By Wendy Kaminer
Now that season one of our political surreality show has ended with Donald Trump’s inauguration, we anxiously await the denouement of season two. Trump’s first year in office has, no doubt, been carefully scripted, but he may be as surprised by its twists and turns as he was unprepared for the presidency. He can’t control world events; he can’t even depend on controlling the Republican congress, if its electoral interests begin to deviate from his own. Despite his success in flouting political norms, Trump will be subject to one unalterable fact of life — unpredictability — that no president can escape. His reign will not go according to plan.
His first days in office were not entirely happy ones. It rained on Trump’s parade, or at least, on his dark and angry inaugural speech (which echoed lines from a Batman villain). The crowd was significantly smaller than the crowd drawn by Obama’s inauguration, and it was dwarfed by protest rallies that erupted across the country the day after his swearing in, as the press duly noted and aerial photographs clearly showed. Naturally Trump threw a tantrum. For a reality-TV star obsessed with ratings, his relatively low numbers were facts that could not be allowed to stand. He immediately dispatched his press secretary, Sean Spicer, to excoriate the press for reporting inconvenient, if relatively trivial, truths about the size of his inaugural crowd.
Some see a method to this madness, noting that the furore over Spicer’s angry denunciation of indisputable (unimportant) facts helped distract the press from unexpectedly huge, unprecedented post-inaugural protest rallies. But if this absurd outburst served a strategic purpose, I suspect it was serendipitous. There’s madness motivating this method. Trump’s performance during the past year has made clear his extreme resistance to acknowledging unflattering facts as well as his hypersensitivity to criticism. Whether or not he promises to be the most corrupt person ever to occupy the White House, given his wide-ranging business interests and kleptocratic tendencies, he surely seems the most childish. Some people begin to enter their second childhoods at 70. Trump seems never to have left his first.
Entering office with historically low approval numbers and nearly three million votes less than Hillary Clinton (in other words, beset by low ratings), Trump repeatedly reminds us that he won and claims a historic mandate. His inaugural address played to his base — the minority of people who voted for him — as if he could delete people who voted against him (his ‘enemies’) by ignoring them. Instead of pledging to serve everyone, as presidents typically do, he effectively demanded that everyone serve him, demanding ‘total allegiance to the United States of America’, which he seems to imagine himself personifying.
We’re not supposed to remind Trump that he owes his victory to the Electoral College or to present him with other evidence of unpopularity. Negative press is ‘demoralising’, Spicer complained, at a second more conventional and conciliatory press briefing, as if the job of the press was stroking the president’s ego. But the emotional volatility of this thin-skinned man-child apparently troubles even his White House aides, who are leaking concerns about his behaviour only a few days into his tenure.‘President Trump had just returned to the White House on Saturday from his final inauguration event, a tranquil interfaith prayer service, when the flashes of anger began to build’, the Washington Post reports, citing as a source ‘nearly a dozen senior White House officials and other Trump advisers and confidants’. It continues: ‘Trump turned on the television to see a jarring juxtaposition — massive demonstrations around the globe protesting his day-old presidency and footage of the sparser crowd at his inauguration, with large patches of white empty space on the Mall… Trump grew increasingly and visibly enraged.’
The New York Times offers a similar account: ‘Mr Trump grew increasingly angry on inauguration day after reading a series of Twitter messages pointing out that the size of his inaugural crowd did not rival that of Mr Obama’s in 2009. But he spent his Friday night in a whirlwind of celebration and affirmation. When he awoke on Saturday morning, after his first night in the executive mansion, the glow was gone, several people close to him said, and the new president was filled anew with a sense of injury.’
Trump’s notoriously short attention span, unwillingness or inability to read substantive briefing papers, and preoccupation with cable news means he needs parental oversight and timeouts from TV, a Politico report suggests: ‘One person who frequently talks to Trump said aides have to push back privately against his worst impulses in the White House… and have to control information that may infuriate him. He gets bored and likes to watch TV, this person said, so it is important to minimise that.’
Trump professes a belief in the canard that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but it obviously doesn’t run deep. He has two primary reactions to unwelcome press: lash out at the ‘dishonest media’ for reporting unflattering facts and boast about his allegedly superior intelligence and popularity. ‘I had an uncle who was a great professor at MIT for 35 years who did a fantastic job in so many different ways, academically — was an academic genius — and then they say, is Donald Trump an intellectual? Trust me, I’m like a smart person’, Trump remarked, in a bizarre stream-of-consciousness talk at the CIA.
Then he bragged about his inaugural speech: ‘Did everybody like the speech? I’ve been given good reviews… I looked out, the field was — it looked like a million, million-and-a-half people. They showed a field where there were practically nobody standing there. And they said, Donald Trump did not draw well.’
Trump had reportedly planted about 40 people in his CIA audience, just as he employed actors to cheer him when he announced his presidential run and placed staffers in the audience of his brief, post-election press performance in December. So, some audience members obediently applauded his attacks on a free press, including his false assertion that the media had fabricated his feud with the CIA, which, in fact, he had initiated in a series of tweets, one of which compared the intelligence community to Nazi Germany.
Did Trump assume that CIA agents would believe claims that they must know are untrue? Maybe; maybe not. Maybe (probably) he doesn’t think much before he speaks. Besides, his intended audience may not have been the CIA. He may have been addressing his supporters, who have either ignored or accepted as true the practically innumerable, demonstrable falsehoods that Trump told throughout his campaign, especially when exploiting hostility toward critical press coverage. ‘Rope, Tree, Journalist’, a notorious t-shirt at his rallies proclaimed.
The Trump administration presents ‘alternative facts’, his chief propagandist Kellyanne Conway explained on Meet the Press, when confronted with indisputable falsehoods. As the Washington Post media critic observed, ‘We’ve gone full Orwell’. Indeed. Conway’s unabashed reliance on ‘alternative facts’ has reportedly sparked a spike in sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Make America Read Again.
Alternative facts can create alternative democracies. Consider Trump’s persistent pressing of unsubstantiated and widely debunked claims that millions of people voted illegally, denying him a popular vote victory. He reiterated this fiction at a bi-partisan meeting of congressional leaders, claiming he’d been victimised by three to five million illegal voters. Then, immediately after a journalist asked his press secretary why no investigation of such allegedly massive voting fraud was underway, Trump tweeted his intent to launch one.
This could be blackly humorous, like Trump’s need to inflate his inaugural ratings, if only voting rights weren’t under attack. As I noted previously on spiked, in several states, Republican legislatures have enacted voting restrictions aimed at groups that tend to vote Democratic. New voting laws in North Carolina, for example, ‘targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision’, a federal court ruled last year. Voting-rights advocates will continue challenging laws like this in court, but now they’ll be confronting voter-restriction drives by the federal government as well as the states. ‘Trump has been stewing about his popular-vote count for weeks’, a Trump adviser told the Washington Post, and he seems poised to turn his dream of a popular-vote victory into another alternative reality.
So far, the new president has prospered by creating his own realities, like the dystopian vision of ‘American carnage’ he promoted in his inaugural speech. In fact, violent crime has declined. Employment rose dramatically during the Obama years, the stock market hit record highs, and middle-class wages began rising. Perhaps for people whose manufacturing and coal-mining jobs have evaporated and people stuck in low-paying service jobs, Trump’s description of a depressed, unemployed nation may seem true. Of course inequality is high, and many aren’t prospering. But not all of his voters are economically depressed, and many believe his false accounts of the American economy: according to Public Policy Polling, 67 per cent of Trump supporters wrongly believe that unemployment increased during the Obama administration, only 20 per cent say it decreased. Thirty-nine per cent wrongly believe that the stock market went down during the Obama administration. Only 41 per cent say it went up.
Trump will continue promoting flattering or otherwise useful fictions, and it’s impossible to know if reality will eventually intrude. If, for example, employment and wages decline during his tenure, if the number of uninsured Americans rises with the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, will Trump succeed in convincing a critical mass of voters that reports of economic reversals are untrue — lies spread by a hostile media? Will he succeed in blaming Democrats for any disruptions in the health-insurance market that follow a Republican repeal of Obamacare? And what will be the consequences of administration lies about national-security matters? ‘“Alternative facts” could kill, warn national security and other government veterans’, Politico reports.
This is not a melodramatic assessment, it’s borne out by history. Trump would hardly be the first president to lie about national security and matters of war and peace, and the lies have been fatal. The Vietnam and Iraq Wars were enabled and prolonged by lies. But perhaps no president has lied as boldly and consistently as Trump, whose lies are abetted by one-party rule, hyper-partisanship, and widespread mistrust of the mainstream press.
Journalists debate ways effectively to counter the ‘full Orwell’. The press should simply go about its business, media critic Jack Shafer advises in Politico: ‘Extraordinary times like these call for normal measures: the meticulous, aggressive, and calm presentation of the news.’ Calls for a renewed commitment to investigative journalism abound, but no one can predict how much it might matter. In addition to Trump’s success in discrediting critical, fact-based reporting, journalists have to contend with his unrelenting stream of lies as well as an overwhelming number of conflicts spawned by his business interests and refusal to divest, in addition to the conflicts and ethical lapses of his appointees. When dishonesty and corruption are routine, they cease to qualify as news. If one scandal is an outrage, a thousand scandals are business as usual.
Consider Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community, amid findings of Russian electoral interference and investigations into the alleged Russian connections of Trump advisers and associates. If this story involved any other candidate in any other year, it would utterly dominate the news for months. If the intelligence community had investigated the Obama campaign or Obama advisers for colluding with a foreign country, Republicans would have threatened impeachment for treason, convened accusatory hearings, and called for a special prosecutor, at least. Cable news would be hyperventilating 24/7. So far, this year, the Senate Intelligence Committee has agreed to investigate Russian electoral interference and alleged connections to the Trump campaign, but generally the Republican Congress is muting concerns about its leader and falling in line behind him.
If investigations result in strong evidence that the Trump campaign or its associates were working with Russia, Republicans may or may not break ranks, depending, perhaps, on the reactions of Trump voters. Will they begin to question their support for the president? Or will he persuade them that unwelcome findings are fabrications, devised by his ‘enemies’ in the media and intelligence community?
Trump, no doubt, has a great many secrets, as his broken promise to release his tax returns suggests. Perhaps the greatest threat to his administration is the threat of leaks by the intelligence community he has insulted or by others with access to his tax returns. His ratings and re-election will depend in no small part on his success in labelling as ‘fake news’ any exposés of illegal or grossly unethical behaviour, not to mention any findings of electoral collusion with Putin.
We’re supposed to hope for the president’s success. ‘If he succeeds we all succeed’, some say. I don’t think so. Here’s one prediction I’ll confidently make: if Trump succeeds, the republic fails.
Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and writer, and a former national board member of the American Civil Liberties Union. She is the author of several books, including: A Fearful Freedom: Women’s Flight from Equality (1990); I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional (1992); and Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU(2009).