From Stalinist show-trials in Spain to Jim Jordan’s Judiciary Committee, history is repeating itself and it is terrifying as Trump, Putin, and their allies channel the gaslighting spirit of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union
By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981, Threads @bfchugginalong, LinkedIn, Facebook, Substack with exclusive informal content) July 10, 2023; see related February 17, 2017 two-part article: Welcome to the Era of Rising Democratic Fascism Part I: Defining Democracy, Fascism, and Democratic Fascism Usefully, and Spin vs. Lies and Trump, the Global Democratic Fascist Movement, Putin’s War on the West, and a Choice for Liberals: Welcome to the Era of Rising Democratic Fascism Part II; because of YOU, Real Context News surpassed one million content views on January 1, 2023, but I still need your help, please keep sharing my work and consider also donating! Real Context News produces commissioned content for clients upon request at its discretion. Also, Brian is running for U.S. Senate for Maryland and you can learn about his campaign here.
SILVER SPRING—I am giving myself the privilege of reading Orwell in Spain, the Penguin Classics edition of Homage to Catalonia by Eric Blair of the immortal pseudonym George Orwell and one of the original antifascists, bookended by a number of relevant letters written by Orwell and those in his circles and with context from editor Peter Davison throughout. The volume also includes occasional files from archives of the Soviets, who were targeting Orwell, his wife, and his other comrades for a future show-trial just as Orwell and his wife slipped out of Spain; some of his comrades were not so fortunate as he by far.
Orwell went to Spain in late 1936 in the spirit of pitching in for the fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) on behalf of the Spanish Republic, supported by numerous liberal and leftist volunteers from around the world and ostensibly supported by dictator Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union against General Francisco Franco’s fascists, in turn supported by Hitler’s Nazi Germany. For his efforts, Orwell took a bullet through the neck but survived that and many other hardships, acquitting himself well in having genuinely sacrificed for a cause worthy of such sacrifice, but one that was undermined in part by Spain’s supposed ally, the Soviet Union, whose agents in Spain often focused on settling scores within the international leftist/socialist/communist movement and who turned on many of their supposed allies to engage in purges and trials based on lies and gaslighting. This would be a main reason that the Republic would fall completely to Franco’s fascist Nationalists in 1939, shortly before the beginning of World War II.
Hitchens on Orwell, Ringing with Urgent Relevance for the Present
As usual, the late legend and one of the few humans who could rightly be described to be at least a partial heir to Orwell, Christopher Hitchens, provides an introduction to Orwell in Spain that is as mind-blowing as it is well-written and pithy (the introduction was also published around the same time as Orwell in Spain as an essay in The Los Angeles Times). Hitchens’ essay on his hero Orwell’s experiences in Spain includes some points that hit all too close to home in the here-and-now:
The history of the May events in Barcelona in 1937 was certainly buried for years under a slag heap of slander and falsification. Orwell, indeed, derived his terrifying notion of the memory-hole and the rewritten past, in Nineteen Eighty-four, from exactly this single instance of the abolished memory. ‘This kind of thing is frightening to me,’ he wrote about Catalonia, ‘because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’:
But in our very immediate past, documents have surfaced to show that his vulgar, empirical, personal, commonsensical deposition was verifiable after all. The recent opening of communist records in Moscow and of closely held Franco-era documentation in Madrid and Salamanca has provided a posthumous vindication.
The narrative core of Homage to Catalonia, it might be argued, is a series of events that occurred in and around the Barcelona telephone exchange in early May 1937. Orwell was a witness to these events, by the relative accident of his having signed up with the militia of the anti-Stalinist POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) upon arriving in Spain. Allowing as he did for the bias that this lent to his firsthand observations, he nonetheless became convinced that he had been the spectator of a full-blown Stalinist putsch, complete with rigged evidence, false allegations and an ulterior hand directed by Moscow. The outright and evidently concerted fabrications that immediately followed in the press, which convinced or neutralized so many ‘progressive intellectuals,’ only persuaded him the more that he had watched a lie being gestated and then born.
Hitchens continues later in his introduction:
…‘History to the Defeated’ is the underlying subject and text of this collection of pages and fragments. Like several others in the ‘midnight of the century,’ the glacial period that reached its nadir in the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Orwell wrote gloomily but defiantly for the bottom drawer. He belongs in the lonely 1930s tradition of Victor Serge and Boris Souvarine and David Rousset — speaking truth to power but without a real audience or a living jury. It is almost tragic that, picking through the rubble of that epoch, one cannot admire him and Auden simultaneously. ‘All I have is a voice,’ wrote Auden in ‘September 1, 1939,’ ‘To undo the folded lie,/The romantic lie in the brain … And the lie of Authority.’ All Orwell had was a voice, and to him, too, the blatant lies of authority were one thing and the ‘folded’ lies that clever people tell themselves were another. The tacit or overt collusion between the two was the ultimate foe.
Let’s let that sink in: it is not the generally bad-faith “blatant lies of authority” that is “the ultimate foe,” but the “tacit or overt collusion between” those “blatant lies of authority” and that authority on one side with the “’folded’ lies that clever people tell themselves” and those clever people on the other. As a consistent antifascist, Hitchens himself often energetically dedicated himself to taking on such “clever people:” intellectuals and leaders who should know and act better but in their actions still give aid and comfort to the “blatant lies of authority,” often unintentionally making good faith yet terrible arguments as “useful idiots” (to borrow the phrase attributed to Lenin, perhaps falsely) but other times lying deliberately (hello Ted Cruz). Thus, Hitchens happily took on fellow leftist intelligentsia members and activists like George Galloway, Julian Assange, and Noam Chomsky (almost?) as fiercely as he critiqued Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Kim Jong-il.
Fighting the Rewriting of History from 1937 to 2023
For the Stalinists and their apologists Orwell stood up against (and, indeed, for the fascists of that era as well), the fastidious, near-robotic repetition of baseless lies and disinformation over and over and over again served to give reality to such “alternative facts,” to borrow former Trumpist mouthpiece Kellyanne Conway’s Trumpian phrase. And, of course, it is altogether fitting to quote that disgraced woman—her own daughter and now former husband even very publicly more honorably refused to support Trump’s lies and hers—because what is terrifying my soul even as I write part of this is that the Trumpist movement—now one of the two largest political factions in the United States of American in 2023—is very much successfully engaging in that tactic Orwell dedicated much of his writing to combatting, a tactic used by the people Orwell spent much of life fighting.
A stark example is the recent Ohio Republican Jim Jordan-led U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the so-called “Durham Report” and the related investigation of Trump’s Justice Department-appointed Special Counsel John Durham’s pathetic, embarrassing, and failed attempt to find proof that the U.S. government’s investigation into Trump’s Russia ties and 2016 election interference was a baseless, politically-motivated witch hunt; this in and of itself is gaslighting and “hypocrisy” in the extreme, as the opposite is true, a truth I spent years of research and writing on in detail. Short of ending in appalling violence, is there anything more politically Stalinist than an investigation ordered in bad-faith and/or extreme delusion to smear and undermine a good-faith investigation into topics most deserving of investigation, that then twists the results of the failed counter investigation to continue to make claims wholly unsubstantiated by reality?? In this vein, Republicans even spitefully, shamelessly, and wholly inappropriately censured—censured!—Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) the same day as the Durham hearing for his work against Trump on impeachment and his efforts to get answers on Trump-Russia, a ridiculous act of distraction from their embarrassing failure of a Durham hearing and in spirit also a pure act of abusive political retaliation: only five members of the House were censured in all the twentieth century and Schiff is only the third member of the House of Representatives this century and only the twenty-fifth member of the House in all of U.S. history to be censured, an act that is for generally serious offenses, including violence or incitement to violence, sexual misconduct, financial misconduct, and—at the time of the Civil War (1861-1865)—supporting the rebel “Confederacy.”
To go back to Durham and his probe, former Special Counsel Durham seems to be at least a partly honorable fool. On the one hand, Durham seems to incorrectly accept as articles of faith that the Crossfire Hurricane and the Mueller probes were baseless political hit jobs (the first in his deluded mind concocted by the Clintons) and that there is nothing to Trump-Russia to the degree that he is unaware of many of the facts and much of the evidence and context surrounding team Trump’s deeply troubling ties to Russia, his perspective warped enough to believe in the nonsense and/or gaslighting his higher-ups—including then Attorney General Bill Barr—and others fed him and that he fed himself: during the Judiciary Committee hearing, I heard him tell Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) that he did not think Barr’s infamous memo had “blatantly mischaracterized” the Mueller report, which it clearly and obviously very much did, even according to Special Counsel Robert Mueller himself. On the other hand, Durham more or less carried out an investigation that at least mostly adhered to rules and the law within the confines of his warped worldview even as that worldview was biased, selective, and inaccurate when it came to the issues between Trump and Russia, and that is why his results were so limited along with the reality that the evidence he sought didn’t exist because the investigation’s premises were false.
Both those who put Durham in place as Special Counsel and the rest of the Trump faithful were hoping as much as possible over the course of the four years of the Durham probe of to undermine investigations into Trump, playing politics with legitimate, serious investigations. Durham’s disappointing results—0 for 2 on prosecutions that went to trial, defeated twice by unanimous juries that returned “not guilty” verdicts and one plea deal with no trial for an FBI employee doctoring an e-mail who was determined by the presiding judge not to have acted with any political bias (confirming the previous findings of Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s far more credible report) and who only received a year of probation—speak volumes about Durham’s probe’s credibility despite the spin of his “report” and show just how baseless was his effort to show that the Biden Administration Department of Justice was weaponized as a tool of political persecution. In the end, it was Durham’s and Barr’s own conduct that actually revealed it was the Trump Administration Department of Justice that fell into being weaponized, yet Jordan, Trump, and many other Republicans and “useful idiots” insist on persisting in gaslighting or making unsubstantiated arguments with their original unsubstantiated claims even after Durham’s probe failed to prove them (ironically, it seems the probe did find enough evidence of possible financial criminal wrongdoing involving Trump that the Durham probe was forced to launch a criminal investigation into that, which, unsurprisingly, we have heard very little about…).
And herein is one of the more horrific aspects of this Jordan’s show-hearing that should be giving us all trouble sleeping at night: some of the Republicans on Jordan’s committee, most notably the vile Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), are furious at Durham not for the degree to which he was inaccurate, ignorant, or possibly dishonest but for the degree to which he did not go into full Stalinist show-trial mode because he did not run wild with lies and falsehoods but, rather, still operated within some level of orbit of reality.
To be clear, this hearing is not a Stalinist show-trial, and does not carry the consequences of them. But they do share, on the part of today’s Republicans and their accomplices on one hand and the those of the Stalinists and their accomplices of yesteryear on the other, absolute contempt for truth and justice and an absolute commitment to pursuing the party line relentlessly. And both Orwell’s and Hitchens’s words rang loudly in my mind throughout my viewing of the hearing as I digested it in terror, far more profoundly for having recently read certain pages of Orwell in Spain.
The gaslighting is also strong with the claim that Trump is being persecuted unfairly and Hunter Biden might get off with a “sweetheart deal” should a submitted plea deal between Hunter and the government be approved, which was reported the day before the Durham hearing and Schiff censure. Again, the opposite is true: people in a position similar to Hunter Biden when it comes to gun possession while being an addict are rarely criminally charged or see jail time, as are first-time offenders in terms of the tax violations he had committed and has since paid off his debts in relation to, including back taxes and penalties. If anything, his treatment has been harsher because he is Joe Biden’s son and the government is going out of its way to avoid any credible suggestion that the son of the sitting president is being treated lightly while the former president, Trump, is not; and, if anything, Trump has been treated with an extraordinarily light touch, given the nature and severity of his crimes and the more than two-years’ worth of blatant obstruction of justice committed by Trump to further his crimes. The gaslighting only becomes even more ludicrous when Trump’s defenders claims there is a “two-tiered” system of justice, with the Trumps of the world being the victims, a deeply “insulting” claim coming from many white Republicans who have been loath to acknowledge the very real systemic racial disparities in the American criminal justice system—let alone do anything about them—but now whine for “justice” (i.e., impunity and immunity) for Trump.
The gaslighting is also front-and-center when Trump’s insanely ridiculous classified documents case for which he has been indicted by Special Counsel Jack Smith is claimed to be equivalent or close to the Biden classified documents case or Hillary Clinton’s (conspicuously omitting Pence’s case, which is pretty similar to Biden’s), all the other cases including Clinton’s case were dramatically different especially regarding intent and when the Biden/Pence examples only turned up a comparatively small number of documents which were promptly returned and both of them agreed rapidly to have their respective locations searched, bearing no resemblance to Trump’s obstructionist and gaslighting conduct and the severity of the material at issue.
And those are merely a few current examples…
Orwell and His “Power of Facing”: A Ghostbuster to the Gaslighting Ghosts of Nazism and Stalinism Rearing their Ghastly Heads Today
We fought a world war some eight decades ago against a totalitarian fascism that I have previously noted gaslit reality to the point of being at war with reality itself, and we triumphed some four-and-a-half decades later against a Soviet totalitarian communism that similarly gaslit reality and also, like the Nazis it defended its homeland against in the earlier world war, used disinformation as a preferred weapon of choice in its losing ideological struggle against the capitalist democratic West.
After the West’s victories in World War II and the Cold War, how depressing is it, then, that, in 2023 the West finds itself embroiled both internally and externally with major forces practicing and embodying much of the same spirit of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany when it comes to waging new wars on reality, with its biggest centers of gravity in Putin’s fascist Russia—resurrecting the Soviet war on reality as the successor state to the Soviet Union—and in the Trumpist fascist movement and its media and political allies within the West (if you doubt the appropriateness of the label fascist for Trump or Putin, read my two-parter [part I and part II] and realize that was written well before the violence of January 6, 2021 or the massively increased levels of violence and war crimes Russia has been perpetrating in Ukraine since February 24, 2022). While the Chinese Communist Party helms a Chinese state that is increasingly totalitarian under the leadership of Xi Jinping and also embraces a war on reality, it is not nearly as aggressive with this tactic on the international stage as Russia, thus, China’s current relative restraint means its threat to the West is, for now at least, far less potent than that of both Russia and Trump as it is Russia that routinely engages in electoral and political interference in the West and Trump’s brand of fascism and its like-minded allies are a clear and present danger within the U.S. and elsewhere in the West, with fascists having real chances of gaining political power—even the U.S. presidency once again, though I do not believe they will succeed in this coming American election in 2024. Other countries, such as France and Italy, are far more vulnerable, and some, like Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and Israel, are veering hard in that direction. Indeed, while I have been warning of this possibility since just after Trump’s inauguration in 2017 and even earlier in 2016, it brings little comfort to see the modern versions of fascism and their accompanying wars on reality staring us down directly in the face while also staring deeply into the past at horrors that we had vanquished twice in living memory, drawing power from their zombie-Frankenstein cousins from the Cold War and World War II.
Orwell would truly be rolling over in his grave were he aware of what was happening today, after so much blood and toil and sacrifice in the twentieth century to defeat fascist and communist regimes, to transcend their lies and assault against reality, and yet, he could take comfort in his words standing the test of time, not only validating his prescient view of past evils, but that his words could still be so useful and relevant today. Yes, this is bittersweet, for we should have transcended those phantoms from past eras, but at least we have in Orwell the perfect guide to fighting these nefarious forces, that honesty, reality, truth, persistence, and simple eloquence can confront the enemy and defeat their lies, sometimes even without the forces of arms. Orwell did risk life and limb (and was even shot) in Spain against Franco’s fascists (and Soviet agents), but it was in his writing that he made his largest contributions in the fight for freedom against fascism and communism. Like Orwell and like his admirer and perhaps his heir Hitchens, we can and must be unflinching in the face of the gaslighting of Trump and Putin and their allies who constantly assert “that two and two are five” and that things that happened “never happened” (from the January 6 U.S. Capitol Insurrection—team Trump claiming “it was Antifa”—to the Russian military torturing and executing civilians in Ukraine—Putin saying, ludicrously, that: “The Russian army does not strike at civilian facilities. There is no need for that.”). Though Orwell had “the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he never gave up and never ceased articulating the truth through his brave and, it seems, timeless writing.
As Hitchens wrote in his magisterial and pithy Why Orwell Matters:
‘I knew,’ said Orwell in 1946 about his early youth, ‘that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.’ Not the ability to face them, you notice, but ‘a power of facing’. It’s oddly well put. A commissar who realizes that his five-year plan is off-target and that the people detest him or laugh at him may be said, in a base manner, to be confronting an unpleasant fact. So, for that matter, may a priest with ‘doubts’. The reaction of such people to unpleasant facts is rarely self-critical; they do not have the ‘power of facing’. Their confrontation with the fact takes the form of an evasion; the reaction to the unpleasant discovery is a redoubling of efforts to overcome the obvious. The ‘unpleasant facts’ that Orwell faced were usually the ones that put his own position or preference to the test.
In the spirit of Orwell and (even if to a somewhat lesser degree) Hitchens, we must wield a similar “power of facing” in the face of the fascisms of Trump, Putin, and their lesser emulators. In particular, the “clever people” and “progressive intellectuals” that Hitchens and Orwell single out who “tell themselves” Auden’s “’folded’ lies” that, when in “tacit or overt collusion” with “the blatant lies of authority,” become “the ultimate foe.”
Prominent “useful idiot” fools on such matters include Noam Chomsky, Elon Musk, Seymour Hersh, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Briahna Joy Grey, Aaron Maté, Max Blumenthal, Michael Tracey, Caitlin Johnstone, Katie Halper, RFK Jr., Russell Brand, John Mearsheimer, Jeffrey Sachs, Joe Rogan, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Jill Stein, Tulsi Gabbard, Cornell West, Jordan Peterson, George Galloway, Scott Ritter, even Peter Hitchens (Christopher’s own rather less impressive brother) and others who fancy themselves public figures displaying freethinking but who ultimately do little more on these matters than to give aid and comfort to fascism and even colonialism and imperialism in the name of supposed “pacificism” or “free speech.” Those people and their ilk make their arguments in ways that usually show they have little understanding of peace or the U.S. Constitution. In particular, they often keep parroting debunked Kremlin talking points about Western “escalation” and NATO expansion, which I have debunked myself repeatedly. Or they will conflate moderation of disinformation on private platforms with unconstitutional “censorship.” Orwell has the best of possible responses to the first group, the so-called “pacifists,” here in his perfect essay from 1942 “Pacifism and the War” in which he noted that “Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist.” Orwell therein further elucidated his views:
What I object to is the intellectual cowardice of people who are objectively and to some extent emotionally pro-Fascist, but who don’t care to say so and take refuge behind the formula ‘I am just as anti-fascist as anyone, but—’. The result of this is that so-called peace propaganda is just as dishonest and intellectually disgusting as war propaganda. Like war propaganda, it concentrates on putting forward a ‘case’, obscuring the opponent’s point of view and avoiding awkward questions.
He added: “My case against all of them is that they write mentally dishonest propaganda and degrade literary criticism to mutual arse-licking” and that “It is just because I do take the function of the intelligentsia seriously that I don’t like the sneers, libels, parrot phrased and financially profitable back-scratching which flourish in our English literary world, and perhaps in yours also.” Better descriptions of that crowd’s heirs in the present cannot be written, and, as before in Orwell’s day, many of those in this crowd today are often caught “back-scratching” and “arse-licking” each other in echo chambers. To listen to them, rather than blatant Russian imperialism and colonialism, the greater evils are supposedly the Western exercise of power in daring to aid a Ukraine that, they will stress, has been dominated by and even been part of Russia for centuries (as if that should matter when Ukrainians themselves have earned their freedom and independence, recognized by formal treaty repeatedly by Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union) and, even more so, in asserting either that there is, in fact, a moral dimension to supporting Ukraine or a false equivalence in equating Russia’s exercise and practice of its power in comparison with the America’s and the West’s: whether knowingly or unknowingly, these supposed and self-proclaimed “anti-imperialists” engage in behavior that dismisses, excuses, deflects from, or even advances Russian imperialism and its supporting false narratives.
There can be but one course of action against today’s “intellectual” descendants of Orwell’s critics and enemies among the intelligentsia, and it must be that we especially utilize our “power of facing” to face them because they are usually the ones weakening the front against today’s fascists without claiming to actually be “for” those fascists, they are the ones who might persuade those with less moral discernment who would never think of consciously siding with fascists and who would be susceptible to low-hanging fruit of arguments relying on “free speech” and “peace” that objectively advance bad-faith disinformation and war against those fighting for their actual freedom. And perhaps, with relentless opposition to their nonsense, some may even realize their folly and find their own “power of facing” directed back at themselves even though this may “put …[their] own position or preference to the test.”
Hitchens opens his introduction to Orwell in Spain with following two magnificent paragraphs:
The grandeur of George Orwell, in our store of moral and intellectual memory, is to be found partly in his very lack of grandeur. He is remembered, with different and varying degrees of distinctness, as the man who confronted three of the great crises of the twentieth century and got all three of them, so to speak, ‘right’. He was right, earlier than most, about imperialism, viewing it as an unjust and unjustifiable form of rule, and also as a cause of war. He was right, early and often, about the menace presented by Fascism and National Socialism, not just to the peace of the world but to the very idea of civilization. And he was right about Stalinism, about the great and the small temptations that it offered to certain kinds of intellectual, and about the monstrous consequences that would ensue from that nightmarish sleep of reason.
He brought off this triple achievement, furthermore, in his lowly capacity as an impoverished freelance journalist and amateur novelist. He had no resources beyond his own, he enjoyed the backing of no party or organization or big newspaper, let alone any department of state. Much of his energy was dissipated in the simple struggle to get published, or in the banal effort to meet a quotidian schedule of bills and deadlines. He had no university education, no credential nor area of expertise. He had no capital. Yet his unexciting pen-name, drawn from a rather placid English river, is known to millions as a synonym for prescience and integrity, and the adjective ‘Orwellian’ is understood widely and – this has its significance – ambivalently. To describe a situation as ‘Orwellian’ is to announce dystopia: the triumph of force and sadism and demagogy over humanism. To call a person ‘Orwellian’ is to summon the latent ability of an individual to resist such triumphs, or at least to see through them and call them by their right names.
We don’t have to take a bullet in the neck like Orwell did in Spain in 1937, but the least we can do is call out the lies, disinformation, and misinformation religiously in the cause of reality, as Orwell seems to have pretty much always done and Hitchens mostly did (even when Hitch Hitch erred—most notably on Iraq—he usually did so for principled and admirable reasons). We can, sadly, fall into either of the definitions Hitchens enumerates for “Orwellian,” but we must strive to be his latter definition and we can do so by calling out the imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism of today as Orwell did for the versions in his lifetime. We can also be sure that Orwell’s stances on Trump, Putin, and their movements and allies would not be doubt were he alive today.
Herein, then, has not been any kind of comprehensive catalogue of Trumpist and Putinist attempts to rewrite history—those of you following these stories are all too familiar with too many of those examples—but a clarion call to honor the spirit of those two writers departed from us, whose careers were mostly dedicated to opposition to lies but fidelity to the truth should inspires us even if we, too, feel frightened like Orwell because we have “the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” Orwell consistently and unflinchingly spoke truth to power with “a power of facing unpleasant facts” and so must we.
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