Bush's retreat from reality

By Michelle Goldberg

Published October 17, 2004 8:28PM (EDT)

Even if you thought you knew all there was to know about this administration's retreat from the Enlightenment, it's hard not to shudder while reading "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush," Ron Suskind's New York Times Magazine cover story. It's long been clear that this administration has a hard time acknowledging reality, but Suskind suggests that Bush and his circle have an active and unabashed aversion to it.

Suskind quotes a senior Bush advisor who derides him, along with most journalists, experts and government technocrats, as part of the "reality-based community." As Suskind tells it, the advisor described this group as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality," an approach this administration evidently sneers at.

"I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principals and empiricism," Suskind writes. "He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

It's considered unfashionably shrill to refer to the Bush administration as fascistic, but this is pretty clearly the language of totalitarianism. Indeed, in her seminal 1951 book "The Origins of Totalitarianism," Hannah Arendt wrote, "Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it."

Instead of facts, Suskind shows Bush runs on faith, a faith that demands almost cult-like devotion from his inner circle. "The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party," Suskind writes. "Once he makes a decision -- often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position -- he expects complete faith in its rightness A writ of infallibility -- a premise beneath the powerful Bushian certainty that has, in many ways, moved mountains -- is not just for public consumption: it has guided the inner life of the White House."

This, too, recalls Arendt's writing on totalitarianism. "The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error," she wrote. Later, she continued, "The stubbornness with which totalitarian dictators have clung to their original lies in the fact of absurdity is more than superstitious gratitude to what turned the trick, and, at least in the case of Stalin, cannot be explained by the psychology of the liar whose very success may make him his own last victim. Once these propaganda slogans are integrated into a 'living organization,' they cannot be safely eliminated without wrecking the whole structure."

The United States, of course, has not gone fascist under Bush, even if it's less free that it was four years ago. But he's not done yet. Besides, in the above quotes, Arendt wasn't writing about totalitarian societies. She was writing about totalitarian movements that were gaining power but had yet to take over. It's important to maintain a sense of proportion when talking about this administration, which, for all its awfulness, is light-years away from Hitlerian. Finishing Suskind's article, though, there's not much reason for those of us in the "reality-based community" to trust that American democracy can survive intact if this man gets another four years to try to bend the world to his illusions.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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