In the late 1980s, when drug-war propaganda was at its peak, an infamous ad campaign was released comparing “your brain on drugs” to an egg being fried in a greasy, worn-out pan. (Not surprisingly, the organization behind the campaign was funded by pharmaceutical, tobacco and alcohol companies.) In a similar fashion, the American Psychiatric Association could launch an ad today featuring one of Donald Trump's rambling interviews as a cautionary example of what happens to the brain when one’s rampant narcissism is enabled by shameless careerists. Our new president is enabled by aides like Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway, who never contradict or say “no” to the boss, and media sycophants like Sean Hannity and Jeffrey Lord, who would be the first to defend the president if he suddenly began claiming that 2 + 2 equaled 5.
Of course, this is assuming that Trump actually believes the endless falsehoods that come out of his mouth. It’s also possible that he is entirely cynical and unprincipled, and believes that most Americans are too dumb, too uninformed or too apathetic to recognize his lies or care about them
The most plausible explanation is that Trump is both delusional and cynical. He has been a BS artist for so long that he probably believes some of it — especially when it is used to boost his massive yet hopelessly fragile ego. Trump probably does think that voter fraud cost him the popular vote, for instance, or that his inauguration was the most-watched in history — and none of his inner circle dare contradict him. (Only the dishonest media!)
On the other hand, it is hard to believe that Trump actually thought for one minute that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that climate change is a Chinese hoax or that Ted Cruz’s father was involved with the JFK assassination. These are such obvious falsehoods that Trump must have been cynically using them for political advantage. Birtherism, after all, effectively launched his political career.
One area where it can be hard to tell whether Trump is deliberately lying, truly ignorant or intoxicated by his own BS is on economics. Many assume that a successful businessman must be knowledgable about economic issues, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Cutting deals doesn’t give one any particular insight into macroeconomics, and it is well known that Trump doesn’t read any books — let alone books on challenging subjects. Economic issues are complex and often contentious, of course, and “alternative facts” can be hard to detect — especially for the majority of people who don’t spend their leisure time reading Adam Smith and Karl Marx.
It is no surprise, then, that Trump’s economic rhetoric is even more out of touch with reality than his obsession with crowds and ratings. (If that is possible.) Consider the president’s narrative on American manufacturing. Listening to Trump on the campaign trail, one got the feeling that all the manufacturing jobs that had been lost over the previous decades had gone to countries like Mexico and China. If we simply started manufacturing in America again, the logic went, the jobs would come back in droves. On Tuesday, the president signed executive orders on the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, emphasizing that his administration would renegotiate these plans so the pipeline steel would be produced in America:
We are very insistent that if we’re going to build pipelines in the United States, the pipes should be built in the United States. … We’re gonna put a lot of workers, a lot of steel workers back to work.
This sounds great. The only problem is that the production of primary metals in the United States has increased by about 40 percent over the past two decades, yet the country has simultaneously lost 265,000 jobs in this sector — or about 42 percent. Steel jobs have disappeared because of new automation technologies, not because of Mexicans and other foreigners.
This trend is widespread in manufacturing: According to various studies, the vast majority of jobs that have been lost over the past few decades -- perhaps 80 to 90 percent -- are due to technology and other homegrown factors, not trade deals or outsourcing. It is hard to see how Trump could be unaware of this; but it is easier and more politically expedient to scapegoat immigrants and foreigners who look different than to blame robots.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of Trump’s economic delusions, of course, and the president is hardly alone in his bubble of alternative reality. A candidate so averse to objective reality could only succeed in a party that is similarly averse to the truth.
Over the past few decades, the Republican Party has become increasingly detached from economic realities, and has been pushing what we might well describe as “alternative facts” to promote its far-right, pro-corporate agenda for some time. In fact, the supply-side economic agenda that the Trump administration is about to unleash on America — e.g., major tax cuts for the rich, widespread deregulation, privatization schemes and so on — has already appeared in various Republican-controlled states in some form, most notoriously in Gov. Sam Brownback’s Kansas. At the same time, states like California and Oregon have implemented economic policies closer to the vision of Sen. Bernie Sanders, which right-wingers predicted would be economically disastrous. What happened? Former labor secretary Robert Reich articulated the results in a recent article:
For several years, Kansas’s rate of economic growth has been the worst in the nation. Last year its economy actually shrank. … [Meanwhile,] California leads the nation in the rate of economic growth — more than twice the national average. If it were a separate nation it would now be the sixth largest economy in the world. Its population has surged to 39 million (up 5 percent since 2010). California is home to the nation’s fastest-growing and most innovative industries -- entertainment and high tech. It incubates more startups than anywhere else in the world.
Thus, progressive economics has been empirically successful, while right-wing economic policies have failed bigly (or is it big league?). Of course it should be obvious by now that facts and empirical evidence do not influence right-wing ideologues and corporate insiders who benefit from supply-side economic policies. Besides, the first failed experiment with supply-side economics happened more than three decades ago under Ronald Reagan, and Republicans failed to learn anything then. (The same economist who influenced the Reagan revolution, Arthur Laffer, was also an economic adviser to Sam Brownback in Kansas, and is now advising President Trump).
In 2012, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said of Brownback’s Kansas experiment: “This is exactly the sort of thing we want to do here, in Washington.”
Now the Republicans in Washington will have the opportunity to do just that. Perhaps it will take another economic crisis to expose supply-side economics once and for all. But don’t count on it. Alternative facts have become the GOP’s modus operandi, and Trump’s pathological lying, though more blatant and obvious than is customary, is the natural culmination of Republican deceit. After the inauguration, Trump advised the American people to reject the evidence of their eyes and ears; soon enough he will be asking everyone to reject the evidence of their wallets and paychecks.