Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

President Donald Trump

The Historical Origin of "Alternative Facts"

Kellyanne Conway says Press Secretary gave "alternative facts."

Groucho Marx once said: "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?" It seems that President Trump's press secretary Sean Spicer, as well as Trump himself and one of his senior advisors, recommends the former. They insist that we believe what they say, rather than what what our own eyes tell us.

What our eyes tell us

Looking at aerial photographs of Trump's inauguration and Obama's 2009 inauguration, our eyes tell us that the crowd at Trump's was nowhere near as large as the crowd at Obama's. Obama's inaugural crowd reached all the way back to the Washington monument, whereas Trump's reached nowhere near that marker.

Conway's introduction of "Alternative Facts"

Not wanting the public to recognize this fact, Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway told Chuck Todd on Sunday's Meet the Press that Spicer was not telling a falsehood when he insisted that Trump's crowd was larger. He was simply giving "alternative facts".

Following the interview, social media exploded with a newly minted meme, “#AlternativeFacts.” Come Monday morning, the media worldwide is aghast at the notion that Trump's press secretary told the press a falsehood on day 1.

Every data point—TV ratings, stats for use of the Washington Metro system, expert crowd analysis—confirms Spicer's statement to be false. So would Trump's team launch his new administration with such an obvious, disprovable falsehood?

Good question.

The origins in "Newspeak"

Here's where we get to the origin of the idea of an "alternative fact." In 1949, George Orwell wrote the novel 1984, which portrays a totalitarian state that limited freedom of thought by creating its own language called "Newspeak." The political purpose of of Newspeak was to reduce the English language to simple concepts that reinforced the totalitarian dominance of the State. Moreover, words with negative meanings were removed, such that "bad" became "ungood".

In the current "Newspeak" that Ms Conway called "alternative facts" on Sunday, falsehoods lose their negative connotation and become facts—albeit alternative facts. The new administration's efforts at mind control begins.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, "Newspeak" in Orwell's novel is "designed and controlled by the state in order to suppress free thought, individualism, and happiness." The new language shapes peoples' minds to what the State wants them to think, feel and even see.

Language and Totalitarianism

Are we entering an authoritarian regime with a strongman in charge who wants to control the minds of Americans as he controlled the minds of those who attended his rallies?

The answer seems to be "yes."

Authoritarian dictators crave control. If they can control what you believe and even what you think you see, then their power over you is total.

One thing is clear. On day one, Donald Trump is attempting to twist the norms of our democracy to his own will. He is trying to tell us to believe what he and his advisors say rather than what our eyes tell us.

If he takes the next step—starting his own news platform (Twitter is only the beginning)—that reports the alternative facts he wants people to believe, our democracy will be well on the road to an authoritarian dictatorship like that of the Russian leader Trump admires so much.

Update: On February 24, 2017, Trump began his censorship of a free and independent press in the United states.

According to the Huffington Post:

"The White House blocked several news outlets from attending a closed-door briefing Friday afternoon with press secretary Sean Spicer, a decision that drew strong rebukes from news organizations and may only heighten tensions between the press corps and the administration.

The New York Times and CNN, both of which have reported critically on the administration and are frequent targets of President Donald Trump, were prohibited from attending. The Huffington Post was also denied entry."

Copyright Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.

Marilyn Wedge is the author of A Disease called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic

More from Marilyn Wedge Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today