Orson Welles, the great American filmmaker, loved a good joke. He began his career with a radio broadcast about a Martian invasion of New Jersey that threw the whole country into a panic, and ended it with a movie called F for Fake about a Hungarian art forger and a few reflections on the fine art of scamming.
Welles was trying to make a point: that truth is what you believe, and that belief is what you act on. We now have the daily spectacle of a truly fake president who does exactly that, and has raised mendacity to an art form so consummate that it seamlessly defines reality, tweet by tweet. And as for the reality of action: guess who orders our navy to cruise here or there, or our bombs to fall where he wills. Guess who keeps the nuclear strike codes at the ready, so that a war of world annihilation need never be more than a bad golf round away.
Donald Trump knows the secret of creating an entirely alternate world: lie all the time, as loudly and as often as you can, and proclaim most loudly of all that any other version of reality than yours is the absolute fake. You’re the president, which means you’re always one news cycle ahead of anyone else; you make the news.
In the old days, propaganda was a laboriously constructed fiction that was maintained with care and which depended on monopoly; all independent sources of information had to be suppressed. Propaganda honored the idea of truth precisely in the lengths it went to mimic it. In Trumpworld, propaganda is obsolete because truth itself is a fungible, ever-shifting commodity. It’s a thoroughly modern, indeed a postmodern idea, but at the same time a very ancient one. In classical Greece, truth came from oracles that spoke through priestesses in a trance, and in Rome there was—and still is—a Mouth of Truth that would give you the honest lowdown. In the America of our entranced present, truth is what comes out of the president’s mouth at any given moment, and, since he sleeps little and tweets early, we have our truth of the day waiting for us before we wake.
Other despotisms—and, make no mistake, we are living in one—destroy a free press as the first order of business. But Donald Trump likes having the media around; it is a perfect foil for him. It amplifies his message, and it gave him so much free publicity during his campaign for office that it might fairly be said to have elected him. Of course, the media spends much of its time trying to rebut Trump’s falsehoods, but in doing so it necessarily transmits them and makes of their very fakery the day’s news. All Trump has to do to draw the sting of such rebuttals is to proclaim them to be false, or simply to pass over them entirely and move on to the next subject. Hence the phenomenon of “fake news,” which is not what the Donald says but what is said in reply to him. In the ensuing confusion, the only constant is the presidential mouth. As with the Delphic oracle, which usually spoke in riddles, it hardly matters what it says. Since it is the universal source, it is the ultimate reference point of truth, and all versions of reality are defined either by or against it. Trump can contradict himself as often as he likes, and he likes to do it a lot. To keep the truth spinning is the best way to keep it from ever landing anywhere.
A case in point is the recent debacle over replacing Obamacare. The bill to do so failed on successive days to come up for a scheduled vote in the House of Representatives, and was then flatly withdrawn. Since Trump had made a show of lobbying hard for it at the last minute and even bragged about its passage as it was being pulled, the “fake” media naturally interpreted this as a major political setback. Not so, roared the Donald; it was all the fault of the House Freedom Caucus, or of the Democrats, or of Speaker Paul Ryan—in whom, the President said, he retained full confidence even as he urged the country to tune in on the television commentator who called for his resignation.
But, hadn’t Trump made the repeal and replacement of Obamacare the highest priority of his administration? Not so, the President tweeted; repeal would come, but he had never promised it within the first sixty-four days of his administration. This was “true”; he had said it would happen not in nine weeks and a day, but in the very first week. And the bill hadn’t really failed at all, because a new, improved version (perhaps throwing fifty million Americans off insurance rolls instead of only the estimated twenty-four?) would soon be ready: except that nobody seemed to be working on it, and, oh well, we were bombing Syria anyway.
This is what carnival shills do for a living; they switch the bait while you aren’t looking. It works for awhile, but what about four years? Trump’s approval ratings, which were in the mid-forties at the time of his inauguration, are in the mid- to upper thirties now. But he was a minority president to begin with, and the minority party he presides over, which controls both Houses of Congress despite being consistently outpolled on a national basis, has proven repeatedly its ability to control if not govern a country whose electoral majority repudiates it. What Trump is demonstrating for us is that a dedicated core of voters who will stick with you no matter what is more than enough to offset a disaffected but rudderless majority. In a parliamentary system, there would be a designated opposition leader; in our presidential one, the losing party is nothing but a defeated one. Who speaks for the Democratic Party, such as it is? Hillary Clinton? Bernie Sanders? Elizabeth Warren? Chuck Schumer? Trump simply sucks all the air out of the room; there is no voice but his, and like it or not, it is the one you will hear.
But what keeps Trump’s core base with him? The hope is that his failure to restore vanished manufacturing jobs and his savage cuts in the public services his followers disproportionately rely on will ultimately disillusion them. Saturday Night Live just ran a skit about it. But I suspect the good people of West Virginia and Michigan and Tennessee will live on hope and promises for a good while, just as people will eat food without nourishment—will eat grass, as the peasants of the Old Regime did during famines—when nothing else is available. And a few hundred people at a staged rally for the faithful will beat hundreds of thousands with nowhere to march but to City Hall and back. Richard Nixon figured that out nearly fifty years ago.
We have come to this—government by a man whose definition of the truth is a successful lie, and for whom the secret of that success is to lie nonstop—through a long process of political and social betrayal. We were lied into war in Vietnam by a president who told us, falsely, that our ships had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin; we were lied into war in Iraq by another president who assured us of six hundred secret enemy missile sites where not a single one existed. We have been lied to, regularly, by banks, corporations, insurers, and by universities too. The final failure of our institutions is the brazen demagogue whose moral squalor debases the very language we use and that he utters only to abase. We don’t need a Hitler to burn our books for us; we need only a man whose proud boast it is that he never reads one.
How far have we fallen? Even Richard Nixon felt the need to say that he was not a crook. Donald Trump said instead that he could shoot someone dead in the middle of Manhattan and not lose a vote.
So far, no one’s taken him up on that one. But neither has anyone given him the lie.