“It is surreal to talk about issues here on air, and then word-for-word hear Trump say it two days later.” —Alex Jones
From the Central Park Five to birtherism to 9/11 to vaccinations to Vince Foster’s death to Antonin Scalia’s death to Hillary’s mental state and health to Ted Cruz’s dad’s connections to Lee Harvey Oswald to the Chinese climate change hoax to false-flag anti-Semitic attacks to illegal voting to a rigged election to the deep state of the gov’t he’s now running, and, indeed, to numbers themselves, Donald Trump has always—always—obsessed over conspiracy theories. And from Sean Hannity to Steve “The Blogger” Bannon to Stephen Miller—who looks like a toe—to Michael Flynn, Jr., to, yes, Alex Fucking Jones, President Trump has surrounded himself with conspiracy theorists.
Mr. Trump’s unfounded accusations that Barack Obama himself tapped the phones at Trump Tower show just how paranoid our president is. But Mr. Trump goes further: he doesn’t even trust the government he is in charge of. In fact, he hirespeople who don’t trust the parts of the government that Mr. Trump wants them to run. Mr. Trump even refuses to use the power he has as President of the United States to tap the vast resources of the intelligence community to find out what really went down with that wire tap. Instead, he is building his own intelligence agency within the White House. The only information Trump trusts is the information that confirms what he already believes.
To tell a lie you have to misrepresent the truth. These aren’t lies: But the President truly believes these things. So do a great many Americans, and a hell of a lot of Trump voters. Mr. Trump has created an alternative reality.
After all, everything false implies its opposite exists: That there’s a true story out there. We see this pattern everywhere: FAKE NEWS! implies there’s a “real news.” And “Any poll that isn’t favorable to me is wrong” implies that polls that favor Mr. Trump are right. “Hillary Clinton lost the popular vote if you count the millions of people who voted illegally” implies that Mr. Trump won the popular vote. “The fake news media is the enemy of the American people”; Mr. Trump’s “real news” media is the friend of the American people.
But the President’s most corrosive lies aren’t those sensational ones. They’re the comparatively boring lies about government statistics and our electoral system. Reality doesn’t go away if you stop believing it, but democracy will.
After four years of this, do you really think we’ll be able to elect anyone?
THEORY #1: THE TIPPING POINT
If you think Mr. Trump’s mental state has recently reached a tipping point, that his increasingly erratic behavior means he’s beginning to feel the pressure and grow desperate, perhaps even losing touch with reality or morality, he’s not. Mr. Trump has always behaved this way. He only seems to be growing more unhinged because, relative to his social position before, the context he’s operating in these days is more meaningful and the consequences more significant. The stakes are higher, and the institutions he’s attacking are more venerable.
This works two ways: Mr. Trump, in relative terms, is punching both higher and lower. For instance, let’s revisit The Failing New York Times’ excellent list of the more than 300 people, places and things Mr. Trump has insulted on Twitter since announcing his candidacy in 2015.
The Times does us the favor of highlighting some of Trump’s most recent attacks. You’ll see he’s kept up familiar campaigns and also launched new ones. Against the FBI, for instance. And the U.S. legal system. And the former director of the CIA. The intelligence community generally. The election process. A federal judge.
But there’s also Meryl Streep. And Nordstrom’s. And “haters.”
That’s the high/low: the President of the United States shouldn’t discredit the institutions that enable and support our democracy, and the President of the United States shouldn’t attack actors or department stores. It’s an expression of the cognitive dissonance of trying to reconcile “Donald Trump” with “the President of the United States of America.”
This kind of thing is just par for the course for Mr. Trump. Here are some of Mr. Trump’s most ridiculous tweets. And here are some more. Here he is going on an inexplicable month-long rant about Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart’s breakup which he kicked off by saying she “cheated on him like a dog” and ended four months later with a boast about wishing her a happy birthday.
We expect this kind of thing from Mr. Trump. We don’t expect it from the President of the United States.
Thing is, now we have to.
MYTH #2: IT DOESN’T MATTER
Again, none of this is new except for the context. Mr. Trump’s unstable mental state suddenly resonates because Mr. Trump is operating among—and even leading—the American institutions he’s always attacked.
Let’s take the press, for one. The “enemy of the American people.” Here’s one example of Mr. Trump insulting a journalist years ago. And in 2006 Mr. Trump sued a Failing New York Times reporter for five billion dollars because the reporter said Trump was worth $250 million. A year before announcing his candidacy he went on Fox and Friends and said, “I have found the press to be among the most dishonest institutions. I’ve never seen anything like it,” adding, “Reporters are really dishonest, especially political reporters.” There are too many of these instances over the years to even try to list. Sure, calling the press the enemy of the American people seems to be dialed up a notch. But would it seem like that if Mr. Trump hadn’t run for President?
No fucking way.
There are countless examples of Mr. Trump attacking government institutions. He’s done it his whole life. For instance, he most recently attacked President Obama, accusing him of setting up wiretaps. It’s well known Mr. Trump has attacked President Obama for years. I’ll throw one tweet out there. Mr. Trump has demeaned the military and women in one shot. Mr. Trump once said that American medical workers who risked their lives to go fight the Ebola outbreak a couple years ago were good people, but that they must, quote, suffer the consequences.
And he’s dabbled in conspiracy theories for decades. Let’s start with the most famous, the “birther” conspiracy he evangelized for years. Mr. Trump issued at least 30 tweets this, collected here. This racist campaign included a tweet implying there was a government conspiracy, presumably ordered by President Obama, to murder a woman named Loretta Fuddy, the doctor who verified that Obama’s birth certificate was real, in a plane crash. That same day the conspiracy theory media outlet Infowars ran a story promoting this theory. Everyone survived the crash but Fuddy. Uh oh! But Fuddy didn’t die in the plane crash either. She died of heart failure well afterwards.
And don’t worry. These days the President routinely consults the founder of Infowars, Alex Jones, about information.
These sorts of things aren’t just a “new-millennium” development either. In the 1990s, Mr. Trump attacked the “Central Park Five,” a group of young black men falsely accused of raping and murdering a white woman in Central Park. Mr. Trump went so far as to take out a full-page ad in—where else?—The Failing New York Times to demand justice. When the men were cleared of all guilt Mr. Trump refused to admit he was wrong. In fact, he still claims they were still guilty of something related to that attack.
And now Mr. Trump is telling the American people that the United States intelligence community has been involved in a long-running deep state conspiracy with the Obama administration to undermine first his campaign and now his presidency.
Again: does that sound like a weird thing for Mr. Trump to say? Not at all. Does that sound like a weird thing for the President of the United States to say? To tell the American people not to trust the government he’s running and now has insider information on? That’s beyond weird—that’s dangerous for democracy. Even deadly.
This is just what we get for electing a birther as President. It’s not Mr. Trump who’s changing. Mr. Trump is 71 years old. This is who he’s been for years. Unless he has a lobotomy, this is who he will be for the rest of his life. It’s just we’re now realizing the consequences are real. And they can be devastating.
Mr. Trump’s attacks on the press have discredited some of the most reliable and honest news sources in the world. The New York Times. The Washington Post. The BBC. Time Magazine. The Associated Press. The Wall Street Journal.
He’s even attacked the famously right-wing Fox News and conservative reliables such as Bill O’Reilly.
In their place, Mr. Trump has elevated media outlets promoting the same baseless theories and outright lies he does: Breitbart, LifeZette, The Washington Examiner, Infowars. Isn’t it telling that a positive account of Mr. Trump’s presidency relies almost entirely on lies, hypotheticals, legerdemain, deflection, misinformation, dissemblance, alternate worlds, and, yes, conspiracy theories?
This extends to the people he’s surrounded himself with. Steve “The Blogger” Bannon is pushing absolutely deranged alternative narratives: “Islam” is going to take over America and we (“the Christian militant”) must wage global Holy War against them; we need to destroy the American establishment and create a new world order; we need a major global war to do it; such a war is inevitable, and it’s now his responsibility to push us towards it; we’re in the middle of one of the darkest ages in human civilization.
Mr. Trump’s speechwriter and White House adviser Stephen Miller—who looks like a toe—also subscribes to the “wage Holy War against Islam because, if we’re not vigilant, they’re going to try to take over and establish Sharia law” theory. One of Trump’s advisers on his transition team, Michael Flynn, Jr., promoted “Pizzagate” on Twitter, in which a nefarious cabal of Democrats, up to and including President Obama, John Podesta, and Hillary Clinton, were running an underground child sex trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor. Gen. Michael Flynn, Sr., got fired for lying to the Vice President and the rest of America. Maybe most tellingly of all, Mr. Trump’s own son, DJTJ, also aspires to conspiracy theories, lies, and falsehoods. If you want to go cross-eyed, follow him on Twitter.
Most troubling to me is Mr. Trump’s affinity for Alex Jones and the patently false, anti-government conspiracy theory machine Infowars, which, among other things, peddles the theory that Sandy Hook was a government operation so the Democrats could push gun regulations through Congress.
It’s a sign of an encroaching alternate reality that I even have to point this out.
OUR FAULT, OUR FIGHT
These instances all add up to a host of consequences for American democracy we don’t seem willing to accept as inevitable yet. If Mr. Trump convinces even one-third of Americans that there’s an alternate reality that’s not only possible, but absolutely and unquestionably true, he and the leaders of that movement have the power to delegitimize the government. The most long-term effects in America, in no particular order, would be the de-legitimization of the judicial branch, the electoral process, the climate, the press, civil discourse, language, and meaning.
I ask you not to deny these possibilities. We see this reflected already in the language floating around: The “real” crime is the leaks; the “real” crime is voter fraud; the “real” story is whatever the opposite of the real story is. FAKE NEWS! implies there’s “real” news only he can give us. If you haven’t noticed that civil discourse and language and even meaning itself have already begun to crack, then you’re just not listening closely. People on both sides of the Trump divide are exasperated with the other. Each side is certain the other is wrong.
I can tell you a nefarious cabal of Democrats, up to and including President Obama, John Podesta, and Hillary Clinton, were absolutely not running an underground child sex trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor, but if you’re a devoted Trumper, chances are you wouldn’t believe me, or you’d at least say the story is worth considering.
We need to understand this alternate logic so we can get beyond it. It goes like this: Liberals have harped for decades that everyone’s experience is relative and there’s no such thing as Truth (with a capital T). That’s the main premise, and it means that no one can ever be 100 percent right—except for in this one scenario: if you make a claim and your facts allow the smallest amount of wiggle room or skepticism, then I can be 100 percent right about you being wrong. I win and move on.
If your claim doesn’t allow for wiggle room between right and wrong, then I can make up an explanation of my own that justifies another possibility. If this explanation is unfalsifiable, that is, if it’s a batshit crazy alternate reality conspiracy theory, you can’t prove that I’m wrong.
End game: I can say you’re wrong; you can’t say I’m wrong.
Here’s an easy example: Voter fraud. Can anyone prove that millions of people didn’t vote illegally? No. First, you’d have to verify nearly 120 million votes and cross-check voter registries across the country. Can you prove that those registries haven’t been cooked? That they haven’t been cooked then bleached in advance? How do we know we can even trust the people who are doing the investigation?
In that sense, Donald Trump’s claim is ironclad. He’s in zero danger of being proven wrong. Who cares if he’s right? No one is right.
And that is the most dangerous conspiracy theory of all: That the government cooks the books. Mr. Trump and members of his administration say, publicly and in many separate instances, that they mistrust government data: election results; job numbers; employment rate; budget estimates; the cost of programs; and most famously, the estimated size of his inauguration crowd.
Imagine, for instance, if Mr. Trump’s healthcare bill went through. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that between 15 and 24 million Americans would eventually lose their health insurance under Trump’s plan. The White House disagreed strenuously with that assessment, and Mr. Trump himself questioned the CBO’s motives and reliability. People believed him. Now imagine if that bill passed and millions of Americans started losing their healthcare, many of whom voted for him. Would Mr. Trump accept those statistics? More importantly, could he convince his supporters, even the ones who lost their healthcare, that yes, they might feel some pain for now, but that the government, and Democrats especially, is lying to them about how bad it is?
This is the danger of alternate realities: That Mr. Trump and the alt-right propaganda machine can convince Americans things are getting better when they’re getting worse. And they don’t even have to prove they’re right. They just have to use the same logic I pointed out above: The other people are wrong.
THE THING ABOUT ALTERNATIVE REALITIES
Mr. Trump isn’t interested in reality. Perhaps it’s because his grandiose self-image and self-esteem can only exist in an alternative reality. But if we’re interested in holding on to what we have, we need to step up right now. Things change fast. Nazi Germany, for instance, took about a year to assert itself. The autocratic Hungarian regime took a little over two. Poland dismantled its highest courts in less than a year. Vladimir Putin secured dictator status in a couple of years.
This above all else is why we need to oust Mr. Trump as quickly as possible. The CIA isn’t a group of Nazis, as Mr. Trump once said. The press isn’t the enemy of the American people. Islam isn’t a religion of violence, and Muslims aren’t to be feared. Climate change is happening and it is almost 100 percent because of human behavior. Vaccines don’t cause autism. And the U.S. government isn’t out to get the President: the President broke the law.
Mr. Trump is living in another world. It’s a dark and fearful place. That’s the alternative he’s offering us: a place where you can’t trust anyone, where lying is acceptable as long as it’s you who is lying, where wealth buys credibility and dissent destroys it, where you’re pursued by a motley pack of wolves including the government, past presidents, journalists, department stores, the stars of the Twilight series, a White House podium, Neil Young, Chuck “Fake Tears” Schumer, Spy magazine, Rosie O’Donnell, the judicial system, Mexicans, Meryl Streep, your own health, your own hair, photos of your own inauguration. Sixty-six million American voters.
Stop for a minute. Who in their right mind would want to live in such a world?
The thing about alternative realities is we have the power to make them real. Barack Obama reminded us in his last speech to the country that the Constitution is just a piece of paper. We make it real by enforcing it, believing in it, living it. That sounded inspiring at the time, but he wasn’t trying to inspire us. He was warning us: reality doesn’t go away if you stop believing in it, but democracy will.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Nixon have a few things in common. Let’s add one more to the list.