War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. He was using alternative facts. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Just remember: What you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening. Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. All men are enemies. All animals are comrades. Press is the enemy of the people. Four legs good, two legs bad. Believe me! Truth is not Truth.
Quickly: which one of these sentences I just wrote one after the other is from two fictional dystopian novels, and which from the real world of Trump’s America – uttered by the US president himself or by one of his associates? Hard to tell? Harder to believe. Some of them are from George Orwell’s 1984 and his Animal Farm, others from Donald Trump and his closest consiglieri and ministers of truth.
The barrage of such sentences ever since Donald Trump became the US president has made it impossible to dwell on any one of them and think what in the world they might mean. The speed with which Trump administration is subject of hysterical dysfunction makes any such phrases look stale two days after they were thrown at us.
As I write these sentences, the US and, by extension, people around the world are mesmerised by the pending publication of Bob Woodward’s damning book on Trump’s White House, Fear: Trump in the White House, and the publication of an op-ed article by an unnamed administration official in the New York Times that spoke of a “quiet resistance” of cabinet members who had whispered about taking steps to remove him from office. I have lived in the US for more than 40 years (the Deuterocanonical number of punishment) and to the best of my knowledge of more than 200 years of US history, no similar calamity has ever befallen this nation.
In this volcanic eruption of insanity that is the US politics these days, with dangerous repercussions around the globe, we must step back and take time to dwell on any one of such bizarre sentences as “truth is not truth” – uttered by Trump’s legal consigliere Rudy Giuliani – and wonder in disbelief. The fate of our planet, the future of our humanity, our hope for sustained human discourse, all are contingent on this Newspeak now spoken fluently in this particular Oceana.
If truth is not truth, as Rudy Giuliani says, then by definition, truth is falsehood, and if truth is falsehood, then it inevitably follows that Rudy Giuliani is a rhinoceros.
Are you confused? Allow me to explain.
In Rhinoceros (1959), a landmark play by the Romanian French avant-garde absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco (1909-1994), we follow the bizarre events in a small town where its inhabitants are turning into rhinoceroses, all except one character, Berenger who somehow escapes the mass metamorphoses and remains the audience’s only hope to figure out what in the world has happened to his fellow human beings.
Soon after the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979, Parviz Sayyad, a leading director and actor wrote a parallel play he called, Ass, in which we are witness to a similar mass metamorphosis of Iranians into asses. (Years ago, I translated that play into English and along with another play of Sayyad published in a volume I called, Theater of Diaspora, 1993).
Whether turned into rhinoceros or asses, in Ionesco and Sayyad’s respective plays we are witness to a whirling frenzy, occasioned by a mass hysteria which for the French dramatist was the rise of Nazism and Fascism (or totalitarianism in general) and for his Iranian counterpart the occasion of an Islamist frenzy in the course of the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979.
In Franz Kafka’s masterpieces, Metamorphosis (1915), it is not those around the protagonist who turned into strange creatures, but the protagonist himself, Gregor Samsa, who undergoes this physical transfiguration and wakes up one morning as an “Ungeheures Ungeziefer”, Monstrous Vermin. Either way, whether it is a mass or a singular metamorphosis, what is constant is a condition of estrangement and anomie that characterises the circumstances in which we confront reality – when the familiar becomes foreign, the ordinary uncanny.
In Ionesco’s play, we see how the inhabitants of a small town lose their humanity to such physical proportions that they turn into completely different creatures. Berenger escapes this fate only as a measure so we can gauge where we are and what we are watching. He, like Gregor Samsa on the other side of the spectrum, is a heuristic mechanism, an extraordinary character to make the ordinary strange, and the strange ordinary. Anyone watching the US Republican convention or the mass hysteric responses to Donald Trump’s rallies would immediately identify with Berenger looking in bewilderment at people around him.
The usual manner in which Ionesco’s play is interpreted draws it back to the playwright’s own experiences during the rise of fascism in Europe (from his mother’s side Ionesco was Jewish). At the centre of the drama, however, is the battle between reality and the anodyne ordinariness of a human life being both a witness and a non-heroic defiance against the epidemic of a willful malady that spreads apace in the course of the play.
The metamorphosis in Ionesco’s play happens almost involuntarily, as a mass frenzy, almost like a fad, an absurd, meaningless, but ultimately frightful metempsychosis, predicated on the fact that all the characters except Berenger had become robotic in their uses of cliche phrases.
Works of fiction like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, or Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros are emblematic of the environment in which they appeared. Dangerous charlatans like Rudy Giuliani has had many reincarnations in the immediate US and European past. The history of Europe, in particular, is infested with fascistic tendencies, with the rise of Nazism as the most potent, but not the only, example of what atrocities such despotic resurgences are capable. But while Giulianis of the world come in droves, herds, and flanges, how to read, dissect, and dismantle their terror come in literary masterpieces that are the evidence of our sustained aesthetic defiance against the ugly terror of their common trepidations.
What Trump and his associates are doing best is using the most mundane and cliche phrases in the English language – the way people do in Rhinoceros, too – to strike a common cord with the basest instincts they detect in their audiences. A study of Trump’s phrases will show future historians how favourite watchwords and frame of mind are deeply rooted in the most common denominator of their constituencies. “Believe me,” “We are going to make … “, “A lot of money”, “He’s a great guy,” “Billions and billions of dollars”, etc. Like the mantra of some strange ritual hymns, Trump throats and his followers repeat these watchwords in a gospel of hatred and horror. He has not invented these phrases. He picks them up from the common parlance of the American capitalist creed. The liberal cabal of tech billionaires of the Silicon Valley are not too far from that common creed.
The psychopathology of Trump and Trumpism in the US requires a sustained course of critical thinking in terms domestic to the US and European histories. The knee-jerk tendencies of US and European analysts when thinking of Trump and Trumpism is to exorcise him from their body politics and resort to Oriental models in Egypt, Turkey, North Korea, or Russia. This is a self-delusional fantasy, a denial of where Trump and Trumpism come from, an inability to face truth – in effective agreement with Giuliani that truth is not truth.
The world at large must focus on the phenomenon of Trumpism and seek its roots precisely where those roots are – in the US soil and its European ingredients. The same is true when we look at other tyrannical figures like Sisi, Assad, Khamenei, Mohammed bin Salman, or Erdogan, etc. We must look closely into Arab, Iranian, Turkish, or Islamic roots of such tyrannical tendencies. In US and Europe, Trump and his European counterparts, like the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (among others), are deeply rooted in the same genealogy of terror that gave the world Mussolini, Hitler, or Franco.
Yes, there are frightful similarities among tyrants everywhere – and those similarities are rooted in the politics of power that extends from the most powerful to the most pathetic. Masterpieces of European and US literature like Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Arthur Miller’s Crucible, or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are the literary evidence of the specific origin and global reach of fascism at the heart of the Western imagination.
This relentless fixation with Trump and Trumpian politics is both a necessary banality and a mystifying distraction. While waiting for powerful works of art to emerge from this particular calamity we are witnessing we must keep going back and reading the classics of our own immediate past in order not to get lost in the darkening terror Donald Trump has cast upon our daily newsfeed.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.