By the time Donald Trump becomes president in a few, desperately shortening weeks, he will already have made falsehood a U.S. goal. Trump does not lie to cover up the truth; he lies to deny the possibility that such a thing even exists. His feints and reversals are the essence of his belief system; he espouses a philosophy of bullshit. Until now, those habitual falsehoods have been the idiosyncrasies of a private citizen with no real responsibility toward anyone but himself. Once he takes the oath, his style becomes policy. We will have to get used to a president who dismisses the intelligence apparatus he commands, who denies events that took place on live television, who does not care whether he is caught in an obvious contradiction. We will have to learn to read a leader who treats truth as one option among many. When he issues a howler from the Oval Office, and his minions faithfully repeat it, that won’t be propaganda, but showbiz.
The term propaganda comes from the Latin phrase denoting a 17-century committee of cardinals charged with spreading — propagating — the faith. The word has an overtone of menace: This is what to believe; accept it, or else. It also implies the existence of an overarching philosophy, a consistent way of accounting for (or willfully distorting) facts. The authoritarian rulers to whom Trump-haters reflexively compare him, primarily Mussolini and Hitler, caged their people within a rigid version of the world. Those who expressed unsanctioned opinions chose to dash themselves against those ideological bars, usually with lethal consequences.
Trump, on the other hand, has stripped his public utterances of coherence, let alone ideology. His rhetoric is shot through with the language of coercion, but he always seems to be winking while he makes his flamboyant threats. (His more unhinged followers may act on them, however.) Instead of riling up crowds by preaching faith, or nationalist zeal, or dialectical materialism, he relies on his instincts as an entertainer. His highest value is not fanaticism, but sheer excitement and suspense. He fears only that we look away — and by getting elected president, he has ensured that we can’t.
In his collection of essays from the early 1950s, The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz describes the mind games that citizens of the Soviet sphere played to insulate themselves against an all-consuming ideology. The friction between official policy and personal experience produced a population of actors, people who, even amongst themselves, recited lines they knew to be false and masked their thoughts, which were by definition dangerous. We Americans of 2016, instead of becoming actors and reading ideologically prescribed lines, have elected as president a performance artist who has no script at all. Trump’s mendacity is improvisational, insubstantial. He tosses out a daily spectacle of sparkling untruths that dazzle like fireworks and are replaced by others before they have a chance to flare out.
Trump’s lies can seem like ploys to divert us from some underlying, unspeakable truth. But in the spray of distractions, he seems to have forgotten what, if anything, he’s supposed to be hiding. Are his Twitter blasts a diversion from a plan to use the presidency as leverage in his business dealings? Is his overt corruption really a cover for a program of white supremacy? Or does it all mean nothing?
The soon-to-be president’s hostility toward fact threatens America’s stability and the world’s. The nation’s debt has value because the world believes its treasury to be sound. Official documents certify the truth of their contents — an American’s place of birth, for instance — and allow its citizens to travel freely around the world. The democracy stands because its people assume their votes will be tabulated using objective math. This system has endured abuses, hypocrisies, violence, and co-optation precisely because it sits on the bedrock of hard, verifiable evidence.
You’d think that a public inoculated by Photoshop, CGI, and Stephen Colbert would be savvy about the difference between truth and truthiness. Instead, Trump’s election and leadership style suggests that voters don’t care. Americans love to elect entertainers — viz. the political careers of P.T. Barnum (who served as a representative in the Connecticut legislature and as mayor of Bridgeport), Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Franken, Jesse Ventura, and Clint Eastwood. But while those men used their showbiz skills to political ends, Trump goes much further: He has replaced politics with greasepaint and colored lights.
Where does that leave us, the president’s captive audience? To challenge Trump on the facts is to play his game and lose, because it promotes nonsense to the level of reason. Newspapers and experts find themselves in the impossible position of having to take seriously the utterances of a deeply unserious leader. The Washington Post has produced a Google Chrome extension that displays instant fact-checking commentary along with each of Trump’s oracular tweets. The Times tries to divine the positions behind the rants. But there is no position, no ideology, no strategy. There is only Donald Trump, an invented character honed over years of public exposure. That persona has no use for offstage realities. Trump doesn’t oppose climate science because it contradicts his short-term interests, but because it is science. He sows suspicion because he breathes it, and lards his rhetoric with expressions of extravagant doubt: “I don’t know and you don’t know,” “We have to find out,” “We have no idea.” His only answer to uncertainty is the assurance “Believe me” — the very advice he makes it impossible to take.
Trump’s deployment of fiction as a tool of governance can only make artists despair. He has turned outlandish plot twists into wan imitation, and made every imagined grotesquerie seem soft. In the HBO show Westworld, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is the creator and CEO of an alternate reality that well-heeled “guests” visit to discover who they “really” are. In the final episode, he paraphrases Picasso’s (apocryphal, but who cares?) statement: “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” Ford is an evil yet somehow sympathetic genius, an artist who has taken his creative urges to their lunatic extreme. Back in the real world, a fabulist has acquired awesome powers, including the legal license to kill on a mass scale. This leaves the rest of us feeling like characters in a John le Carré novel or the bits of humanoid machinery in Ford’s manufactured universe, possessed of the consciousness to understand a suicidal system but not the tools to change it.