Donald Trump Through a Loudspeaker, Darkly

This article originally appeared on this site.

In the next four to eight years, American children will be born in a country led by a vainglorious man who wishes to subordinate facts to his ego.In the next four to eight years, American children will be born in a country led by a vainglorious man who wishes to subordinate facts to his ego.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY MARK PETERSON / REDUX

If you were a child growing up in China in the late nineteen-eighties, you learned fairly early the universe of things that were less than dependable: hot water, the bus schedule, and, most irritatingly—if you were an introverted second grader—the capricious offerings of the itinerant book cart. But one aspect of our lives, from birth until, it seemed to me, death, remained as constant as the sunrise. This was the voice of the loudspeaker broadcasts in our Army hospital compound (my mother was a military doctor), which woke me every morning before I could witness the dawn, accompanying me through all three meals and, as I brushed my teeth for bed, sometimes long after dusk.

The first time I read “1984,” George Orwell’s classic dystopia, I was an eleventh grader in America, and its portrayal of a world rife with loudspeaker announcements and an omnipotent Party did not strike me as related to the world we had left behind when I was eight years old. Winston Smith, the protagonist of “1984,” is confined in an authoritarian prison, deprived of the most fundamental freedoms and inculcated with Newspeak. In my early childhood, at least as I remembered it, everyone I knew lived ordinary, unmolested lives.

An impassioned teacher, given to rhetorical drama, once tried to convince me otherwise: “Don’t you see? The Chinese government hurt its own people, and you were a helpless victim.” But I’m not hurt, I insisted. “I mean, a victim of that cruel society,” she pleaded, in the manner of a missionary, impatient with the pagan who won’t see the light. The two of us went on like this for some time, both growing increasingly exasperated, neither capable of explaining to the other her version of truth and reality. Other details in our conversation have been lost to time, but I never shook the expression on her face, flushed grapefruit pink and, it seemed to me, quivering on the precipice of tears.

Years later, I recognized the expression on my teacher’s face as one of profound frustration with perceived irrationality. I knew it because, when I tried to begin a conversation with my mother about the inglorious deeds of the Chinese Communist Party (of which she had been a dedicated member for two decades), she recoiled with such violence that I understood instantly that my catalogue of facts was irrelevant. A complete rejection of the Party would amount to a denial of the better part of her adult life. It was not political but personal, and rationality had nothing to do with it.

Rational reasoning and truth have been much on my mind as we enter a world of alternative facts and crypto-fascist edicts from the White House, less than two weeks into Donald Trump’s Administration. Last week, when “1984” rose toward the top of Amazon’s best-seller list, I dug out my dog-eared paperback copy and reread a quotation that I had underlined a decade and a half earlier: “For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?”

In recent days, as Trump and his cohorts have peddled blatant falsehoods—that his Inauguration attracted the largest crowd in history, or that he lost the popular vote owing to millions of votes by illegal aliens—I have wondered about the extent to which minds can be controlled, or, rather, commandeered, by the relentless deluge of misinformation.

Like many Chinese immigrants, my mother and I came to America so that my father could pursue graduate studies, not to seek political freedom. When I was old enough to study the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen massacre, periods in Chinese history when the authoritarian government subjected its citizenry to inexpressible brutality, I would wonder about everything I knew, or thought I had known. The one time I asked my mother about why she did not resist, she answered distractedly and somewhat defensively: it was a very confused time. Who could know what was true and what was false? What to believe and whom to trust?

The muddling of fact and fiction is a tried-and-true tactic of totalitarian regimes. What’s more, when the two are confused for long enough, or when an indefatigable war on truth has been waged for a year, or two years, or perhaps eight, it will likely be harder and more tiresome to untangle them and remember a time when a firm line was drawn between the true and the false as a matter of course. If amnesia breeds normalization, fatigue has always served as the authoritarian’s great accomplice.

At the time my mother and I were getting ready to leave for America, neither of us knew the ways in which the contours of the world could be different. For people of my mother’s generation, the Party’s truth had become so embedded in their understanding of themselves that the boundary between what they represented and what the government propagandized had faded, shifting to form the outline of a manufactured reality.

Perhaps this is exactly what Trump and his more ideological aides, Steve Bannon among them, envision. But it’s just as likely that they, too, have become so convinced of their alternative reality that what we recognize to be fiction genuinely constitutes their fact. Orwell again: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” In any case, no matter what Trump thinks of China, something about the increasingly aggressive repression of the media by China’s President, Xi Jinping, may well hold some appeal for him as a model. How liberating would it be, Trump might wonder, to make all legislation a matter of executive orders and sign them at will without Congress, vexing million-strong protests, and a media that readily reports them?

In the next four to eight years, American children will be born in a country led by a vainglorious man who wishes to fit facts—and their future—into the convenient shape of his ego. But democracy, freedom of expression, and, above all, the right to truth are not antiquated pieties. They belong to citizens who can still make their voices heard, before resignation metastasizes into complacency, exhaustion into self-doubt. The struggle will be to maintain openness and tolerance as the norm, the values that our children absorb into their identities naturally—to be defended rather than be defensive about.

On the day that Donald Trump was inaugurated, I received a message from a man who had previously disparaged my work on social media: “Welcome to your destiny.” I imagined him smirking as he typed those words and I wanted to tell him that he got it backward, that I already know what it is like to live in a world with an omnipotent leader and a renovated reality. I have known loudspeakers, their mass persuasions, emotional arousals, and booming, relentless broadcasts. And I know that they are not my destiny, because I won’t let them be.