Years ago, or so we’re told, a reclusive southern businessman, contemptuous of the world around him, decided to invent a country of his own. Using his vast fortune, he bankrolled a secretive organization of writers and intellectuals whose mission was to construct nothing less than every last detail of an alternate reality, similar to our own in many ways, but more orderly and elegant, in which anything could come true as long as enough people believed in it. The result was an enormously convincing fictional world, and its reception exceeded its creator’s most optimistic expectations. Presented with such a beautiful falsehood, the rest of humanity gratefully embraced the illusion. It began to study, teach, and debate a totally imaginary history and science, until the real thing, neglected, was all but forgotten.
This is the plot of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” one of the most famous stories by the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, who belongs on any short list of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Borges has a lot of admirers, including me, but if the story above seems uncomfortably familiar, it may be due to the influence of one of his most avid fans. He’s a man who, in response to a Proust questionnaire in Vanity Fair, put Borges at the top of an alphabetical catalog of beloved authors, and playfully named the real Borges as his favorite hero of fiction. He mentions Borges prominently on his website, with an approving nod to the story about “the encyclopedia on a nation that doesn’t exist,” and in a video promoting one of his own books, although he has trouble pronouncing Borges’s name correctly. He is Karl Rove.
Oddly enough, aside from a recent humor piece by Nathaniel Stein on The New Yorker blog, Rove’s love of Borges has gone mostly unremarked, perhaps because it seems so incongruous. In general, members of the conservative establishment aren’t known for their taste in literature. Mitt Romney once acknowledged, in what is probably his second-most embarrassing online video, that his favorite novel is L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, and the identity of Paul Ryan’s novelist of choice is a matter of record. As a result, it’s surprising, and superficially encouraging, to find a prominent figure on the right who openly admires a writer numbered among Joyce and Kafka as one of the essential authors of the modern age.
Yet it isn’t hard to see why Rove is drawn to his work. The great theme in Borges, among all those labyrinths and mirrors, is how the world can be shaped, and even physically transformed, by the intellectual structures we impose on it. In his story “The Secret Miracle,” a man waiting to be executed pictures all the possible forms that his death might take, as if by imagining the worst, he can prevent it from happening—an attitude that many Democrats assumed before the recent election. “The Lottery in Babylon” describes a government so powerful that its actions can no longer be distinguished from the operations of the universe, which seems like a conservative’s nightmare of Obamacare, but which might also appeal to a man who once dreamed of a permanent Republican majority. (On his website, Rove refers to this story as involving “a lottery in Baghdad,” a Freudian slip of epic proportions.)
These ideas find their fullest expression in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” In the fictional world invented by Borges’s army of scholars, the only science is psychology, and an idea, or even a physical object, can become real if enough people believe it exists. Rove has put this principle into action more aggressively than any other political figure in recent memory. It lurks behind the push polls in the South Carolina primary calculated to plant the rumor that John McCain had fathered a black child, and in the White House Iraq Group, chaired by Rove, designed to sell the public on the supposed threat of Saddam Hussein—a more targeted version of Orbis Tertius, with its secret group of intellectuals “directed by an obscure man of genius.”
And then there’s Fox News, for which Rove has long served as a sort of spiritual godfather. Borges notes that mankind was seduced by the fictional universe of Tlön because its rules were more elegant than reality itself, which is precisely what Fox News provides. Its vision of the world is compellingly clear: it’s easier to believe that the president is a Muslim socialist who secretly wants to take our guns away than to understand the perplexing truth, which even many observers on the left have trouble accepting, that he’s a political moderate who draws much of his policy from the conservative playbook of the past. And unlike the shadowy cabal of Orbis Tertius, this systematic reordering and simplification of reality has taken place in plain sight.
Borges himself was well aware that his story was more than just a fantasy. The countries that remake themselves after the model of Orbis Tertius are the same ones that had previously been drawn to communism, fascism, and any other system with a semblance of order. When the author notes that a world in which physical artifacts can be willed into existence allows for “the interrogation and even the modification of the past,” it’s hard not to connect this to the rewriting of history under authoritarian regimes. “The lies of a dictatorship are neither believed nor disbelieved,” Borges writes elsewhere. “They pertain to an intermediate plane, and their purpose is to conceal or justify sordid or atrocious realities.”
It’s tempting to think that these lies came crashing down on election night, in which Rove stuck obstinately to his guns on Fox News even as the reality at Obama headquarters threatened to break through from the other side of the split screen. Rove’s refusal to accept his own network’s call for Ohio was the logical culmination of the inability of such conservative pundits as Dick Morris to acknowledge the possibility of any outcome short of a Romney landslide. Like the characters in Borges, they’re idealists in the original, philosophical sense, who hope that if they believe something strongly enough—and say it as loudly as possible—it just might come true. In the end, anchorwoman Megyn Kelly wandered off to find answers in the labyrinth beyond the news desk, leaving Rove, like many a Borges protagonist before him, unable to free himself from his own illusions.
But his public meltdown shouldn’t fool us. The nonexistent nation is alive and well. In Borges’s imaginary universe, places survive as long as people believe in them, like the doorway that continued to exist only while it was frequented by a single beggar. Rove has far more true believers, and thanks to a media landscape as fragmented as any postmodern narrative, in which individuals of all political parties listen only to sources that confirm their own beliefs, that alternate reality is still standing. As Borges warns, what remains is a fictional history, “filled with moving episodes,” harmonized to remove all inconvenient facts. When the project of Orbis Tertius is complete, he writes, “The world will be Tlön.” And thanks largely to Rove and his successors, for much of the country, it already is.