In a post back in June (Who’s Really to Blame for Donald Trump), I quoted the eloquent Reverend William Barber II, of Greenleaf Christian Church in North Carolina and the NAACP, who despite being a consistently trenchant critic of the cretin currently occupying the Oval Office, nevertheless had this very wise and philosophical thing to say:
This is not the worst thing we’ve ever faced. People made it through slavery; people made it through the denial of women’s rights; people made it through the Depression in this country; people made it through apartheid and Jim Crow. It‘s our time to stand up and be the moral dissenters, the moral defibrillators, and the moral dreamers and to make it through this moment and use it to change the course of history, to change America, and—in some ways, if we work together—to change the world.
He is quite right, of course. The real challenge of our current situation is to avoid falling into depression, discouragement, or nihilism and instead use it as motivation and inspiration for creating lasting, positive change. (Rev. Barber recently stressed that point again in the wake of Charlottesville.)
That said, there is no real way to compare the apples of those past crises and the rotten oranges of the present. By way of achieving the long-lasting changes of which Rev. Barber spoke, we would do well to recognize that Donald Trump, while not the worst or most terrifying monster ever to menace humankind (though he’s in the running), does represent a unique and very worrying threat to the American experiment. And that nature of that threat is very much connected to what James Comey memorably called “the nature of the person.”
BAREFOOT IN THE PARK
Needless to say, Trump has already wantonly ignored any number of political norms, from refusing to release his tax returns, to declining to address an avalanche of conflicts of interest, to blithely violating the emoluments clause, to installing laughably unqualified family members in positions critical to national security, to demurring on extending the customary denunciation of fucking Nazis. Whether those self-declared exemptions are unique to him or will become a permanent change to the rules for all future American politicians remains to be seen. (See another previous blog post, Beware a Better Demagogue, Parts 1 and 2.)
But the transgression that concerns me most is the one at the root of all the others, and that is Trump’s stunning contempt for the simple concept of “truth.” This contempt has been much remarked upon but it bears repeating, for a growing numbness to it is part and parcel of the insidious threat it poses.
Trump’s contempt for the truth not only goes above and beyond the garden variety dishonesty of ordinary politicians and their courtiers, but even beyond the deceitfulness of grand champions like Nixon, Lee Atwater, and (Lyin’) Ted Cruz. To call it mere “dishonesty” feels inadequate. It’s more like a wanton destruction of objective reality as a universally accepted metric.
Everyone from Swift to Twain has been credited with saying, “A lie goes round the world while the truth is still putting its boots on.” But Trump never even bothers with any boots. He’s the anti-Imelda Marcos, a man who doesn’t even seem to own any footwear. Call him Shoeless Don. With Trump, it saves time just to assume everything he says is bullshit, and adjust for the occasional accidental truth as necessary after the fact. To steal another well-known phrase (this one definitively Mary McCarthy’s), every word out of his mouth is a lie, including “and” and “the.”
This then is the ur-travesty of the Man from Queens. towering over (and encompassing) his many other horrors: defending Nazis and Klansmen, playing nuclear chicken with North Korea, attacking the press, using the Oval Office as his own personal ATM, pulling out of the Paris agreement, ending DACA, banning Muslim immigrants and refugees, winking at police brutality and the wholesale violation of civil rights with his pardon of the leprous Joe Arpaio, and of course, keeping Vladimir Putin’s boots spic and span. (I could go on.) It is the toxic well from which all these other tributaries spring.
As many have noted, Trump doesn’t even lie for practical gain, which is the usual motive among human beings. Trump lies about things great and small. He lies about things he doesn’t need to lie about, about things that gain him nothing, and about things that are easily—easily—disproven, which is a kind of suicidal recklessness in a politician. But for Trump, of course, none of this has been suicidal at all. On the contrary: he has gotten away with it, even thrived because of it.
And that is fucking worrying.
THE PO-MO PRESIDENCY
The supremacy of falsehood in the Trump regime began with the very first press conference of his administration, when someone doing a convincing impression of Melissa McCarthy stood at a podium and—reading a statement later revealed to have been dictated by Trump himself—angrily insisted that the crowd in Washington DC on January 20, 2017 “was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe.” The assembled press corps openly laughed, as photographic evidence baldly contradicted this absurd, petty claim. Nevertheless, the next day Kellyanne Conway rose from her coffin to double down on Shouty Spice’s laughable declaration, gifting us the unimprovable phrase “alternative facts.” Also known as “lies.”
(In defense of KAC, maybe she was just sloppy and imprecise. Maybe she was trying with that ridiculous phrase to suggest the existence of genuine facts that supported an alternative interpretation of events. But that VERY generous parsing of her intent would hinge on the “facts” in question being true…..in other words, on being “facts.” Which in this case, they plainly were not. Saying a million people were on the lawn for the inauguration is not a fact, alternative or otherwise. What it was, was our first taste of Team Trump’s strange form of fake empiricism.)
This opening salvo signaled open warfare between the White House and the Fourth Estate. And the attacks on the press came not only from paid mouthpieces like Spicer and Conway, or blowhard advisors like Bannon—who channeled his inner Stalin by melodramatically labeling the press an “enemy of the people”—but from the putative president himself. (For a self-styled tough guy, Trump sure does sound like a petulant toddler a lot of the time, habitually whimpering that all his foes are being “unfair” to him.)
All White Houses spin and try to pressure the media into reporting stories their preferred way. But this looks like something considerably more: A concerted effort to erode the core idea that the news media is legitimately playing its role in informing the citizenry. If the media challenges or factually debunks the fabricated, Trump-aggrandizing narrative that is coming out of the Trump White House, it will respond by simply repeating relentlessly that the fabricated story-line is the truth. Needless to say, there cannot be any shared agreement on facts or reality, exception the ones that the Trump White House has validated.
This is why the most important thing about Spicer’s statement is the word “period.” When the Trump White House declares what the truth is, the discussion is over.
Less than nine months later, Sean Spicer is gone from the White House and the nauseating rehabilitation of his public image has already begun, as the Emmys and a fellowship at Harvard attest. But his starring role in this march of lies should never be forgotten.
DONALD TRUMP, BIZARRO WORLD BUDDHA
This president’s pathological dishonesty is so extreme it seems to exist in a realm of its own beyond ordinary deceit. In the Bush years, Karl Rove famously scorned the “reality-based community.” But that was child’s play compared to what we are facing now.
(Pausing now for a deep, cleansing breath as I contemplate the fact that, not ten years after leaving public life, Karl Rove has already been made to seem not that bad.)
The truly shocking thing is that Trump doesn’t even seem to grasp that he is lying. He seems to sincerely think that whatever he says at any given moment is correct and true simply because he is saying it. That is the mark of a psychopath. And then, in the blink of an eye, he will wheel about and contradict himself, swearing to the veracity of a diametrical opposed “truth” with equal certainty.
Trump seems to live in an eternal present, and I don’t mean in an admirable Zen-like way. He is transactional in the extreme, making ad hoc choices improvised on the spot regardless of any history, context, or consequences. No rational person could say one thing, often on camera, then turn around—sometimes in the same interview—and with a straight face deny he said any such thing, and say the exact opposite. The same goes for his reversals on policy, like the Wall that Mexico was absolutely going to pay for (until they weren’t), or the war in Iraq that he was for before he was against it, or even something as petty as blasting Obama for playing too much golf and then playing exponentially more himself.
If Trump were a venal, mustache-twirling villain who had the common decency to recognize the con job he is perpetrating on the American people, it would at least be understandable. But he genuinely does not ever seem to register that he is doing anything hypocritical. (His diehard dead-enders have this same affliction.) It’s a kind of malignant solipsism that is almost beyond human comprehension. Whether that absolves him of moral responsibility is a question for the philosophers and Almighty God, if one is inclined to believe in His existence. (After November 8th, I am not.)
There is no need for us—shrinks and laymen alike—to defy the embattled Goldwater Rule and speculate about Trump’s mental health and whether this phenomenon constitutes clinical derangement. Ultimately it’s moot. If he is indeed psychologically unfit for office, that diagnosis doesn’t really help us unless the 25th Amendment is invoked and he is slapped into a straitjacket and carted off on a handtruck like Hannibal Lecter. But even without resort to the DSM-V, or years of med school, it is quite evident that he is a sociopath who never sees himself as being in the wrong. Even by the standards of US Presidents—not known to be a group of shrinking violets—that is a jawdropping level of narcissism.
But while Trump’s relationship with the truth is sui generis, it’s no accident that he rode it to victory while running as a Republican. The GOP cooked up the primordial ooze out of which Trump slithered….
THE SEWER IN WHICH HE SWIMS
During the Obama era, the American Right waged a relentless war on the press—and by extension, on facts themselves—in its scorched earth campaign to destroy the United States’ first African-American president at any cost. Whether that campaign was driven by genuine racism or merely exploited the electorate’s racism for plutocratic reasons is a worthy question, but like Trump’s mental health, ultimately irrelevant. (Would you prefer a GOP led by shameless bigots or by amoral scumbags?)
In either event, that Republican effort aimed to obliterate the credibility of the free press in order to undermine criticism of the right wing agenda: on tax policy, on climate change, on foreign adventurism, and more. It succeeded all too well. By 2016, a large chunk of the American public was accustomed to dismissing any inconvenient facts that did not jibe with its pre-existing worldview. And the more august the journalistic source—the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN—the more readily the reports were disregarded as part of the alleged “liberal” bias in the “elitist” media. (That all those organizations are owned by giant for-profit corporations was somehow overlooked.) The balkanization of journalism that accompanied the rise of the Internet, and the concomitant capacity to spread stories virally regardless of whether they are true or false, also contributed to this development. Confirmation bias became the guiding principle of news consumption.
And let us not dither with any false equivalence: contempt for the press has always been traditionally highest on the right, and the further right one goes on the spectrum the more batshit the instinct becomes, living proof of Hofstadter’s famous “paranoid style. “ Notwithstanding the adamant insistence of reactionaries, there is simply no equivalent “shadow media” on the left that is analogous to the propaganda machine that exists on the right.
Donald Trump was the perfect candidate to waltz into this Deriddan world where there is no objective reality, a place where he could weave his web of lies and build an infinitely malleable constructed reality bespoke to his political needs at any given moment. In retrospect, it is now agonizingly clear that the mainstream media was completely unprepared to hold him accountable. (To be fair, many people realized as much at the time.) The press were like medieval lancers confronted with an enemy armed with machine guns, simply incapable of comprehending how to counter this new weapon. Instead, they blithely dealt with Trump with the same decorum that they extended to conventional politicians, tragically unaware that Donald intended to run roughshod over every rule, protocol, and nicety. He was a media terrorist who made a laughingstock of the norms intended to contain him, and indeed turned those very constraints into weapons that further devalued the stock of real journalism and fed his monstrous campaign. It is a bitter irony that Trump, with his schoolyard bully’s instinct for the jugular, was even able to co-opt the term “fake news”—which correctly described a Russian-made disinformation campaign that only a sophisticated intelligence service could mount— and now wields it like a Louisville Slugger against the legitimate press.
But it must also be acknowledged that for some in the press, especially broadcast news, Trump was anything but a menace to be resisted; on the contrary, he was manna from heaven, an unstoppable ratings bonanza that they embraced with both arms. (Jeff Zucker and Les Moonves: your floor seats in the ninth circle of hell await.) The only other occupation that benefited so handsomely was professional comedians, followed closely by oil company executives, and the manufacturers of swastika flags.
THE LEADER AND THE DAMAGE DONE
All that said, it’s one thing for Trump to be out of his tree. It’s quite another for that disease to spread to the body politic at large. This is the even greater danger of Trumpism: not only that he’s a lying sack of feces himself, but that he will do irreparable damage to the common standard of demonstrable reality to which we all theoretically subscribe. Trump may have already permanently poisoned American politics. Assuming we don’t all die in a fiery apocalypse triggered by a petulant Twitter feud with North Korea, it is hard to know what our politics will look like after he is gone.
The Times recently ran a long piece taking stock of the unprecedented nature of Trump’s fraudulence, with comments from famed presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin:
The glaring difference between Mr. Trump and his predecessors is the sheer magnitude of falsehoods and exaggerations … That leaves scholars like Ms. Goodwin to wonder whether Mr. Trump … has forever changed what Americans are willing to tolerate from their leaders. “What’s different today and what’s scarier today is these lies are pointed out, and there’s evidence that they’re wrong,” she said. “And yet because of the attacks on the media, there are a percentage of people in the country who are willing to say, ‘Maybe he is telling the truth.’ ”
Back to Greg Sargent, who has written extensively on this topic, describing the potential dangers of the post-Trump world:
Of course Trump will use the presidency to enrich himself and his family members. Of course he’ll hire people whose government “service” is for the sole purpose of enriching the industries from which they hail. Of course those who work for him will see public resources as theirs to do with what they will. That’s just how things work now. Which raises a disturbing question: When Trump leaves the White House, will he have so degraded every ethical rule and norm that future administrations will feel no need to exceed his debauched standards?
During the campaign, my conservative friends scoffed at my fears of how much damage Trump could do, confidently insisting that American democracy had survived much worse and was far stronger than I was giving it credit for. (Perhaps the first and only time they ever concurred with Rev. Barber, albeit dismissively.) I don’t know how they feel now because we don’t talk any more, at least not about politics.
If we are lucky, they will be turn out to be right. It’s very possible that this phenomenon will prove to be a product of Trump’s particularly toxic mix of wealth, household name recognition, and tabloid celebrity pre-dating his political ambitions, and not transferrable to the next ordinary politician. The experience of having lived through Trump (if we do live through it) might even inoculate the American people and system against similar dishonesty in the future. But that is a very optimistic prognosis.
It is equally likely that Trump is merely the wave of the future…..or more correctly, of the dark and not-too-distant past. Sargent again:
As I’ve repeated endlessly, Trump is trying to obliterate the very possibility of agreement on the free press’ legitimate institutional role in our democracy — indeed, he’s trying to obliterate the possibility of shared agreement on reality itself. This has worried some conservatives, too. As Bret Stephens recently put it, Trump is “denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument,” and his overall message is that facts “needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them—or, in his case, both.” In other words, the entire point is the assertion and demonstration of the power to say what reality is in contradiction of what is empirically, demonstrably true….
It’s hard to say whether this is rooted in showman’s instinct, or in childlike rage at something he can’t control, or in true authoritarian tendencies, and, related to them, in a long term plan to weaken the press as an institutional check on his power later….what Trump and his advisers are doing is explicitly stating their contempt for the press’ institutional role as a credo, as an actionable doctrine that will govern not just how they treat the press, but how they treat factual reality itself.
That is the very crux of authoritarianism: the replacement of objective truth with a reality of the despot’s own making. Call it liberal hysteria and unwarranted alarmism if you will (if the alarmism is warranted, is that still “alarmism”?), but it damn sure looks like that’s the path we are on.
GEORGE ORWELL, WHITE COURTESY PHONE
Continuing with Sargent, presciently writing immediately after the inauguration:
For many months during the campaign, Trump not only told lies to a degree that was unprecedented in volume and egregiousness; his staff also mostly refused to engage fact checkers at all when they questioned his claims, showing he felt no obligation whatsoever to back them up. And then, even when they were widely debunked, he simply kept on repeating them. Then, and now, this was, and is, an assertion of the power to declare what the truth is regardless of what is empirically, demonstrably true.
Anyone who is not considering the possibility that this may be an outgrowth of Trump’s well-established authoritarian streak is missing what may be happening here. As libertarian writer Jacob Levy has written, Trump may be experimenting with a time-tested tactic, in which a leader “with authoritarian tendencies” will regularly lie in order to get others to internalize his lies, as “a way to demonstrate and strengthen his power over them.”
It is hard to say how deep Trump’s authoritarianism runs and how it will impact his presidency. But this is something worth being prepared for. What’s more, all of this cannot be disentangled from Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest and lack of transparency about them. The press is going to dig up all manner of conflicts and potentially corruption, and the White House’s gaslighting now lays the groundwork to discredit any such efforts later.
Behold Trump last month in Phoenix, where he told his rabid crowd of mouthbreathers to their faces that the press were so afraid of him, and so unwilling to report the truths he was telling, that that they were turning off their cameras inside the arena. As the New Yorker reported: “This was a lie; the rally was still being broadcast. Indeed, it was such a blatant lie that Trump seemed to be using it to demand, from his supporters, something more than trust: they had to be willing to deny what they could see was true, and do it happily.”
Per above, this is the fascist loyalty test in its crudest form, straight out of Orwell. “When I tell you 2 + 2 = 5, will you agree?” For Trump’s supporters, the answer is an unequivocal yes. (And why not? After all, in Trumpworld, when you add up the popular vote, the guy who gets fewer votes wins.)
The question for America is, after Trump, will we ever return to communal agreement on basic arithmetic, that the sky is blue, or that it’s unacceptable to collude with a hostile foreign power? Or will every politician and demagogue going forward be entitled to their own facts?