By David K. Shipler
The United States desperately needs a Lewis Carroll to depict the satirical farce of our Wonderland. We have fallen into an alternative universe that cannot be captured by any responsible news reporter scrupulous about facts or careful nonfiction author tethered to footnotes. Only an imaginative talent for the bizarre can give us our current equivalents of the Hatter of the Mad Tea Party, the disappearing Cheshire Cat, the tyrannical Queen of Hearts with her dictum, “Off with his head!” Not to mention the Jabberwocky’s “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” He could be wearing a MAGA hat. Oh, for a Lewis Carroll!
The latest scene would be President Trump’s fictional southern border, a place of dystopian invasion by swarthy, half-bestial creatures pouring in with drugs and criminal intent, waved on by gleeful Democrats jumping up and down with joy unrestrained. But fear not! The Great Wall of Trump hermetically seals the dark evil from the pure white good, and all is calmly virtuous inside. And by the way, when the wall is not actually built, the Trumpists merely have to say that it is being constructed, and then pretend that it magically stands even where nobody can see it. And all who hear the Jabberwocky’s enticing poetry dream peacefully between their pure white sheets.
Exaggerated fantasies of fictitious threats are not unheard of in American history. Driven by fears of French subversion, the Alien and Sedition Acts under President John Adams criminalized criticism of the government and subjected foreigners to arrest and deportation without cause or due process. President Woodrow Wilson led a campaign of paranoia, portraying opponents of entry into World War I as disloyal and deserving “a firm hand of repression.” Under him, the 1917 Espionage Act facilitated the prosecution of 2,000 socialists, anarchists, other political dissidents and labor union leaders. The 1918 Sedition Act set criminal penalties for “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about” the American form of government, the Constitution, the flag, the military, or its uniforms. Imaginary dangers from Japanese-Americans during World War II landed them in very real internment camps. And the McCarthy era of nonsensical anxiety about communist infiltration generated career-busting witch hunts.
Against that background, Trump’s manipulation of his national-emergency power to move a few billion dollars around looks like a moderate test of the constitutional system’s checks and balances, but hardly the devastating wrecking ball that opponents have described. It is unwise, opportunistic, and contemptuous of the ingenious separation-of-powers mechanism that the Framers invented. If adopted as standard practice, it could also be used by future, liberal presidents to declare national emergencies in health care, climate change, and gun violence, as the few Republicans willing to stand up from their party’s supine position have warned.
However, the American system has proved capable of self-correction, at least to a point. When Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson came to power—the good old days of the now-extinct Republicans—all those convicted under the Sedition Act were pardoned, and the Alien Acts either expired or were abandoned into disuse. The 1918 Sedition Act was repealed in 1921. Some provisions of the 1917 Espionage Act remain, mostly unemployed, although they were invoked by the Obama administration to charge some leakers. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the Japanese internment, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy was eventually discredited.
In other words, the pendulum swings, and the gravity of reason has inevitably pulled it back from the most extreme point of its arc.
But a different level of damage is being done to American society in the Trump era, and it could be long-lasting. It is the psychological destruction of truth as the final arbiter of common sense. It is the widespread acceptance by millions of citizens of the mirages projected by Trump and his propaganda machine of Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting, Shawn Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and others. They are masters at making reality appear suspect. They follow the method once outlined by a Soviet professor who defined propaganda as “a truth, a truth, a truth, and then a lie.” Limbaugh is especially skillful at mixing lies into truths so inseparably that it can take research to disentangle them.
The Trump phenomenon coincides with the decline of the once high professionalism and financial struggles of most news media. It thrives on the internet’s ironic capacity to both inform and deceive—making more information available than ever before, and making it harder than ever to judge accuracy. The psychological damage to the American mind is worsened by the near-term, self-serving politics of leaders who cannot see beyond the next campaign contribution.
So, Trump is free to create both false threats and false successes. For the false threats he conjures up false remedies. For the false successes he crows victory without follow-through that might actually deliver. The nuclear pact with Iran is a bad deal, and withdrawal coupled with sanctions will parry Tehran. Meeting and exchanging love letters with Kim Jong-un defuses North Korea’s nuclear threat. North American trade devastates American workers, who are rescued by renaming an agreement containing minor tweaks. China abuses America, and tariffs are correcting the wrongs.
When you get to the horizon where the mirages reside, they naturally vanish. Iran remains non-nuclear only as long as the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese can evade the American sanctions. North Korea continues its nuclear development, even without overt testing. The economies of Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. remain interdependent, and American jobs remain truly challenged by automation and cheaper labor abroad. China’s reciprocal tariffs hurt real-life American farmers and small businessmen, who lose positions in the Chinese market that took years to assemble.
Meanwhile, actual problems and practical solutions—to health care, gun violence, poverty, inadequate schools, decaying infrastructure, climate change, air and water pollution, unsafe workplaces, government corruption, racial bigotry, police killings, and so on—remain off the radar of Trump’s Republicans. They are not seen by the damaged vision of where we are and where we should be going.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” Alice asks the Cheshire Cat.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” the Cat replies.
When she says she doesn’t care, the Cat answers that it doesn’t matter her direction, then.
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” she says.
“Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” asks Alice.
"You must be, or you wouldn't have come here."