interesting times

America Is Trapped in Trump’s Delusional World

If it doesn’t work, he’ll just say that it did. Photo: The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

This past week was, in some ways, the most potent distillation of the Trump era we have yet encountered. This is not because any single incident is worse than any previous one over the past year. It’s because the last few days have brought all of them together in a new, concentrated way — a super-storm, as it were, of liberal democratic destruction. We have deranged tweeting; truly surreal lies; mindless GOP tribalism; evangelicals making excuses for the molestation of minors; further assaults on the free press; an unprecedented attack on the most reliable Atlantic ally; the demonization of personal enemies; stupendous tribal hypocrisy with respect to sexual abuse; the White House’s endorsement of a foreign neo-fascist hate group; the vengeful hanging out to dry of a Cabinet member; and the attempt to pass a catastrophic omnibus piece of legislation in one mad, blind rush in order to get a “win.” And all in a few days!

At its center is mental illness. It radiates out of the center like a toxin in the blood. And this, again, is nothing new. On Trump’s first day in office, with respect to the size of his inauguration crowd, he insisted that what was demonstrably, visibly, incontrovertibly false was actually true. At that moment, we learned that all the lies and exaggerations and provocations of the previous year were not just campaign tools, designed to con and distract, but actually constitutive of his core mental health. He was not lying, as lying is usually understood. He was expressing what he believed to be true, because his ego demanded it be true. And for Trump, as we now know, there is no reality outside his own perfervidly narcissistic consciousness.

Give such a man the power and trappings of the most powerful office on earth, give him a few months, and such delusions will get worse. Sane men and women are corrupted by the wielding of power; a psychologically disturbed figure from the get-go will degenerate into deeper and deeper forms of madness. It therefore comes as absolutely no surprise that, all these months later, he believes he has achieved more in ten months than any administration in history, or that he won the popular vote once you remove millions of illegal voters, or that a huge wall on the southern border will still be paid for by Mexico, or that his favored health-care bill would make health insurance cheaper, better, and more available; or that his massive tax cut for the super-wealthy is about the “forgotten men and women” of the white working class.

In his speech last Wednesday night in Missouri, for example, he claimed that his tax proposal was the biggest tax cut in history (not even close); that it was “going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me … I have some very wealthy friends. Not so happy with me, but that’s okay” (an absolute inversion of reality); and that the stock market had been flat before his presidency (the Dow was at 7,000 when Obama came to office and 20,000 when he left).

Or cast your eyes back a few days and consider his condemnation of various sexual abusers and harassers (such as Al Franken and Matt Lauer). Why on earth would someone who has been personally accused by a dozen women of sexual assault get on his high horse with respect to others? Because in his own mind, he never committed assault. Every single woman who accused him really is a liar and the tape that recorded his bragging of assault was in fact as faked as Obama’s birth certificate. And this is not the only indelible delusion we discover he still clings to. He believes — alone among the leaders of every single other country — that climate change is a Chinese hoax, even as the Chinese, for some unfathomable reason, invest heavily in renewable energy; he is adamant that Russia did not meddle in the U.S. elections last year and that the U.S. intelligence community is lying about it or full of “hacks.” He believes that every poll that shows him as unpopular is fake; and that virtually everything the mainstream media reports about his administration is fabricated.

This is a man who inhabits his own world — and it is not the one you or I or anybody else inhabits. And he does not do so passively. His delusions are so fixed and profound that he constantly lashes out at anyone, from a grieving Gold Star widow to random black NFL players to the prime minister of Great Britain, when they dare to inhabit the actual world and proffer a different point of view. He is a man who believes that the random, context-free videos he retweeted from a neo-fascist hate group really do show the fundamental nature of Islam, i.e. that Muslims beat up people on crutches, routinely smash Christian statues, and throw people off roofs. This is what he feels, and therefore it is what he believes, and nothing can convince him otherwise.

And all of this is not just part of an entertainment complex. Because his party has become a cult around his unhinged infallibility, his fantasies are entrenching themselves in the real world. And so, faced with the gravest nuclear threat since the end of the Cold War, Trump is involved in actually baiting and taunting an unpredictable dictator, vastly increasing the chances of irreparable catastrophe, with no tangible strategy visible and no secure line of communication open. He has eviscerated the institutions of American diplomacy, because the only diplomats he needs are himself and his dim-witted, mute dauphin, who has formed a strange alliance with another privileged scion in Saudi Arabia. The foreign leader he most admires, moreover, is engaged in an open campaign to sabotage and subvert Western democratic institutions. Those he most detests — such as Angela Merkel — are attempting to save them.

And now, we have the necessity for this madman to have a “victory” in the Congress. This matters much, much more than the content of such a victory. All Trump cares about is the “win” — and he will describe its content as what he wants it to be, not what it is, and most of his supporters will believe him. And so, at a time of deeply destabilizing social inequality, this law will actively shovel billions more to the super-rich, add more than a trillion to an already unprecedented peacetime debt, eviscerate affordable health care for millions, increase taxes on many middle-class blue-state residents, and eventually require massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare as we inevitably face a future fiscal collapse. But again, Trump’s delusional vanity simply wishes all these consequences away. They will not happen. Believe him. And not only are his absurdly rosy predictions true, they are actually going to be surpassed. As he said last Wednesday night: “They’re going to say Trump is the opposite of an exaggerator.”

It is not even a reassurance that reality will win in the end. It will, of course. In the end. But in the near future, Trump is pumping a huge stimulus into an economy that doesn’t need one, and it may well give the country enough of a feel-good 12-month bubble to sustain a majority in Congress, and the further empowerment of all this madness as a result. The costs will be borne by the next generation, saddled with future student and national debt, grappling as well with the kind of inflation last seen in the 1970s, and by current generations who, in our retirement, will discover there is much less Medicare and Social Security than we’d expected.

The only form of reality that will hit sooner is, of course, whatever Mueller discovers. But Trump has already declared this a media and Democratic hoax, and his own reality must mean that Mueller is fired, that the entire justice system be derided and discredited as a corrupt form of elitist convenience, and the super-storm of this week will become a hurricane, made all the deadlier by the ever-warmer waters of the tribalism and polarization Trump daily seeks to intensify. I have no idea what follows; but this liberal democracy is in a death rattle. And so is the international order it once sustained.


Is the gay-rights movement effectively over?

The thought occurred to me when I stumbled on the latest “social justice” cray-cray. From Canada, the land of mandatory super-wokeness, I give you the dawn of the LGGBDTT2SIQQAAPP community. That is: the lesbian, gay, genderqueer, bisexual, demisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, intersex, queer, questioning, asexual, allies, pansexual, and polyamorous movement. Now try pronouncing that one!

But in this neologism of so many consonants and tragically few vowels, I wonder whether we are being inclusive enough. I mean: Where does it address the intersectionality of the LGGBDTT2SIQQAAPP community with race? In my hometown of D.C., one ascendant coalition, No Justice No Pride, is on the case: “We exist to end the LGBT movement’s complicity with systems of oppression that further marginalize queer and trans individuals. Our members are black, brown, queer, trans, gender nonconforming, bisexual, indigenous, two-spirit, formerly incarcerated, disabled, white allies and together we recognize that there can be no pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.” The D.C. chapter has sister movements in most North American cities, and its message is at one with the critical gender and race theorists who now dominate the left’s worldview. So let’s add BBQGIFIDWA to the mix, so we do not unwittingly oppress some marginalized voices. Call it the LGGBDTT2SIQQAAPPBBQGIFIDWA community. I think I got that right.

But doesn’t that exclude some other crucial elements as well? Where are all the possible gender variants that are marginalized by this formulation? Sure, there’s only a limited number of consonants left — so why not just add an infinity sign to the mix, to include the infinite number of newly constructed genders that exist or are at this very moment coming into existence? Welcome to the LGGBDTT2SIQQAAPPBBQGIFIDWA∞ community. How does that feel?

For most of the straight people we need to engage, it feels like a near-parodic example of hair-splitting victimology and grievance-mongering. And to me, and many who once thought of ourselves as supporters of gay equality, it feels like an unpronounceable and impenetrable congeries of literally everything … and therefore nothing. It includes, for example, straights as well as gays, the cisgendered and the transgendered, the asexual and the hypersexual, the polyamorous and the monogamous. Which is to say, it includes every orientation — alongside the opposite of every orientation. It isn’t even about sex, because it includes those who are asexual, who want no sex and have no sex. It’s certainly not about love — a word that you will search for in vain in this intersectional discourse, because love is a bourgeois distraction from the constant ideological struggle.

And if it’s about resistance to oppression, and oppression is inherently intersectional, one has to ask: Why does it exist as a separate entity or movement at all instead of being just one small part of a broader coalition to deconstruct the white supremacy and masculinity that crushes every one who isn’t a white cisgendered male? And why does it actually include white, cisgendered males — i.e. most gay men — at all? Aren’t we the problem and not the solution? Do we not contaminate the pure victimology of it all? It certainly doesn’t feel very welcoming.

My point is that a political movement makes sense in a liberal society because it advances certain policy proposals, and not because it spends its time constantly defining and redefining who is or who is not part of it, or sees itself as just one sliver of a broader movement dedicated to an ideology a very hefty chunk of the gay world simply doesn’t adhere to or believe in. A gay-rights movement that has no place for centrists or independents or libertarians or classical liberals or just regular human beings who want to help out their fellows is really not a gay-rights movement any more. It’s one aspect of a wider neo-Marxist progressivism. Many will go along to get along, of course. But as time goes by, and these tendencies deepen, the white cisgendered men are likely to leave.

And that is a terrible shame because there is still important work to be done — extending employment protections for gay and trans people in those states without it, resisting the reopened question of transgender servicemembers, to take two pressing examples. The understandable inclination in the Trump era is to radicalize still further. But this is perverse insofar as it will divide gay-rights supporters by identity rather than unite them around a common goal, and because the remaining work requires engagement with the most conservative segments of society — voters in red states where the most vulnerable gays and lesbians and trans people reside. Doubling down on leftism makes that impossible.

We know this. It was only by engaging — rather than enraging — our opponents that we won so many victories this past couple of decades. Adding yet more woke consonants becomes at some point a form of narcissism that, in the guise of inclusion, actually leaves many of the most vulnerable to fend for themselves.

Harry Unites the Kingdom

One note in favor of the monarchy. I’m an unabashedly Tory royalist. This is not because I have anti-democratic impulses (if I’d stayed in Britain and at some point been offered some kind of aristocratic title, like many of my friends in the elite, I would refuse it on principle). And it’s not even because I love royal news and gossip. It bores me to tears. It’s because I see the enormous value, especially in these tribal times, of institutions that can unite people with each other and with the past. The British monarchy brilliantly performs both functions. The country is currently bent on an act of economic suicide in its pathetic attempt to leave the E.U.; it is riven by the same tribal divides as America; it has an identity crisis around race, religion, and even the boundaries of its own territory. But everyone loves the Queen. When she dies, the nation will fall silent. She is the living embodiment of that Burkean idea of a national compact between the generations, past, present and future. She gives an apolitical meaning to being British. I remember vividly watching Netflix’s The Crown in the wake of Trump’s victory. Queen Elizabeth II represented the polar opposite of President-elect Trump. Utterly self-effacing for decades, stable, rational, devoted to protocol, insistent on political neutrality, devoting her entire life to constant service, she is, in some ways, a living rebuke to the polarizing, showboating American presidency we now have to endure.

And like all great and enduring human institutions, it can change dramatically and still stay the same. Diana revolutionized the idea of monarchy, made it more humane and modern, bonded with millions of ordinary people, who erupted into a legendary spasm of grief and hysteria when she died. And so the looming marriage of Prince Harry to a biracial divorced American is actually important. It brings into a human family a smidgen of the racial diversity that now exists in the modern kingdom of the British Isles. It evades ideology, because it is simply a function of love. It buttresses the Anglo-American bond even as Trump lays waste to it. And through marriage and children, it will forever redefine the racial identity of Britain’s royal family. The wedding will bring a country together, pointing to an ancient past of medieval monarchs and to a future of multiracial community. What else could possibly do this?

In an unglued world, it is a form of fixative. Its complete reinvention through simple human lives actually deepens national stability and cohesion. In the era of Trump, it appears like a kind of constitutional miracle.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: America Is Trapped in Trump’s Delusions