Sometimes I think Donald Trump is trying to drive us all crazy. The relentlessness of the lies, the bizarre behavior and the overall chaos are just plain nuts. We've never experienced anything like this. Well, actually, there might be one precedent in "mad" King George, the monarch who was on the throne of England when America declared its independence. But that was a long time ago. Since then we've had good leaders and bad leaders: Some were even great while others were actual criminals. But this nonstop presidential pandemonium is unprecedented. And it's downright discombobulating.
In order to keep a grip on reality, it's tempting to look for a guiding logic behind all the activity and ascribe the confusion to some sort of underlying strategy. You observe a wily character like Steve Bannon and read about his bizarre fringe philosophy of "disruption" to bring on some sort of global denouement -- he literally called Donald Trump "a blunt instrument for us" -- and you figure this might just be a big act in service of his ominous vision.
Whenever Trump steps in it with an inappropriate tweet or behavior, a torrent of commentary follows insisting that it's just a distraction from some other inappropriate tweet or behavior. It's understandable. It's frightening to think that the president's confidantes are all extremists and amateurs while he himself creates chaos out of sheer incompetence.
On Wednesday Politico reported a startling poll result which the president tweeted after he saw it on Fox News:
This obviously made him very happy. Needless to say, despite his absurd assertion that it's "much worse than this," that number is higher than one might expect.
The poll did indeed show that 46 percent of voters believed the news media was fabricating stories about Trump. Furthermore:
Just 37 percent of voters think the media do not fabricate stories, the poll shows, while the remaining 17 percent are undecided.
More than three-quarters of Republican voters, 76 percent, think the news media invent stories about Trump and his administration, compared with only 11 percent who don’t think so. Among Democrats, one-in-five think the media make up stories, but a 65 percent majority think they do not. Forty-four percent of independent voters think the media make up stories about Trump, and 31 percent think they do not.
Among the voters who strongly approve of Trump’s job performance in the poll, 85 percent believe the media fabricate stories about the president and his administration.
So if we assume this poll is a correct reflection of the public's view on this subject, most of the people who think the media is inventing stories about Trump are Republicans and Trump supporters. That makes sense. That would account for between 35 and 40 percent. But what about the rest? Well, frankly I think they simply can't believe what they see and hear because it's -- unbelievable. It's more plausible to conclude that the media is making it up, especially for people who don't follow political events closely and only pay attention in passing. It simply can't be this bad.
I am among the 37 percent who believe the president is exactly what we see: an unqualified, wealthy egomaniac who won the presidency on a fluke and is in so far over his head that he's incapable of doing the job. There is no plan and there is no no vision. But I can see that he has done something by accident, out of sheer defensiveness, that is disorienting and powerful: He's created a Big Lie.
"The Big Lie" is, of course, one of Hitler's "insights," so it's always dicey even to mention it in reference to any contemporary politician. It also implies a conscious strategy which does not apply in this instance. But the idea that people are more inclined to believe a big lie rather than a small one, simply because they can't fathom anyone being audacious enough to fabricate something literally unbelievable, does help to describe this current phenomenon. And you wind up going down the rabbit hole when you try to unpack it.
Trump's Big Lie is that the news media is telling the Big Lie.
For instance, Trump did something bizarre from the very beginning of his campaign. At his rallies he always insisted that the cameras won't show the crowd and that they have cut away from his speech. He says this as the cameras are clearly on and are panning the crowd. He knows that most people are seeing his rallies on television. He follows his coverage with fanatical attention. He's saying "you can believe me or you can believe your eyes," and because it's so frightening to think anyone could lie so shamelessly, many people are choosing to believe him.
It must be said that the news media bears some responsibility for this. For years they had played along with a right wing that cynically created the "liberal bias" trope in order to slant the news in their direction. It took Donald Trump viciously attacking them personally for them to challenge it head on. Their behavior during the Clinton and Bush years, as well as their contemptuous coverage of Hillary Clinton during the last campaign, had severely degraded their credibility with members of the public from across the political spectrum.
Many people in the national press are now waking up to the consequences of years of excusing and enabling the right's undemocratic tactics, but they have yet to fully account for their role in it. After all, they eagerly embraced the last Republican Big Lie: the invasion of Iraq. It's undoubtedly the case that some number of those citizens who think the media is fabricating news stories today remember that.
Nonetheless, if nearly half the country believes the fake news that the news is fake, and the other half is being gaslit, we have a bigger problem on our hands than Donald Trump. It means we're losing our grip on reality itself. This has happened before in history and it didn't end well. That's why it's important to keep your eyes focused and your ears open to what is happening, even if it makes you feel crazy. You're not.