of course, co-opted eventually by Hitler to refer to the Jews and Stalin (in Russia, being accused of being an enemy of the people under Stalin was a death sentence). I say it was co-opted ‘of course’ because that’s all evil can do. It cannot create anything of its own; it can only pervert the good.
The history of the term is enlightening and worth a read; but I’m concerned about something more subtle and threatening here. What’s dangerous about what Trump said is not just the narcissistic double speak everyone is reacting to, here and in everything he says. What’s dangerous is that he is, on some level, right, though not at all for the reasons he or others might think he is. Fake news IS an enemy of the people; that’s one of the things that contributed to Trump winning the election. Fake news is the reason so many people voted against their own interests not just in this country but in recent events like Brexit because fake news gives the illusion of informing its consumers while keeping them in the dark and ignorant about their being in the dark. So it’s worse than not being informed and knowing it. It’s not being informed and making major decisions like who should be the next president thinking that you are informed. And it’s dangerous for someone like Trump to be kind of right about anything he says because it makes it harder to parse truth from his serial lies, thereby, among other things, perpetuating the cycle of false information presented as “alternative facts.”
It works like this. If someone walks up to you and shouts in your face that you have purple skin, intending it as an insult, you’re likely going to shrug it off as their problem and think no more of it (all preoccupation with the weirdness of such an event aside). That’s because you can quickly and easily verify the lack of truth in the statement. But, if someone comes up to you and questions your intelligence, or makes an ambiguous comment about your appearance, you might pause. Especially if you happen to not have a lot of confidence in that particular area already, their comment might stick to you, you might give their words more weight (or might not be able not to). Things like intelligence and appearance are impossible to quantify in any meaningful way, which means, among other things, that they are impossible to “prove” once and for all.
And that’s exactly the point. Lies that contain a kernel of truth are much more difficult to eradicate than outright falsehoods. You can look in the mirror and see instantly that your skin isn’t purple; but you can’t, especially if you’re a woman in this culture, look in the mirror and instantly see that you’re beautiful or intelligent. Fake news is fake because it’s made up; but it’s ‘news’ because we don’t in this culture have anything close to a sufficient system for proving it. So Trump is right when he says that fake news is an enemy of the people; the reason that’s dangerous is not just because we have no litmus-test system for discerning fake from real, and not just because he depended on fake news to win a presidential election in a powerful country and continues to depends on us not developing one so he can distract us from real, direct action against the wanton damage and casual cruelty he’s already causing and keep us infighting and divided instead of working together against his bigotry, selfish greed and puerile narcissism. It’s primarily dangerous because he will be able to win way more trust than he deserves and be able to avoid much more nuanced scrutiny than vulnerable people need him to have. Indeed, he already has.