Words Matter: Shamelessly Normalizing Big Lies And Alternative Facts

Outside view of mob at US Capitol
(Photo: TapTheForwardAssist/CC BY-SA 4.0)

After Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump for U.S. president, reinforced by Democrats Jon Osoff and Raphael Warnock winning the two Senate seats in Georgia and thus securing a Democratic majority not only in the Senate but also in the Congress, we are currently – and not surprisingly – confronted with disappointment and much anger from many of Trump’s loyal followers. This was strategically fueled by “the big lie,” i.e. Trump’s and GOP’s continuous repetition that the election had been “stolen” by the Democrats and that, therefore, Trump was the “actual” winner of the 2020 election.

In fact, since his inauguration on January 20, 2017, Trump has never stopped circulating and disseminating falsehoods (so-called “alternative facts”): Trump and his followers intentionally constructed a second reality, i.e. “myths” in Roland Barthes’ sense, defined as naturalized semiological systems or worldviews. In other words, opinions, lies and fantasies were propagated as “truth” and “facts,” a strategy reminiscent of George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth,” the place where lies are manufactured. Oddly enough, Republicans played along (with few exceptions).  The old saying, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” has once again proved to be true.

 Via Twitter, Facebook and other social media, disinformation was spread locally and globally at enormous speed, assisted by conservative right-wing media such as Fox News and platforms such as Breitbart. The “alternative facts” became normalized; simultaneously, facts were systematically and shamelessly transformed to so-called “fake news.” In my recently published monograph The Politics of Fear, I define “shameless normalization” as the process through which “[T]he boundaries of the ‘sayable’ are being shifted, and ‘anything goes’.” (2021, 6). Conventions and norms, rules governing dialogues, negotiations, and debates are violated through continuous provocations, disseminated via the media, supported by mainstream conservatives — and thus normalized.

The strategy of spreading a “big lie” and creating a second reality is hardly unique to Trump, to the era or to the United States. German sociologist Leo Löwenthal described a similar scheme of lies while analyzing Nazism and Hitler’s (and Goebbel’s) propaganda machine during Löwenthal’s forced exile in the United States during the 1940s. In his seminal treatise, translated as Prophets of Deceit (1982 [1949]), Löwenthal distinguishes between “agitators,” on one hand, and “reformers” or “revolutionaries,” on the other He argues that “[W]hile the reformer as well as the revolutionary employ their own energies to elevate the thoughts and emotions of their audience to a higher level of consciousness, the agitator strives to exaggerate and intensify the irrational elements of the original accusation.” (1982 [1949], 22).

Such exaggeration and intensification necessarily leads to violence as predicted by some commentators, historians and political scientists. On January 6, 2021, the whole world was able to watch how Trump’s ardent followers (amongst them military veterans, so-called “proud boys,” neo-Nazis, and so forth) – after having been explicitly incited to insurrection by Trump and his lawyer Rudi Guliani –invaded the Capitol during the session certifying Biden’s victory. Unfortunately, there were not enough police officers present to defend the American symbol of democracy; the rioters were able to enter the building. Five people died as a result of this attempted coup.

This incident triggers memories of the infamous Reichtagsbrand in Berlin 1933, which was instrumentalized by the Nazi-Party to suspend fundamental rights and subsequently paved the way for Hitler’s seizure of power. Much more recently, on August 31, 2020, followers of various extreme-right groups stormed the Reichstag, the seat of Germany’s parliament (Bundestag) during a demonstration against the Coronavirus measures of the government. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke about an “unacceptable attack on the heart of our democracy.” Even the far-right populist party AfD [Aktion for Deutschland] distanced itself from such attacks. Currently, many governments are debating how to better protect their core institutions from similar assaults.

In spite of many observations and even explicit warnings by foreign politicians, journalists and scholars during Trump’s presidency that his rhetoric, staging, Twitter-politics and policies were dangerous and salient indicators of authoritarianism, some people continued to trivialize Trumpism. After January 6, commentators agreed that the attempted coup had transgressed and violated constitutive democratic norms. They argued that Trump was actually unfit as politician; indeed, that his discursive and material practices did not count as “politics” and that his tendency to lie was exceptional.

I believe that these arguments are wrong. Trumpism implies a different kind of political logic, namely undemocratic and authoritarian politics. Ever since Trump declared that he wanted to “make America great again,” it was obvious that he was determined to change American politics and policies to a status quo ante. MAGA implied a nostalgia for an America which existed before the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, an America where patriarchy was intact and where ethnic minorities had fewer rights than the white population. His offensive rhetoric frequently served as strategic distraction from his political aims and implemented policies (“dead cat strategy”). As U.S. historian Timothy Snyder recently maintained, “this has everything to do with race from top to bottom.”

Viktor Orban and Donald Trump
Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump at the White House in 2019

This imaginary “turning the clock back” is not unique to Trumpism. Far-right leaders in Europe, India, Brazil, the Philippines and so forth endorse similar nativist ideologies. Thus, it is not surprising that far-right populist Hungarian Prime minister Viktor Orbán was the first European leader to congratulate Trump to his victory 2016. Trump reciprocated, immediately congratulating Orbán after his electoral victory in 2018. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right Rassemblement National (formerly Front National) was also among the first to congratulate Trump on November 9, 2016. Austria’s national-conservative chancellor Sebastian Kurz expressed hope the same day that Trump would have to seek compromises because “not all Republicans shared his opinions” (unfortunately, one has to admit, this wish was not fulfilled); on February 20, 2019, after his visit to the White House, Kurz emphasized that he had had a very successful meeting with Trump in spite of some disagreements. Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s national-conservative prime minister, copied Trump’s (and Orbán’s) attacks on press freedom; Orbán and Morawiecki continue to spread “alternative facts,” i.e. disinformation.

Thus, in spite of some critique and disagreements, Trump and Trumpism were accepted on the global political stage. Only a few politicians, such as German Prime Minister Angela Merkel and French President Emanuel Macron, as well as the former president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, openly disagreed with Trump on many occasions and explicitly kept their distance. Simultaneously, Trump’s abrasive racist and misogynist rhetoric, his lies, his hate-incitement on many occasions and his trivialization of extreme-right and white-supremacist ideologies were eventually normalized. Trump had predicted this: on January 23, 2016, while speaking at a pre-election campaign rally in Iowa to his loyal followers, he famously said: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Perhaps the attempted coup on January 6, 2021, was a step too far — Le Pen, Kurz, and Morawiecki quickly condemned Trump. Orbán, however, has remained silent.

President-elect Joe Biden’s first reaction during the attempted coup was that “this is not who we are.” He repeated and strongly emphasized what he had already said in 2018 when criticizing Trump’s asylum and migration policies, which often saw small children separated from their parents at the Mexican border. In a Facebook posting, Biden wrote that “[W]e must remind this Administration of the core values that beat in the heart of this country. We must send the clearest possible signal to the rest of the world that America still represents the best of humanity — not the worst.” However, nothing changed. Obviously, these exclusionary policies characterized what many Americans deemed legitimate and right.

Some of the tweets on July 14, 2019 from Donald Trump’s now suspended Twitter account.

In the summer of 2019 during a House hearing, the so-called “squad” of four progressive Democratic congresswomen — Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar –vehemently criticized conditions in a migrant detention center they had visited — mistreatment happening “under American flags.” In turn, they were viciously insulted by Trump on Twitter. As is typical, Trump did not justify or explain his policies — he turned the tables and attacked his political opponents. But the policies challenge Biden’s (and other’s) benign view of “core values.” Only NGOs continued to report the massive human rights violations at the Mexican borders, while similar inhumane treatment of refugees, especially of unaccompanied children and adolescents, stranded on the Greek islands such as Lesbos, has seen most EU leaders keep silent. The violation of the Human Rights convention, the Geneva convention and the Children Rights convention has become shamelessly normalized, not only in the US but also in the European Union.

Therefore, it would make sense to revise the slogan “This is not what we are” to “This is not what all of us are” or “This is not what we should (want to) be”….

January 6, 2021 might yet have a cathartic effect at least for some Republicans, some of Trump’s followers, and some other far-right populists. They might understand that hate-incitement, polarizing and discriminatory rhetoric and the scheme of lies facilitate and legitimize violence and set the stage for authoritarian regimes. Evidently, the far right can never really succeed if they are not supported by conservative parties. Accordingly, it is imperative to resist the temptation to jump on the far-right populist bandwagon out of fear of losing voters. Rules still apply, even when demagogues and populists are in power. What’s more, transgressions and discursive shifts happen slowly, frequently unnoticed. But words lead to deeds! Therefore, it is salient to oppose such neo-authoritarian, law-and-order politics, from the very outset, and not to be opportunistic and remain silent because of possible power gain.

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Ruth Wodak

Ruth Wodak is Emerita Distinguished Professor of Discourse Studies at Lancaster University, and affiliated to the University of Vienna. Besides various other prizes, she was awarded the Wittgenstein Prize for Elite Researchers in 1996, an honorary doctorate from University of Örebro in Sweden in 2010, and an honorary doctorate from Warwick University in 2020. She is past-president of the Societas Linguistica Europaea. 2011, she was awarded the Grand Decoration of Honour in Silver for Services to the Republic of Austria, and 2018, the Lebenswerk Preis for her lifetime achievements, from the Austrian Ministry for Women’s Affairs. She is member of the British Academy of Social Sciences and member of the Academia Europaea. In March 2020, she became honorary member of the Senate of the University of Vienna. She is member of the editorial board of a range of linguistic journals and co-editor of the journals Discourse and Society, Critical Discourse Studies, and Language and Politics. She has held visiting professorships in University of Uppsala, Stanford University, University of Minnesota, University of East Anglia, and Georgetown University. 2008, she was awarded the Kerstin Hesselgren Chair of the Swedish Parliament (at University Örebrö). Currently, she is a senior visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna.

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