Donald Trump is waging war on reality — so far, reality is losing

Trump's campaign against reality isn't a distraction or a sign of mental illness. It's his historical mission

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 2, 2017 12:00PM (EST)

 (Getty/Nicholas Kamm/AP/Reinhold Matay/Salon)
(Getty/Nicholas Kamm/AP/Reinhold Matay/Salon)

“I am your voice!” Donald Trump told the crowd and the cameras at the Republican National Convention a year ago last July, in a speech that keeps suggesting itself to me as one of those moments where history shifted on its axis just a little.

I was sitting there, 100 feet or so behind the back of Trump’s head, next to my Salon colleague Amanda Marcotte. I was feverishly taking pointless notes I would never consult again — the speeches of any public figure are of course meticulously recorded — and Amanda was staring into space and chewing gum so hard I was concerned she might dislocate her jaw. It was deathly quiet in the press section; in retrospect, I think we all understood what was happening and didn’t want to admit it.

If Trump was the voice of those supposedly angry people out in Television Land, the ones with some incoherent sense that their country had been taken away and they wanted it back, what was that voice saying? Because if we can generalize about Trump’s public utterances over the last couple of years, it might be by observing that almost nothing he says is true. Some of it is deliberate lies, some of it is fantasy or wishful thinking, and a lot of it is crackpot racist-uncle ranting, from the universe where it’s obvious that violent crime is way up (and caused by black people), Mexicans and Muslims are inherently dangerous and Hillary Clinton couldn’t possibly have won the popular vote.

Maybe what the Voice of the People was saying was that reality was not acceptable in its current form — that is, as actually existing reality — and he was here to replace it with another one. There has been a lot of angry, eloquent rhetoric about how facts don’t seem to matter to Trump or his supporters or the Republican elected officials clinging to his coattails with their eyes closed. The tax bill currently being crammed through Congress under completely false pretenses offers a proximate example; we could exhaust ourselves listing dozens of others.

True enough. But maybe the “alternative facts” and manufactured pseudo-reality of Trumpian politics are not a side effect or byproduct but its central purpose or even its meaning. In a series of columns this summer, I tried to develop the late Jean Baudrillard’s thesis that after 9/11 the world had entered a new phase of historical conflict, which he designated World War IV, in which the global capitalist order was effectively at war with itself.

That’s still a useful formulation in terms of understanding the resurgence of both right-wing nationalism and radical leftism in many different places, long after the supposed “end of history.” But when it comes to the Trump phenomenon, it might not go far enough. Although Trump is clearly neither intelligent nor well-informed, he possesses an undeniable performative genius that should not be underestimated, and has consistently befuddled his enemies.

It does no good to keep on exclaiming that his accomplishments are nonexistent and his policies nonsensical, as if that were a discovery that might change anyone’s mind. Those are in fact the pillars of Donald Trump’s presidency. He is waging a war against reality; to this point, reality is losing.

That’s not a new observation; many commentators (myself included) have been making various versions and iterations of this argument for months. It was fleshed out in some detail this week by columnist Thomas B. Edsall, who remains one of the best reasons to read the New York Times. In arguing that Trump “has single-handedly done more to undermine the basic tenets of American democracy than any foreign agent or foreign propaganda campaign ever could,” Edsall makes the important point that Russian interference in the 2016 election is a secondary issue or, as Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky tells him, that “to blame Putin for the mess we are in today would be ridiculous.”

It may be difficult to hold onto that thought amid the unfolding drama of the Robert Mueller investigation, with former national security adviser Michael Flynn apparently ready to flip on the Trump White House and rat out Jared Kushner or others close to the president. But Edsall’s argument that Trump’s assault on democracy goes hand-in-glove with his assault on truth strikes me as even more important. He cites a famous quotation from Hannah Arendt’s “Origins of Totalitarianism” that seems to describe our current situation with eerie precision:

One could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

Understood in its full contemporary context, that passage may hold the key to the Trump presidency. If fakery is actually the content and purpose of this presidency, and if everybody understands that on some level, then at least we are liberated from the endless media self-torture and amateur anthropology regarding Trump’s “working-class” base in the picturesque hinterlands of hurricane-damaged KenTaco Huts. You know what I’m talking about: What do they want? Why are they so angry? When will they wake up and understand that liberals who condescend to them from afar actually have their best interests at heart?

Let’s give Trump’s voters a little credit: They’re not actually dumb enough to believe that his ludicrous promises can be enacted in the physical world and that his presidency will culminate with a “Game of Thrones”-style border wall, the expulsion of all Muslim and Latino immigrants and the public execution of Hillary Clinton. We’re talking about a class and a nation indoctrinated to believe that power relations will never change, politics is a meaningless charade and American life is defined by boring jobs and endless consumption. (Honestly, under the circumstances it’s hard to blame them for those conclusions.)

Given that, what they were really voting for with Donald Trump was the as-seen-on-TV version of those things: a disruptive theater of hate featuring lots of vulgar rhetoric and deliberate provocation, along with some feints toward actual totalitarianism (as in Charlottesville), but designed more than anything else to shock and terrify the bicoastal educated classes they perceive as the “elite” or the “establishment.” Since that’s exactly what they’ve gotten, it’s hard to see why they should be disappointed or repentant, am I right?

Do I attribute too much cynicism to the American voter, or too much sophistication? Possibly the latter; I’m not sure the former is even possible. I am not remotely suggesting that objective reality does not exist or does not matter: Republicans are taking advantage of Trump’s fantasy regime to do all kinds of real and very bad things, including deregulating polluting industries, packing the federal courts with right-wing judges and rewriting the tax code such that a little more of your money and mine disappears into some dude’s numbered account in the Caymans.

If Democrats or progressive socialists or whoever you like better than Trump are going to defeat his Disneyland of hate in the political arena, of course reality must be their battleground and their weapon. (It would help if they had a story to tell that was even half as compelling as his, and the resolution of that question may be the ultimate legacy of the Bernie Sanders campaign.) As we saw recently in Virginia, there is some reason for optimism on that front.

But based on the evidence we see before us, it does not appear that Trump’s supporters will abandon him as long as he keeps on performing his role as king of the Carnival of Deplorables — aided and abetted by the schoolmarm outrage of the official opposition — or that they even care that his administration’s policies are likely to harm them disproportionately. There’s no way around it: This is a brilliant conjuring act. If Baudrillard were still here to witness it, he might describe it as a malevolent but magnificent work of art.

Lying to voters about whom you represent and what you’re going to do with power once you get it is so 20th century. Luring working-class white voters with bogus culture-war politics so they will eagerly vote against their own “economic interests,” as the old saw puts it, has been Republican electoral strategy since at least 1968. Trump has gone much further than that; further, I think, than most of us appreciate.

Trump doesn’t just tell lies. He piles them on top of each other in overwhelming profusion; he inhabits them for a while and then casts them away, like a snake shedding its skin. He creates an entire universe of lies and invites his listeners to live in it, somewhat as Walt Disney’s theme parks were meant to create a pseudo-America more welcoming than the real thing. Trump’s tsunami of outrageous, impossible lies that no rational person could possibly accept is something like a stage magician’s conspiratorial wink to an audience that, in Arendt’s phrase, has taken refuge in cynicism. You know and I know that the entire enterprise of politics is fraudulent, Trump told his MAGA-hatted minions (in effect); let’s prove it by perpetrating the biggest fraud of all.

He promised his followers a fantastic theme-park America that never was and could never be, and all along they knew or suspected that nameless villains would prevent those fantasies from coming true. But wasn’t it worth suffering some pain themselves, perhaps a considerable amount, to inflict symbolic revenge on those who believed themselves superior? Wasn’t it worth the sacrifice of democracy and the disorienting descent into cynicism to prove to the sniggering coastal elites that America wasn’t the contented, upward-trending multicultural meritocracy they thought it was?

Whether Trump’s powerful invocation of pseudo-reality was calculated or just instinctive, it casts his relationship with Steve Bannon, his former adviser and supposed Svengali, in quite a different light. There’s no doubt Bannon played an important role in shaping the campaign message that Trump rode to victory (or at least pseudo-victory) in 2016. But the once and future Breitbart chair was all too eager to present himself to the press as the dark genius who engineered a charismatic TV nincompoop’s rise to power, and the press ate it up.

On both sides of that equation, that might have reflected the prison of old thinking. Maybe it was really the other way around. In retrospect, Trump’s understanding of the fluid political-cultural landscape was far ahead of Bannon’s. After all, if Bannon’s masturbatory fantasies about a 50-year regime of “economic nationalism” and a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan that would “jack up” shipyards and ironworks — seriously, Steve, where do we find “ironworks” outside the movies? — were complete nonsense, they nonetheless bore some relationship to historical reality.

Furthermore, Bannon apparently suckered himself into believing that once he and Trump got power, they would actually try to do that stuff. LOL old paradigm, bro! Trump correctly understood that none of that mattered: He didn’t care about ironworks or a 50-year Republican Reich or all the other boring bullshit that would be expensive and difficult and take a long time. Much easier to send Bannon back to his lair to run his all-caps website and plot pointless primary challenges, and let the bankers and lobbyists run things as usual.

Trump is an expert salesman who relies on truisms that are at least partly true: People like to be lied to, and expect to be disappointed by the actual commodity. His specialty, after all, was “the art of the deal,” not the third-rate, craptastic buildings that sometimes resulted. He has built his glorious vaporware presidency on a similar principle, as a virtual Trump Tower of shimmering, cascading lies that bewilder his foes and allow his fans to revel in their cynicism, believing that at last they have gotten a peek behind the curtain and know how things really work. Taken on its own terms, it’s a great success.

A public that no longer believes in anything, Hannah Arendt said in 1974, “is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.” We aren’t quite there yet, but the damage wrought by Donald Trump’s presidency — and by the long road that brought us here — runs deep. To paraphrase an important song of my youth, he’s the future: No future.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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