What a long, strange trip the past three and a half Trumpian years have been.
Outgoing President Obama’s statement in November 2016 that Donald Trump was “uniquely unqualified to be President” unfortunately turned out to be more than mere partisan hyperbole. The veracity of Obama’s statement has been confirmed repeatedly in virtually every action, statement and tweet that President Trump has made during his scandal-ridden administration.
By April 14th, the Washington Post had identified 18,000 false or misleading claims told by the President. In 1,170 days, that represents over 15 lies per day. Gary Cohn, former Chief Economic Advisor to President Trump, stated “He’s a professional liar.” Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly were less flattering.
What happened? Honesty used to be considered a core Presidential attribute. It’s hard to imagine Honest Abe, or any of his fellow Rushmores, telling 15 whoppers a day at the podium…and staying in office.
Scandals involving and surrounding President Trump are so numerous as to be difficult to keep track of. A September 2019 article in the NYT “It’s nearly impossible to track all the scandals swirling around Trump” described the problem, “So thick and fast did the controversies come that it was hard to focus on any one drama — a factor Trump has repeatedly used to his advantage in a constantly riotous presidency. The President’s perpetual cycle of chaos shields him from scrutiny for too long on any one political storm. And he knows that his base voters have taken his advice to believe only the version of reality that he creates for them. It also makes it difficult for the Democratic-led House — engaged in multiple strands of investigation targeting the White House — to mount an effective oversight operation.” Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee is quoted as saying, “You know what’s the most shocking (part) of it — that it isn’t shocking anymore. I am almost numb. It is one thing after another, after another.” Psychic numbing dulls perception.
This is, of course, crafty strategic politics. A cartoon President distracts media attention from the real Republican legislative agenda, being implemented daily by a shadow-government within the Executive Branch. Public focus is effectively deflected from the real issues of government with each new absurd tweet. Trump has turned the very serious business of running the country into a farcical reality-show, where the President can say or do anything without real consequence. The show has high ratings – according to the President himself – but why does it sell? This Dystopian parallel Trump universe exists in full view. Reality has shifted.
Psychic numbing is a factor. As “Battle Hymn of the Republic” author Julie Ward Howe said, “Familiarity so dulls the edge of perception as to make us least acquainted with things forming part of our daily life.”
While a puzzled world sat stunned, candidate Trump recognized a disconnect from reality in his supporters early on. During an Iowa campaign rally in January 2016 he bragged, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, ok? It’s, like, incredible.” Subsequent events have borne him out.
The former Apprentice star read his audience well. His public statements would have disqualified any previous Presidential candidate from the race. The future President summed up his operating philosophy in a 1991 Esquire interview, “You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of (Presidential Profanity deleted).” He included his daughter Ivanka in this category during an exchange with Howard Stern in 2004, and stated on ABC’s The View that he would like to date her (if she weren’t his daughter). Having obtained multiple draft deferments himself, Trump denigrated John McCain’s war record in 2015, saying “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” He attacked Ariana Huffington “Ariana Huffington is unattractive, both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man – he made a good decision” and Hillary Clinton, “If Hillary can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?”, shamelessly expressed the little-held opinion that “My IQ is one of the highest, and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault”, announced that he “fell in love” with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a 2005 video he boasted about sexually assaulting women, “Grab them by the (Presidential Profanity deleted). You can do anything,” he said, as well as “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.” Almost 63 million Americans voted for him.
The Leader of the Free World said all this, and much more. In April he publicly stated that ingesting toxic bleach may cure coronavirus. Why did anyone outside clean-coal West Virginia vote for him?
The scandals, too numerous to mention here, include: the Steele Dossier (aka “The Pee Tapes”) which purport to show Trump exhorting prostitutes in a Moscow Ritz Carleton hotel room to urinate on the bed that President Obama had slept in; the Trump Ukraine Scandal, which involved President Trump pressuring Ukraine to dig up useful campaign dirt against opponent Joe Biden, resulting in Impeachment by the House of Representatives in 2019; the Mueller Investigation, which sent numerous Trump campaign members to prison in connection with Russian interference in the 2016 election; the Stormy Daniels porn star scandal, the FEC violations, the Comey firing, anti-trust violations, alleged sexual assaults, violating the Emoluments Clause…there were Trump “Pee On Me” statues in New York…statues of the President…the President of the United States!
Full comprehension eludes us.
While it is tempting to blame the decline in critical thinking, the triumph of emotive intuition (truthiness) over analytical reasoning in the Age of Post-Truth, fake news, alternate facts, the deleterious effects of technology on education, FCC deregulation and “free-market news”, partisan politics and the partitioning of America, gaming of the electoral system, micro-targeting, brain-hacking by social media…which would all be true…the fact is that the culture had to change in order for the Trump phenomenon to exist in the first place.
In “They Don’t Represent Us – Reclaiming Our Democracy”, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig observes “And thus are we entertained, entertained to the death of democracy. The system is giving us exactly what we want. What we want is the problem”
Celebrity is the new zeitgeist, and The Donald is a President for our season.
On November 3rd, Americans will have to choose between rescuing reason…or flushing reality further down the wormhole of another four surrealistic years of Trump-Tweets.
Democracy hangs precariously.