Given the torrent of garble, invective and provocation loosed daily by the Twitter fingers of the 45th President of the United States, it is easy to become inured to it all, unshockable. But Donald Trump's posts yesterday morning were noxious even by his own standards. The elected leader of the most powerful nation in the world chose to retweet — that is, to signal-boost to his 43-million-odd followers and beyond — three posts by the deputy leader of racist, far-right group Britain First, that purported to show acts of criminal violence by Muslims.
There goes the President: Fanning the flames of Islamophobia, emboldening white supremacists, offering a timely pat on the back to your garden variety fascist. And so what if the videos weren't what was claimed (they weren't)? Their veracity was neither here nor there, said Trump's shameless press spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, when called on yet again to explain the deranged social media proclivities of her boss. "The threat is real, what the President is talking about, the need for national security and military spending, those are [very real]. There's nothing fake about that."
Full marks, at least, for chutzpah. This is pretty much an exemplar of the Stephen Colbert coinage "truthiness" — who cares whether something is false when it feels true? Trump, of course, has sailed way past what today seem the relatively benign days of post-truth politics and truthiness. Meaning itself has now melted. When challenged on his routine dispensing of misinformation, Trump has declared critical media as "fake news", in the process rendering fake the hollowest word in the English language. By the time Trump announced — falsely, absurdly — that he had invented the very term "fake news", the utter discombobulation of political language was complete.
It is hard to know which is more alarming: the man with the nuclear codes acting impulsively and incoherently, or the man with the nuclear codes following some deeper nefarious strategy. Maybe it's a bit of both. Trump's admiration for Vladimir Putin is on the record, so it wouldn't surprise if he took a leaf or two from the Russian strongman's book. Much of that book is the work of former theatre student Vladislav Surkov, who is widely regarded as an architect of post-truth politics. Surkov's tactics, in many ways echoed by the thinking of Trump ally and Breitbart News mastermind Steve Bannon, centre not so much on directly changing the conversation as filling the room with smoke. "You don't need a new narrative," as one writer on Surkov put it. "You just say everyone is a liar, everyone is the same, there is no definition of truth ... Don't trust the media. Don't trust the authorities."
Others have noted the freshly germane analysis by the political writer who introduced the term "banality of evil", Hannah Arendt. "If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer," she said in a 1974 interview. It was an idea the German-born American emigre had advanced as early as 1951, when she wrote of leaders creating an "incomprehensible world" in which the populous "held every statement to be a lie ... Under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness." The title of that work: The Origins of Totalitarianism.
As for yesterday's presidential circulation of propaganda from Britain First, the most lucid commentary came from Brendan Cox. "The fact that a sitting US President would retweet three tweets from a far-right organisation led by convicted criminals who have racially and religiously abused people — I think that was a shock, to be honest," he told Channel 4 News. "I think even with the low bar that this President has set, I think this is a new level." Cox feels it more personally than most of us. A week before the Brexit referendum, a right-wing extremist shouted "Britain First", over and over, as he stabbed and shot Cox's MP wife, Jo, to death.
What does any of this have to do with New Zealand? Or, to put it another way, what can New Zealand do about any of it? On the one hand, not a lot. On Twitter, the maxim goes, usefully, don't feed the trolls. But when the troll is the President of the US and commander in chief of the world's most powerful military?
There is a tipping point, surely, beyond which any half-decent liberal democracy must rise above the same old cryptic diplomatic waffle. There could hardly be a more clearcut test of basic Western democratic values than the contemptible, incendiary, fascist-comforting outpourings of the President of the great nation of America. And that's not to mention all the other stuff, including Trump's fervent defence of a senate candidate facing numerous allegations of sexual molestation and the audio recording in which he boasts about groping women's genitals. Let's not forget, either, that at least 13 women have come forward with allegations Trump touched them inappropriately.
The British Prime Minister yesterday denounced the President's hateful tweets. (Her statement "it was wrong for the President to have done this" spurred a mid-evening riposte from the White House, in which Trump managed even to mangle Theresa May's Twitter handle.) New Zealand should follow suit. Earlier in the week, Foreign Minister Winston Peters issued a statement in our name condemning the latest North Korean ballistic missile test. He, and we, should condemn, too, the ballistic encouragement of fascists being dispatched by another powerful, hazardous and unhinged world leader.