In his 1905 philosophical anthology The Life of Reason, Vol 1: Reason In Common Sense, George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Today we are living in a time of seemingly unprecedented vacuousness coming from the President of the United States of America. Donald Trump started on his course to the White House on June 16th 2015, sparking an evil campaign of perceptively divisive rhetoric and aggressively damaging catch-phrases.
One of the most popular terms used by Trump during and after the campaign was the sound bite “fake news” when discussing the main stream news coverage of his consistently muddled speech patterns, incognizant ideas, and unapologetic lying. His ability to repeat the same phrase over-and-over influenced the campaign coverage and worked his mannerisms and phrases into the modern American lexicon.
The greatest perpetrator of the term “fake news” was – ironically – the main-stream news media. Their gift of coverage and air-time to Trump through late-2015 and 2016 vaulted Trump’s swamp-draining, name-calling, wall-building presidential run to victory over his more politically-experienced opponent Hillary Clinton.
Without going into the flaws in the American electoral system, the phrase “fake news” itself can tell us quite a lot about the strategies Trump benefited from, and where the U.S.A. might still be headed if the country’s population continues to pridefully ignore the signs.
To understand the impact that a demonisation of the press can have on a country’s progress, we need look no further than Nazi Germany. This is not to say that Trump’s use of the term is a Nazi-ism, but it does have distinctly fascist undertones, and may even have been inspired by a book of Hitler’s speeches called My New Order. (The Independent)
Historically, this is not the first time in the last hundred years that the term “fake news” has boosted a political party into power and degraded the public perception of media institutions.
Learning history is the first step to preventing the mistakes of our past. It seems imperative that the world in 2019 be aware of what took place in Germany starting a hundred years ago this year. Following the end of the war, the rise of a fascist doctrine, and ultimately the deaths of millions. It starts with the alienation of the press from the people.
Historian Robert Paxton studied a variety of early 20th century fascist governments. Important to the discussion of “fake news” is Paxton’s “first stage fascism” where the emerging fascist party “discredits reigning liberal and democratic values, not in the name of either existing alternative – conservative or socialist – but in the name of something new that promised […] a novel mixture of nationalism and syndicalism.” Paxton goes on to explain that this is done by manipulating the public perception of the media, to proselytize that the “liberal media” is somehow preventing the country from being as wonderful as it used to be. This also lines up with Umberto Eco’s writing about the rise of fascism in Italy where he goes through fifteen defining characteristics of the governance system. Eco notes that Italian Fascists abolished the free press and replaced it with a private propaganda machine.
In the U.S., Fox News plays the part of a state propaganda channel. They have tended to uncritically side with Trump on most issues, and it is common knowledge that it is the President’s favourite channel.
As the world moves forward into the third decade of the 21st century, it behooves all of us to learn the impact of governing parties’ rhetoric lest we repeat the mistakes of the past.