interesting times

Trump Is Making Us All Live in His Delusional Reality Show

Tuning out isn’t the answer. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It seems so long ago now. Almost immediately after Trump took office, the denial of reality began. The president’s and his spokesperson’s insistence that his inauguration crowd was the biggest in history — and certainly bigger than Obama’s — belied what everyone could see with their bare, lyin’ eyes. At the time, I wondered whether the president was psychologically unwell. Three thousand lies later, we have a fuller picture.

The president believes what he wants to believe, creates a reality that fits his delusions, and then insists, with extraordinary energy and stamina, that his delusions are the truth. His psychological illness, moreover, is capable of outlasting anyone else’s mental health. Objective reality that contradicts his delusions is discounted as “fake news” propagated by “our country’s greatest enemy,” i.e., reporters. If someone behaved like this in my actual life, if someone kept insisting that the sea was red and the sky green, I’d assume they were a few sandwiches short of a picnic. It’s vital for us to remember this every day: Almost no one else in public life is so openly living in his own disturbed world.

This past week was a kind of masterpiece in delusion. It was a long version of that surreal video his National Security Council created for Kim Jong-un. It was crude, crass, and absurd. I can’t begin to unpack the madness, but it’s worth counting the bizarre things Trump said and did in such a short space of time. Trump clearly believes that Canada’s milk exports are a verifiable national security threat to the United States. He thinks Justin Trudeau’s banal press conference, reiterating Canada’s position on trade, was a “stab in the back.” And he insists that the nuclear threat from North Korea is now over — “Sleep well!” — because he gave Kim the kind of legitimacy the North Korean national gulag has always craved, and received in turn around 400 words from Pyongyang, indistinguishable from previous statements made to several presidents before him. For good measure, he took what was, according to The Wall Street Journal, Vladimir Putin’s advice — I kid you not — to cancel the forthcoming joint military exercises with the South Koreans. More than that, he has offered to withdraw all U.S. troops from the peninsula at some point, before Pyongyang has agreed to anything. He regards all of this as worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, his Reagan moment. And he is constructing a reality-television show in which he is a World Historical Figure.

This, in fact, is the poignant and quite bonkers script in Trump’s head: that the economy was in free-fall until he took office, after which it soared; that he alone has brought black and Hispanic unemployment down; that his administration has accomplished more than any other at this point in its term; that the Democrats colluded with the Kremlin to try to rig the election; that Robert Mueller is a closet Democrat; that climate change is a hoax; that the American-created international trading system was designed to hurt the U.S.; that you can borrow over a trillion dollars in a full employment economy with no consequences in inflation or debt; and that sabotaging the ACA will lead to lower premiums, greater choice, and better health outcomes for all. Each one of these assertions is what he wants to be true. And so they are true. As the chairwoman of the GOP just explained to any skeptics left in the formerly conservative party: “Anyone that does not embrace the Donald Trump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake.”

The bad news is that a vast chunk of the American public wants all this to be true as well. If you had any doubts that the GOP is now a cult, this week’s primary results should put them to rest. Republican voters have decided that they will follow their leader no matter what he says, and if that means changing their minds on a dime, so be it. Take Canada. Not so long ago, it was funny to attack our benevolent neighbor to the north. Countless episodes of South Park wouldn’t have worked without the baseline of reality that Canada is about as good and boring a neighbor as you can possibly imagine. But Trump has the power to change minds instantly. So in February this year, 94 percent had a favorable view of Canada. Now, only 66 percent have a favorable view, with 13 in opposition and 22 percent suddenly unsure. Only two years ago, free trade was as solid a shibboleth for the GOP as it gets; now, it’s anathema, even for Larry Kudlow! And watching every Republican senator, apart from McCain, Flake, and Corker (all retiring), stay utterly silent after their president praised a mass-murdering dictator and gave him a global PR coup … well, it’s no longer surprising, but it should remain shocking.

I’m not opposed to his meeting Kim Jong-un, by the way. It’s worth a shot. If somehow Trump’s gambit pays off, he’ll deserve a lot of credit. I even see the point of withdrawing U.S. troops at some point. I’m basically with him in unraveling the American empire. But I’m afraid I cannot forgive or forget Trump’s praise for the most hideously totalitarian regime on the planet, for a bloodthirsty scion who conducts regular public hangings, keeps his subjects in a state of mind-control, holds hundreds of thousands in concentration camps, and threatens the world with nuclear destruction. To watch an American president give his tacit blessing to all of that, to laud Kim for being “rough” on his people, right on the heels of attacking every democratic ally, is an obscenity.

And this was the response of the secretary of State, when asked, inevitably, how the U.S. could in any way verify North Korea’s promised denuclearization: “I find that question insulting and ridiculous and, frankly, ludicrous.” It’s ludicrous, he explained, because the president said there will be verification of denuclearization. And so there will be. Get that? Just lean into the delusion, and everything will be well. Trump’s various mouthpieces have resorted to exactly that formula, when asked difficult or obvious questions that assume a reality different from Trump’s. The empirical questions — those that reference the real world — are “ludicrous,” “inappropriate,” or “ridiculous.” But then when the Trump peons can’t answer the question, because it would reveal Trump as a fantasist, what else are they supposed to do? Show a propaganda video made by the National Security Council?

For that matter, what are we going to do? Every time Trump extends his ludicrous, ridiculous, and insulting reality show for another season, and every time the Republican Party echoes every delusion within it, there’s a big temptation to give in, give up, or look away. A numbness soon takes over. So many of my friends are turning off and tuning out, their decency reflexes exhausted with the pace of the indecency. With the Democrats incapable of consistently debunking this rolling farce, let alone attracting any media space to promote their alternatives, the press is the only viable opposition. But even journalists are getting exhausted. The grosse Lüge works, and the longer the spell is maintained, the stronger it gets. The more people who call the emperor clothed, the harder it is to see him as stark naked. I’m sorry to report that for the first time since April of 2017, Nate Silver calculates that the gap between his disapproval and approval numbers is now in single digits.

Havel had a phrase: “Living in the truth.” In a totalitarian society, living in the truth can be close to impossible, and yet it was possible for someone, as Havel analogized, as lowly as a greengrocer to refuse to “live in a lie”:

The original and most important sphere of activity, one that predetermines all the others, is simply an attempt to create and support the independent life of society as an articulated expression of living within the truth. In other words, serving truth consistently, purposefully, and articulately, and organizing this service. This is only natural, after all: if living within the truth is an elementary starting point for every attempt made by people to oppose the alienating pressure of the system, if it is the only meaningful basis of any independent act of political import, and if, ultimately, it is also the most intrinsic existential source of the “dissident” attitude, then it is difficult to imagine that even manifest “dissent” could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life.

Havel and many others were capable of living in truth in far darker circumstances than our own, and at far greater personal risk. But to cling to this now — to empiricism, facts, to what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, to what we can say in plain English — is to commit to the central and most essential task of resistance. We live in a lie now, perpetrated from the very top, enhanced by relentless propaganda, and designed to shore up what is a cult. It is growing in strength. It is precisely now that we must manage at every moment to dispel it. And then to vote, en masse, for its extinction.

May and Merkel in Peril

In case you didn’t notice, the two most powerful women in Europe nearly lost power this week. Angela Merkel’s coalition is suddenly in crisis after her Interior minister Horst Seehofer insisted that he has the power to turn migrants back immediately when they arrive at the German border, while Merkel wants to wait until an E.U. meeting at the end of the month to get Germany’s neighbors to sign on. Seehofer is from the more conservative Christian Social Union, rooted in Bavaria, and admires the newly hostile policies toward migrants adopted in Austria, Hungary, and now Italy, where the new government is planning to deport half a million migrants, and this week turned away a vessel carrying over 600 refugees. In Bavaria, the CSU is being threatened by a rising AfD, the far-right party, on the immigration question. Right now, the two conservative parties in the governing coalition are in intense talks as the Bundestag takes a break. The tabloid Bild conveys the reality: “If no agreement is reached, Angela Merkel must face a vote of confidence and every lawmaker must decide … Keep going with Merkel’s way or face an adventure called fresh elections.”

At the same time, Theresa May faced a revolt in Parliament by her pro-E.U. Tories, who have the numbers, if they want, to join Labour and the Liberal Democrats and bring her leadership to an end. She only averted a disastrous defeat in the Commons because she allegedly promised the Euro-friendly Tories — in an emergency meeting in her office — that she’d accommodate their demands for Parliament to take over Brexit negotiations if she gets no agreement with the E.U. by February. What her rebels want to do is force a situation where May cannot simply walk away from the negotiations with no deal at all without a meaningful vote in the House of Commons.

In response, the Brexiteers have all but declared war on the prime minister. Her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, even suggested last week that she was doing so poor a job that he’d like Donald Trump to take over the negotiations. The Tory press has turned on her as well. A Telegraph columnist argued that May “is leading us towards the worst of all worlds.” The Mail: “She has given the impression of a captain of a mutinous crew, sailing a rudderless ship across a turbulent sea, unsure herself where she wants to go.”

Yesterday afternoon at 5 p.m., May put her verbal pledge to the Remainers in writing, in the form of amendment to a bill shuttling between the Lords and Commons. And they declared it “unacceptable.” And so the war is on again. What May is beginning to absorb is that her disastrous decision to call an early election last year ended in such a slim majority that both sides of her party can force their will upon her. And that means that her chances of getting a decent deal are close to zero. The Remainers haven’t pulled the plug on her solely so they can avoid another leadership election in which Boris Johnson might become prime minister. The Brexiteers haven’t stuck the knife in because they realize that she’s the best they’ve got right now. But like Merkel, May lives in constant fear of a vote of no confidence.

This is what mass immigration has done for Britain and Germany. We think of these two women and their countries as bulwarks of European stability. But they could fall at any moment. And behind them stand a far-right opposition in Germany, and a far-left opposition in Britain. After May and Merkel, the reckoning.

Sexism Over Science

The fruits of wokeness are many.

The insistence that sex and gender are unconnected has led to this: Connecticut’s state championship for track and field had two born-male, female-identifying runners dominate the girls’ medals, stirring some inevitable backlash from their rivals, let alone their rivals’ parents. But they had no choice but to allow two athletic, testosterone-built women in the race: State law now requires that anyone identifying as a woman must compete with other women. And these trans women tend to win a lot. I loved this quote from a local television station: “You have some people who believe men are stronger and faster, so I can understand if an athlete is born male but identifying as a female and compete as one, some females will feel a particular way about it.” You think?

Then we have a trolling op-ed in the Washington Post that goes there. “Why can’t we hate men?” was the title of the piece penned by a gender studies professor at Northeastern. The only caveat the author put in the piece was the following: “Of course, the criticisms of this blanket condemnation of men — from transnational feminists who decry such glib universalism to U.S. women of color who demand an intersectional perspective — are mostly on the mark.” Er, maybe half the human population might also have a problem with this kind of sweeping, derogatory generalization?

What’s interesting is not the content of the piece, but the Post’s decision to run it. I wonder if the Post would ever run a piece with the headline: “Why can’t we hate Jews?” or “Why can’t we hate women?” Of course they wouldn’t. But if you buy into full wokeness, hatred of the oppressor is always legit. And men are always the oppressor. Women can’t be sexist any more than African-Americans can be racist. So it’s not just Trump who is living in a lie, is it?

Then this exquisite artifact: An email signed by some of the most famous gender theorists, including Judith Butler, defending an NYU professor who is being sued for sexual harassment under Title IX. Their reason? They have all personally known and vouch for the professor personally; the suit is clearly ill-intentioned; the allegations “do not constitute actual evidence, but rather support the view that malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare.” Finally, some gender theorists who concede that Title IX is often a legal nightmare! And then the kicker: If the professor were found guilty, “the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed.” They say this with no detailed inside knowledge of the case. Have they all experienced an epiphany? Nah. The accused is a woman, not a man. And they know her.

I was then diverted by an interview at Vox by Sean Illing with a philosopher from Cornell, Kate Manne. At one point, Illing brings up the Scandinavian studies that show that the more gender-egalitarian a country is, the greater the divergence in the kind of jobs pursued by men and women. Given the freest choice imaginable, men gravitate toward professions geared to things, while women lean toward professions involving people. It’s a solid, eye-opening study, and it raises some fascinating questions.

Manne’s response: “This is based more on sexist stereotypes than compelling scientific evidence.” She doesn’t, however, refute the science. Instead, she argues: “It’s not as if all sexism and misogyny have been eradicated overnight [in Scandinavia]; many patriarchal forms linger and are sometimes enforced.” And then she makes this claim: “There is currently no control group of people raised in a truly non-patriarchal structure, which is what we’d need to investigate claims that men ‘naturally’ prefer masculine-coded activities and women ‘naturally’ prefer feminine-coded ones.”

This, it seems to me, is a closed circle of logic. ‘Nature’ is always in scare quotes, as if biological differences didn’t exist; patriarchy is ubiquitous and oppressive; and no scientific evidence has ever been untainted by it. At some point, you realize that this is not a falsifiable argument; it’s an unfalsifiable doctrine. Men are definitionally the problem. Why not indeed hate them?

See you next Friday.

Trump Is Making Us All Live in His Delusional Reality Show