Trump’s Tlön

This list is an absurdity and an obscenity. It is absurd because it bears all the hallmarks of a social studies paper hastily compiled by some desperate, clueless high school freshman. It is obscene for nearly too many reasons to count.

To focus on fact-checking alone is to miss the point: what is at stake here is not truth, but power.

In Borges’s 1940 short story “Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius,” a secret cabal writes voluminous histories and almanacs that describe a fantastic, alien world called Tlön. The texts give glimpses of Tlön’s fabulous landscapes, its inhabitants, their philosophies: “The metaphysicians of Tlön seek not truth, or even plausibility . . . in their view, metaphysics is a branch of the literature of fantasy.” As time passes and the cabal’s forgeries multiply, the alternative world of Tlön grows in seductive power and gains wide influence among Earth’s wearied and jaded nations. “Already Tlön’s ‘primitive language’ has filtered into our schools,” laments Borges’s narrator:

Already the teaching of Tlön’s harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has obliterated the history that governed my own childhood; already a fictitious past has supplanted in men’s memories that other past, of which we now know nothing certain—not even that it is false.

In the end, artifacts from Tlön begin to take on physical form, and Earth’s fate is sealed: “The world will be Tlön.”

Last night, addressing a so-called “campaign-style” rally in Florida, Donald Trump devoted a few minutes to one of his favorite themes: that openness to refugees supposedly leaves nations vulnerable to terrorism. “We’ve got to keep our country safe,” Trump insisted. “You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?”

Trump’s invocation of a tragedy that had occurred just the night before came as news to the Swedes, leaving the entire nation baffled. A former Swedish prime minister wondered if Trump was high. US media observers have speculated that Trump’s “last night in Sweden” might be described more accurately as “last night on Fox”: the night before, Tucker Carlson had aired a segment on an alarmist documentary about immigration in Sweden.

Trump does indeed appear to telegraph information he consumes on Fox with almost Pavlovian predictability. But this is hardly the first time he has alluded to nonexistent terrorist incidents. On Monday, February 6, Trump addressed military representatives at the headquarters of US Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. Speaking of international terrorism—and ISIS specifically—he asserted that the world had been so overwhelmed by attacks that “It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported. And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.” Later that day, in an apparent bid to substantiate the President’s claim, the White House issued a list of seventy-eight supposedly underreported terrorist attacks. This wasn’t quite “not even being reported”—a challenge too great even for the White House—but it was close enough.

This list is an absurdity and an obscenity. It is absurd because it bears all the hallmarks of a social studies paper hastily compiled by some desperate, clueless high school freshman. The word “attacker” is misspelled as “attaker” twenty-seven times. There are errors in details about perpetrators and alleged targets. A great many cases involve no fatalities whatsoever; in at least one instance, a supposed “terror” attack was ruled by authorities (and affirmed by the victim’s mother) as not being terrorism at all.

It is obscene for nearly too many reasons to count. What it excludes: attacks in Iraq (2,418 in 2015 alone); attacks in Afghanistan, which sees near-daily terrorist violence but which appears here only once; attacks in many African nations, which have seen particularly deadly incidents; and attacks by rightwing terrorists in the Americas, like the Charleston church shooting, or the mosque shooting in Quebec. And then what it includes: the shooting of two assault rifle-wielding attackers by a security officer at a “Draw Mohammed” event in Garland, Texas alongside the July 2016 truck attack in Nice, which killed no less than eighty-four and drew worldwide condemnation and dominated global headlines. An attempted arson incident in Sweden that investigators determined had no ties to terror is here, on the same list as the mass shootings at San Bernardino in December 2015 (here spelled “San Bernadino”), which produced heated coverage for weeks, as well as the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando—literally the largest mass shooting in American history.

Ever diligent, the major papers of record have “fact-checked” Trump’s claim of unreporting underreporting and found it entirely spurious. Such exercises may well be necessary, even if they entail the ludicrous spectacle of media outlets defending their supposed honor by itemizing a decade and a half of diligent, breathless, jingoistic terrorism coverage. Yet to focus on fact-checking alone is to miss the point: what is at stake here is not truth, but power.

The list itself is nonsense, as brazen and half-assed an attempt at derailment as a table covered in folders full of blank paper at a press conference. But the gambit is different—and more extreme: it bespeaks a presidential administration warping the memory of brutal tragedies in order to advance xenophobic policies at home and violence abroad. In its sheer cavalier factitiousness, in its cocksure obviousness, the list is entirely of a piece with Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway’s breezy invocation of an entirely non-existent Bowling Green Massacre to support the President’s sweeping immigration bans. Previous administrations have had their share of blatant counterfactual propaganda—George W. Bush’s Mission Accomplished banner may be the most vivid recent example—but for Trump, Steve Bannon, and their small team of propagandists, there isn’t even a gesture at pretense: they can’t even be bothered, as a psychoanalyst might say, to feign to feign.

The perlocutionary impact of such assertions of neglected or underreported terrorist attacks is identical. They’re not about describing the world or relaying actual facts, a transaction that could be susceptible to correction and fact-checking: they’re about constating a world of “alternative facts” and bringing into being. The basic structure is simple. An underlying premise is affirmed: America is under existential threat from one group of enemies above all others (namely “radical Islamic terrorists”). A desired conclusion, framed as self-evident, is validated: an erosion of civil society and respect for human rights is the only way to fight back. And “examples” are offered post-facto, more as supplementary gestures of emphasis than as justification or evidence, with the question of their accuracy or reality a matter of complete unimportance. Sure, there may never have been an attack at Bowling Green, or last night in Sweden, the logic goes. But there just as well might have been. And either way, it’s all the more reason for us to do what we know we need to do anyways. This is all perfectly self-fulfilling: if we succumb to the seduction, and mobilize for renewed crackdown and reprisal, we will bring about precisely the chaotic, nightmarish world which the originally distorted and spurious world-image conjured in the first place.

This sequence possesses a seductive power. A non-trivial segment of the American population believes that catastrophes from the Boston Bombing to the massacre at Sandy Hook were actually performances by government-hired “crisis actors” broadcast live by duped or complicit media. The idea that people might believe in what is essentially the obverse—that “fake news” might avoid covering real attacks—is entirely plausible. In fact, the likelihood that many Americans are capable of holding both these views simultaneously is depressingly easy to imagine. As shorthand for the American capacity for tolerating cognitive dissonance in favor of confirming our underlying biases, you couldn’t do much better than the Breitbart slogan “More voices, not less!” And Bannon’s White House knows this particularly well.

So what are we to do with this list? It is impossible to say what brew of motivations led to its specific production: stupidity, contempt, incompetence, cynicism, manipulation, indifference—they all seem likely, in varying degrees. But what’s behind it matters less than what it is, and that it’s “incorrect” matters less than that it’s wrong. Subjecting the list to fact-checking is only a minimal, insufficient response—what’s called for is not just empirical assessment and “correction” of what it contains, but rather moral denunciation and rejection of what it is.

Trump, when confronted with relatively trivial fabrications in Thursday’s press conference, adopted a posture of blasé, indifferent passivity: “I was given that information, I don’t know.” The “information” in question was the matter of his electoral returns, an easily refutable fact about which he nonetheless constantly confabulates, as though his personal sense of legitimacy as President depends on it. This is grotesque and insidious, to be sure. But lying about terrorist attacks is far more unacceptable: more than simply assuaging one man’s insecurity, it lays the groundwork for domestic repression and war abroad. Given Trump’s denunciation of the press as enemies of the state and the American people, we cannot afford even a dram of passivity in rejecting the “information” with which his White House tries to snow and derail us. It must be called out and repudiated for what it is: another toehold for the takeover of our world by Trump’s Tlön, real to the extent that we allow it to change our reality a little bit more into the alternative, nightmarish world he and his malignant advisers are seeking to bring about—a world we cannot and must not allow them to realize.

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