The Prison of Our Skulls: Donald Trump and the Unmaking of Reality

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The Prison of Our Skulls: Donald Trump and the Unmaking of Reality

It’s appropriate that the first press briefing of the Trump Administration featured a belligerent Sean Spicer bracing himself against his podium and attacking the assembled press for what he called “deliberately false reporting.” The first battle of Trump’s presidency wasn’t his planned dismantling of Obamacare, his highly controversial southern wall, or even rumors of collusion with Russia, but was, instead, a knockdown-dragout fight over the size of the crowd at the previous day’s inauguration.

The issue at hand concerned a photo that had made the rounds on social media and cable news that showed the attendance at Trump’s swearing in had been much smaller than former-president Barack Obama’s initial ceremony. With just an initial glance, it’s easy to tell the disparity between the crowds, but Spicer, charged with litigating the issue, tore into the assertion with righteous indignation.

“Photographs of the inaugural proceedings,” then Press Secretary Spicer began, “were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet, to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall. This was the first time, in our nation’s history, that floor coverings had been used to protect the grass of the Mall. That had the effect of highlighting any areas where people were not standing, while in years past, the grass eliminated this visual.”

Over Spicer’s shoulder as he spoke was a monitor displaying a photograph from the swearing-in platform where Trump swore the oath of office. From this perspective, certainly the one Trump himself enjoyed on Inauguration Day, the crowd stretched for as far as the eye could see.

Another of Spicer’s assertions was that following Trump’s speech at CIA Headquarters earlier that day he’d received a “five-minute standing ovation,” a sentiment his boss seemed to share when he told ABC’s David Muir “they said it was the biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl, and they said it was equal.”

These claims raise an eyebrow.

Five minutes of ovation?

The biggest ovation since Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl?

Obviously this is ludicrous. Anyone who looks at the pictures from the Inauguration can tell there were less people there than in 2009. And five minutes? You can check with a watch and find the truth.

But the bizarre truth of it is that as long as Donald Trump believes these things, as long as Donald Trump’s staff and supporters believe these things, they are essentially as true as those facts they obviously contradict.

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The brain is imprisoned by the skull and only the eyes and the ears can communicate the world.

I have no idea who said that or where I read it, but that thought has always stayed with me. It’s imagery is visceral, the truth undeniable. René Descartes, he of I think therefore I am, defined the issue as “The Mind/Body Problem,” or rather how it is that a mind and a body, two distinctly different matters, interact and function together. Descartes argued the only thing he was sure of was his mind, and entertained the possibility that an “evil demon” might be using magic to fool him into believing the physical world around him was real.

For people at odds with philosophy, and even those who don’t offer it their attention or energy, this idea seems preposterous. They’ve spent years in this world. They have memories. They’re using their eyes to read this very sentence. They’re touching a chair, they feel the breeze of a fan or the air conditioning.

Real is real is real.

To them, there isn’t much interest in philosophy, or, more specifically, ontology, the study of the nature of being. Living life day by day is enough proof for them that reality is real. And, as a friend of mine replied not too long ago when I broached the subject: “And so what if it isn’t real? What then?”

I don’t have an answer for that question, but it certainly appears that we are, as a culture, tiptoeing closer and closer by the day to a fundamental questioning of the nature of reality. We are, every one of us, brains locked in the dark dungeons of the skull with only eyes and ears to communicate with the world, but whereas the world being communicated by those eyes and ears used to seem similar, there’s a real and palpable fear they might be very different after all.

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One of the great debates in modern political history has to be whether Donald J. Trump, playboy billionaire and oversized ego for the ages, is a political genius or the luckiest man alive.

The basis for this debate lies in his incredible ability to survive an array of scandals that could have derailed any other politician, but is countered by the fact that he’s still capable of creating these scandals in the first place. The difference between brilliance and incompetence can be simultaneously startlingly wide and uncannily thin. Such difference certainly comes to mind when considering Trump’s greatest political maneuvering: the inoculation of his supporters.

From the very beginning of Trump’s candidacy – when he rode down a Trump Tower escalator to call Mexicans gang members, drug dealers, and rapists – he was undeniably politically incorrect and outrageous, a combination that attracted a base who identified with him on a personal level in addition to a political one. From that moment on, they were his voters to lose, and when he clashed with then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly at the first Republican Presidential Debate, his supporters had to choose between the first politician they’d genuinely believed in in ages and the network they’d been taught to trust.

Those who stayed faithful to Trump in the row had made a decision, an unconscious one at that. By siding with Trump, a candidate the rest of the world told them was offensive and unelectable, they had decided to push in all of their proverbial chips and dedicate themselves to the cause for the long haul. With each of these decisions – again, most of them unconscious – Trump supporters were building an immunity to any reports or new information that might be damaging to their avatar. This unconscious process, in which the brain does away with any cognitive dissonance that threatens firmly held beliefs having to do with worldview and identity, meant Trump’s supporters would stick with him through sexual assault allegations, rumors of collusion, and even, as Trump said himself, if he were to “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody.”

It’s debatable whether Trump actively sought the fight with Fox for this purpose, or whether it was a byproduct of his incessant need to counterpunch anyone he sees as attacking him, but it’s important to note his astonishing ability to lie in the face of contradictory facts has created something of a reality distortion field – a term that had been used to describe Apple founder Steve Jobs’ talent at convincing others of his ideas – that seems to give his followers necessary ammunition to counteract the nearly-limitless cognitive dissonance coming their way with every new revelation and scandal.

This influence that Trump wields, whether intentional or otherwise, derives its power from the realization that reality, long thought to be an objective experience, is actually made up of a nearly infinite amount of subjective experiences that only occasionally intersect.

It’s doubtful Trump considers ontology in between episodes of Fox and Friends and tivoed installments of Hannity, but his insistence on living his own reality is an antidote to living in an era where reality, and its objectiveness, are constantly questioned. His reality is concrete and never waivers, and following his dust-up with Fox News, and his continued criticism of media outlets as “fake” and “the scum of the earth” he has positioned himself as the sole arbiter of capital-t Truth.

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Days after Donald Trump was sworn into office as the 45th President of the United States of America, an international team of scientists published the findings of a study in which they claimed to have found the first observational evidence that our universe is in fact a hologram. This study, coupled with other cutting-edge experiments and theories, continued a popular new trend in science that focuses on questioning the very nature of our reality.

Is our universe a hologram?

Are we living in a computer simulation?

More and more scientists and philosophers are saying yes, this universe is not what it appears to be. The world our eyes and our ears are communicating to us might very well be an illusion, a subjective experience, the result of the machinations of something…else. Perhaps an evil demon fooling our brains with its magic.

The ramifications are so incredible the mind simply reels if too much time is spent considering.

“What if it isn’t real?” my friend had asked. “What then?”

I don’t think any of us really know what would happen if we suddenly realized tomorrow the lives we’d been living weren’t real, or were something other than the “real” we’d come to understand. That’s so far outside the realm of science, religion, psychology, and everything other than maybe philosophy that we might never know until we’re staring deep into the ether.

But perhaps that question is best left to its own hypothetical future, to its own pocket reality. There’s not much to be gained by tackling that large of a quandary, other than a headache and an infinite existential crisis. The spirit of the question, however, is something much more pertinent and important. As we look around and see our fellow Americans building their own realities one television show, one click of a link and one retweet at a time, we might be nearing a much more pressing matter: how to live in a shared society where there’s no such thing as a shared reality.

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