By The Editor
In his increasingly erratic strategy to take the White House, Donald Trump has written a new page in his already well-worn book of demagoguery, the one stamped on the cover: J’accuse!
On Saturday, Trump challenged Hillary Clinton to take a drug test before their next presidential debate because he thinks she’s on drugs. Of course, he doesn’t really think that. This is the simply his latest pathetic attempt at the type of diversion used by magicians – look over here at my left hand, ignore what my right hand is doing. That’s obvious even to the most casual political observer.
Yet there is a bigger issue here, namely that Trump has gone even deeper into the poison waters of his well not only to blunt direct accusations with counter-accusations, but in this case to employ false, distracting, unrelated accusations meant to discredit to the point of forever destroying the public standing of an opponent: The Trumpian J’accuse.
The tactic is not without precedent.
The term “J’accuse” became part of the political lexicon on January 13, 1898, when Emile Zola wrote an open letter to French President Felix Faure accusing his government of blatant anti-Semitism in the course of the wrongful imprisonment for espionage of a Jewish Army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, despite a lack of convincing evidence. Dreyfus was a scapegoat and Zola’s article, published in the newspaper L’Aurore (The Dawn), was meant to call out the false accusers of Dreyfus with his own message: I accuse you!
Zola was making a political point with “J’Accuse”, which of course became twisted in usage and meaning. Accusing someone of a bad thing was and is still a way to bring light to serious problems every day – for instance, a bunch of women accusing Donald Trump of sexually assault; or the more polite, yet somehow creepier, term: groping. But more often accusations have been misused to hurt and hinder people, very often those whose only crime is standing in the way of the accuser.
Rather than accusing, let’s use the more accurate term of denouncing. The Nazis and the Soviets used it to great effect, taking out political opponents with denunciations that these alleged agitators sought to bring down the perfect society being created through National Socialism and Communism. The same happened following the 1789 French Revolution, when those opposed by the Jacobins were denounced as royalists and anti-Revolutionaries during a period from 1793-1794 that came to be known as the “Reign of Terror.”
Let’s not forget that America has had our own ugly examples of widespread abuse arising from false claims. The Salem Witch Trials, McCarthyism and anti-Communist Black Lists, and the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War are notorious examples of poisoning the national consciousness through denunciations.
And now we face the issue, again, of whether it’s an acceptable tactic to publicly denounce someone in order to get them out of the way.
“I think we should take a drug test prior to the debate,” Trump proffered during a rally for his supporters in Portsmouth, New Hampshire yesterday, October 15. “Because I don’t know what’s going on with her, but at the beginning of her last debate, she was all pumped up at the beginning, and at the end it was like, ‘Oh, take me down.’ She could barely reach her car.”
Make no mistake, Trump was accusing Clinton of using drugs – unnamed painkillers or secret energy boosters – with this statement. Despite his translucent offer to undergo a drug screening himself, he clearly intended to make her the culprit in this false crime.
By denouncing her as a suspected drug user – in a region of the country where opioid addiction is at epidemic proportions, no less – he hopes to poison the minds of voters with suspicion without any burden of proof other than his own slanted, misleading take on her physical condition.
This is his latest J’accuse, although Trump means to create a new avenue of slander, unlike Zola’s attempt to put a stop to character assassination by accusing its purveyors.
I recently re-read George Orwell’s brilliant novel of social control, 1984, and was astounded at how closely Trump’s America exhibits some of the more disturbing aspects of this novel published in 1949.
The bleak, dystopian landscape Orwell conjures is frightening, but even more so are the totalitarian ideas espoused by the characters – those of the ruling Inner Party of Ingsoc (English Socialism) and the willing, brainwashed masses they control. People are denounced by children and loved ones for Thoughtcrime, a catchall term for failure to live by party orthodoxy in deed and doctrine. The denunciations have no need for even a shred of truth or reality; perception is everything.
This is what Trump has done on so many occasions, but his challenge to Clinton to take a drug test is one of the most bald-faced yet insidious examples. By saying of his opponent, “I challenge her to take a drug test, because she seems to me like she might be on drugs,” Trump has thrown down a ridiculous gauntlet.
By refusing to take a drug test, which will undoubtedly happen simply because she will refuse to play such a transparent game, Clinton gives Trump’s supporters one more artificial reason not to believe her, as if they needed any more. His drug test challenge is not a direct accusation, but it says, “If you don’t take the test, then you are obviously guilty of what the test is there to prove.”
A drug test, remember, is not used to disprove suspected use, but rather to confirm it. By refusing to take such an exam, Clinton will have proved that she is, in fact, on drugs. Or at least that is the logic Trump hopes to employ among his ravenous throng, but especially among “undecided” voters.
Beyond Trump trying to further confuse and mislead easily confused and misled people, it brings up a bigger question: Should every accusation thrown at others be taken seriously?
If I don’t like my boss or my neighbor, is it acceptable for me to go around saying, “He acts kind of funny, perhaps he should take a test to prove he’s not on drugs”?
That’s what is happening here. The question is, has America become a place where that is acceptable? Has Trump taken the country so far off the deep end that accusation, even a blatantly false allegation, can become a damning, career-ending denunciation?
Trump has proved himself to be a man of contradictions, saying a thing before then changing his statement to almost the exact opposite, sometimes within a matter of days or even hours. While Trump’s minions have embraced him for “telling it like it is,” they have also accepted these obvious contradictions to the point of swallowing them whole without any regard to what their man previously stated.
A chapter in 1984 describes a rally held to stir up the hatred of the masses in the home country, Oceania, against the enemy nation of Eurasia, with which Oceania has always been at war. In the middle of a speech, the crowd agitator is handed a note and without skipping a beat he continues firing the crowd up, but instead of assailing Eurasia he rails against Eastasia, which until a second earlier was Oceania’s ally.
The speaker does not announce a new policy or even mention the old one, but simply exchanges one polar opposite statement with another. The war against Eastasia is continuing with full fury, as it has always been.
The crowd instantaneously joins in the anti-Eastasian outcry, casting aside their hand-held placards and tearing down the banners they themselves hung proclaiming Eurasia to be the enemy. They are enraged at the spies and agitators who have put up the deceitful banners claiming that poor Eurasia is bad, when all along Eastasia is the enemy, as it has always been.
In the same way, Trump has engendered such die-hard belief among his supporters that they change their minds to sing along to his tune without even noticing they are doing so.
For example, Paul Ryan is not sure he wants to support Trump, so Trump denounces him and the Trumpites cry out against the House speaker.
Paul Ryan then decides he will support Trump in the name of Republican Party unity, or whatever Ryan needed to tell his mirror in order to publicly back a presidential candidate who clearly makes his skin crawl. Subsequently, Trump tells his followers that Ryan is a good egg and one of us; his wide-eyed cheerleaders exclaim in joy how the House speaker is one of them, as he has always been.
Yet later, after Trump’s penchant for grabbing pussy becomes public, Ryan can stand it no longer and says he will neither appear with nor defend Trump (although he never goes so far as to claim he refuses to vote for the candidate, apparently holding onto that trump card in the event of a Trump triumph.)
Trump’s response is predictable: Paul Ryan should be thanking me for standing up for the Republicans against the Clinton menace, but Ryan not only refuses to show gratitude and support, he might be involved in “a whole sinister deal going on” – i.e. the colossal conspiracy Trump’s fevered, self-aggrandizing imagination perceives to be working against him.
(At the risk of belaboring the comparison, those denounced in 1984 were branded as part of a vast, shadowy conspiracy against the government, the party and its benevolent leader, Big Brother.)
The response of Trump’s brainwashed followers after his denunciation of the GOP’s legislative leader is even more predictable: Paul Ryan is an enemy, as he has always been.
Zola, the crusading columnist who penned “J’accuse”, was found guilty of libel and fled France to avoid imprisonment a little over a month after his accusation against the government hit the newsstands.
If their memories were not so willfully short, Trump’s flunkies might recall he announced in February that as president he would “open up our libel laws” to make it easier for members of the public (him) to sue media outlets for stories that publish unflattering, unsavory articles (about him).
In doing so, Trump’s drug test challenge sparked solely by his own perception that Clinton acts sort of loopy – an accusation in everything but the actual word “accusation” – would put him squarely in the crosshairs of the sort of “open” libel laws he advocates. If he wants to sue others for denigrating his character, he needs to expect the same treatment.
Except he doesn’t see it that way, and neither does his fawning faction of sleepwalkers.
Whether the megalomaniacal Trump envisions himself as the strong, public hand of the Republic, throwing so-called libelers into prison, or as a private, entitled VIP suing his detractors into bankruptcy, he should remember one thing:
J’accuse works both ways, monsieur.
(October 16, 2016)