We need to stop reacting to Trump—and start responding. There’s a big difference.
In a busy 48-hour period, President Trump asserted on camera that any American Jew who votes for Democrats is “uninformed or disloyal”; broadcast Wayne Allyn Root’s praise of his own person in a tweet (“the Jewish people in Israel love him...like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God”); and, while riffing on his own alleged fortitude in deciding to “take on China,” looked up at the sky and shouted, over the din of a helicopter, “I am the chosen one!” These statements from a commander in chief of the United States military are more than a little unprecedented.
If it is true that Americans are peculiarly vigilant when it comes to a president’s pretensions to divinity or rhetorical targeting of some Jews as more acceptable than others, one might think this would cause more than a temporary stir. And yet it is as if the citizenry has been trained to dutifully let it all go by Sunday. The actionable intelligence of such eye-rubbingly irresponsible statements voiced aloud by a man entrusted with the power to deploy lethal force against any person or population he deems a threat will hardly register as a blip in the U.S. bandwidth. How did this come to be?
The beloved science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once offered an account of the function of disinformation that could prove helpful in an era when verifiable facts (like a recording of the president’s statement) gain little or no traction among people paralyzed by a cascade of reactions—and reactions to reactions—that always seem to fall short of substantial response to the facts. Disinformation, Mr. Dick tells us, is “noise driving out signal,” but it “is noise posing as signal so you do not even recognize it as noise.”
Disinformation deadens the possibility of an actively informed electorate and, therefore, coherent governance.
It works like a charm. Disinformation deadens the possibility of an actively informed electorate and, therefore, coherent governance. In words worthy of Hannah Arendt or George Orwell, Mr. Dick names the state of play powerfully: “If you float enough disinformation into circulation you will totally abolish everyone’s contact with reality, probably your own included.”
This is indeed our current state. The president speaks, people react, repeat cycle. At least for now, it remains a stimulus-reaction procedure, not stimulus-response. Response would involve a moral actor risking something. As we try to maintain contact with reality, we recall the existence, on paper, of the 25th Amendment. Who in the president’s inner circle could serve as the adult in the room? Perhaps Vice President Pence. Or maybe we need someone who’s recently left the room. Some Republican commentators have suggested that Nikki Haley might play that role. Perhaps they will risk something.
Or not. The former ambassador to the United Nations offered no response to the president’s pronouncements concerning his chosenness. While many of us were distracted by the question of whether or not Mr. Trump thought of himself as the Messiah, Ms. Haley saw fit to react, instead, to supposed rumors that she would replace Mr. Pence as vice president on the 2020 ticket. “Enough of the false rumors,” she tweeted. “Vice President Pence has been a dear friend of mine for years. He has been a loyal and trustworthy VP to the President. He has my complete support.”
Enough of the false rumors. Vice President Pence has been a dear friend of mine for years. He has been a loyal and trustworthy VP to the President. He has my complete support. ❤️🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/waPyQjC8Eb— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) August 21, 2019
To be clear, this is not the response of a self-respecting adult in the room. This is a reaction to alleged reactions, which Ms. Haley alluringly refers to as “false rumors.” What false rumors? To even ask is to risk being drawn into another disinformation cycle, a culture of non-response, all heat and no light. To risk genuine response is to lose ground in a realm driven by reaction. In truth, we have been at it for a while.
Consider the night then-candidate Trump hosted “Saturday Night Live” in 2015. A ratings boon or an act of profound irresponsibility on the part of NBC? Let the viewer decide. This question was alive and signaling in the opening monologue that was abruptly interrupted by Larry David, who stood up on live television and yelled, “Trump’s a racist!” After a few pregnant seconds, Mr. David revealed he was a paid protester. The audience laughed. “That’s O.K.,” Mr. Trump allowed in the tone of a mafia boss, and the “great show tonight” proceeded unencumbered.
Four years on, the question of whether or not Mr. Trump is a racist is still ratings gold because it invites endless reaction, huge audiences and, let the reader understand, money-making without end. Was Mr. David’s role in this exchange a shirking of responsibility? That is a question for actual signal, not noise.
We do well to take our own measure concerning whether or not deep responsibility remains among our core concerns.
Then as now, Mr. Trump’s implied call for the execution of black men who were later exonerated (the Central Park Five) and refusal to apologize for his incendiary language awaits a substantial response from someone who can meaningfully counter his claims to authority. No Republican nominee for president nor anyone in Mr. Trump’s cabinet has found it expedient to risk a substantial response to these incitements to violence. Reaction? Oh my, yes, all day long. Response? Not yet. In October 2016, Mr. Pence heard an audio recording of Donald J. Trump boasting about his own pattern of sexual assault. Mr. Pence responded by concluding that he still had a sufficiently credible partner in pursuing his goals. Millions of Americans followed his lead.
And today, the pattern of predatory disinformation repeats. For news networks, provocation drives profits in an expense of spirit and a waste of shame, a lucrative effort for some but an assault on the general welfare of many. We wake up wanting to tune in and weigh in, and we are blessed (or cursed) with the technology to do so. As we pause and wonder how it is that we, the people, could allow a man whose ignorance of and contempt for the Constitution is well established to take the oath of office for the president of the United States, we do well to consider the distance between reaction and response, noise and signal, disinformation and actionable intelligence. We do well to take our own measure concerning whether or not deep responsibility remains among our core concerns.
Rebecca Solnit offers a timely adage for anyone interested in being a genuinely responsive people in this beleaguered world that God so loves: “The revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality.”
Disinformation of the sort President Trump floats by speaking of disloyal Jews, his role in the second coming of God and his own chosenness is of a piece with his own refusal to commit, in advance, to accept the results of our last presidential election: “I’ll keep you in suspense.” Shocking words and disavowals of the duties and obligations of law-abiding citizens are nothing new among men without boundaries. Disorientating speech is in the playbook of anyone who feels their survival depends on avoiding accountability. Keeping others in suspended animation is a form of flex essential for brutal behavior and brutalizing policies.
But we need not be stupefied by this cycle of weaponized incoherence nor continue to enable the enablers of disinformation. We can wake up to ourselves at any time and, if stupefaction is a process rather than a state, we can reverse the process in myriad ways even now. One risky and responsive word at a time.