Donald Trump announced his candidacy with the promise to build a wall along the Mexican border to keep out criminals, drug-dealers, job-stealers, and rapists. Already his apologists are waxing poetic, calling the wall more of a metaphor than a plan. The wall is not a promise Trump will keep but it was a resounding success as a lie. It attracted his core supporters like a magnet by stoking their fear and anger against ‘Outsiders.’
What Trump is building is not a thousand-mile-long wall but a thousand-mile-high Trump Tower of Lies. According to an analysis by Politico, during a mere 5-day period in the long stretch of the presidential campaign, Trump averaged 1 lie every 3 minutes in a given 5 hours of remarks.
The result is a dizzying sense of dissociation in the listener, an erosion of the capacity to tell the difference between fact and fiction. Trump has the demagogue’s instinctual gift for mass manipulation through deceit. Lying serves a dual purpose: to stoke fear and anger at scapegoats, but also to confuse and disempower the very people the liar professes to champion. If a perversely charismatic leader keeps lying enough, a lot of people choose to believe him no matter what. A lot of others cease to care about the truth.
People manipulated by lies, as any con man knows, are perfect marks—they will continue to hand their trust to the liar. They will become docile in accepting the unacceptable. And whatever goes wrong, they won’t hold the liar accountable. The designated scapegoats can soak up the blame.
Trump’s genius in the 2016 campaign was getting voters to think he was the ‘tell it like it is’ candidate who would strike a blow against those Lying Politicians while mobilizing them to vote for a one-man juggernaut of deception.
This is how Trump rose to power in 2016—the Truth was kidnapped, tied up, and gagged. He used a rope of lies to do the job—a rope Americans handed him.
What just happened?
How did 60 million people allow themselves to be so bamboozled?
The core of Trump supporters just don’t care that he lies. They may or may not believe his lies, but they believe in him. They believe he will keep his most important promise to Make America Great Again, and that somehow they will be carried along in that upsweep. In addition, most core supporters loved the veiled and open bigotry they saw in Trump, which mirrored their own and validated it.
But what about all those salt-of-the-earth people of the heartland with their long-suffering losses of jobs and self-respect, who presumably voted for Trump not out of ignorance or xenophobia but out of the desperate need for “change?” How did they manage to overlook or minimize Trump’s bigotry and lies?
The question of how masses of people ignore or embrace demagoguery is one that I took up over many years of conversations with my mother. She was a Polish-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, the sole survivor in her family. My enduring picture of her is seated on the living room sofa, reading book after book of history, trying to understand. How did it happen? How could it happen? One of my first questions after my parents told me about the Holocaust was: How could people who didn’t do it themselves let it happen?
Of the several explanations my mother offered, the one that comes to me at this hour is: When people are frightened, they want to believe any lie that gives them hope. Hitler was a great liar.
Fear—about terrorism, a threatened planet, the loss of jobs and traditional ways of life in a world dominated by global corporate interests, the dizzying pace of change and increasing complexity of the world, the erosion of certainty—can turn into reactionary rage. It can turn masses of people to the Right—by which I mean not a particular political party or set of policies, but an attitude of authoritarianism as the answer to all social and economic ills.
What we euphemistically call a “populist revolt” is actually a large swath of a population embracing a demagogue. But demagogues don’t just appear on the scene. The stage is set by a populace fearful and desperate enough to make them gullible to any lie that temporarily lifts them up. Trump’s tsunami of deception, rolling over the electorate, triggered a neurological storm in the reptilian brain of many of his supporters. This part of the brain, instrumental to survival, reacts with anger, fear, aggression, and tribal behavior to perceived threats. It jumps on phantasms to keep hope afloat.
This would explain not only the aggressive behavior of Trump’s followers at his rallies but also how the ‘common man,’ whose most urgent concern is putting food on the table for his family, comes to believe that a gold-encrusted plutocrat will save him. Not just any plutocrat but someone with a known history of conning people into giving him their money and leaving them with nothing. If that’s not the triumph of the emotional brain over the rational, I don’t know what is.
A culture of lies as “information"
Trump carpet-bombed his lies on Americans whose defenses against deception have been drastically lowered by a culture of lies as information.
Who even believes in the Truth anymore—it’s such an old-fashioned word, a concept long ago eroded in “elite” circles by fashionable post-modernist relativism and among the masses by Facebook cocoons and Internet echo chambers. The Oxford English Dictionary just announced its word of 2016: “post-truth.” In a post-truth world, why not believe the liar you love best?
It is a truism that the free flow of information is essential to democracy. And we sure do love our information streams. We have no Iron Curtain of censorship in the U.S.; on the contrary, we have information coming out of our ears. We have trouble distinguishing truth from lies because “information” has been perversely democratized by the Internet and social media. Anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. Any opinion can be called a ‘fact.’ No need for editors, fact-checkers, peer reviewers, or basic knowledge of the subject.
Anything goes in this new age of assertion without evidence. Not an Iron Curtain but a Brain Fog Curtain of certainty without proof.
Enter Trump—the perfect candidate for this Age of Brain Fog. He knows that truth doesn’t sell. Whereas truthful hyperbole, defined by Trump as “an innocent form of exaggeration and a very effective form of promotion” is indeed very effective. But not so innocent. An entrepreneurial version of Orwellian doublethink, truthful hyperbole is the best example of what it refers to: the use of language as propaganda, designed to obfuscate reality in order to promote and sell a product.
The product is Trump. But exactly what kind of product is he?
The narcissist sociopath brand
Politically speaking, Trump feels no need to define or describe his brand. Throughout the campaign, he was completely vague and uninterested in answering any substantive questions about policy. He has no policy. What he has is a will-to-power. He’s Trump and that’s all there is to it. L’etat, c’est moi, American style. He will do whatever suits him. No need for explanation or justification.
This is how a narcissistic and sociopathic personality thinks. These terms are not insults or disparagement of the mentally ill. These are bona fide mental disorders. Narcissistic sociopaths don’t ‘pivot.’ They don’t ‘become more presidential.’ They persist and wreak havoc.
Speaking as a psychologist, diagnosing Trump is a no-brainer. Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance and an excessive need for admiration. A narcissist is someone who believes he is the greatest at everything he does and that he can do anything he sets out to do, no matter how ill-equipped he is for the job. He doesn’t countenance failure and blames everyone else before taking responsibility for anything that doesn’t work out.
Sound familiar? When Trump was asked whom he consults on foreign policy, his response was: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”
This remark alone makes him diagnosable.
Not every narcissist is a sociopath, but all sociopaths are narcissists. A sociopath doesn’t mind how many people he hurts so long as he gets what he wants—power, wealth, status, sex. He sees himself as superior and rationalizes the pain he causes as a prerogative of his superiority. (“When you’re a star they let you do it…Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”) With nothing but contempt for the weakness and inferiority of most people, a sociopathic brain doesn’t register the concept of “moral conduct.” Attacking, stealing, cheating, lying are just means to an entitled end. A sociopath never feels remorse. (“Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness if I am not making mistakes?”) He plays by his own rules, which are not the normally accepted rules of the game—whether the game is winning at cards or being President of the United States.
Truth in the post-truth era
Pathological bald-faced lying may be the sociopath’s modus operandi, but most sociopaths don’t have the entire machinery of the media in America backing up, minimizing, or not challenging their lies.
Trump’s assault on Truth in this election was a quadruple-whammy: First, lie to the people at large, rock-concert Trump rallies and on Twitter. Second and third: get the media to cover any lie as “news” and, simultaneously, delegitimize the media with threats and lies (especially whenever it does its job and exposes your lies). Finally, tweet your way out of anything that might make you look bad by creating a distraction, abetted by the media.
If you can keep people in a perpetual state of agitation, reaction, and distraction by using and abusing the media, you don’t need a Minister of Propaganda.
When did it become possible for a television journalist to think that in the interest of ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ it made sense to present Trump’s lies as news as long as you offered ’another opinion’ from the Democratic side? Major media figures listened to Trump’s continuous lies and failed to call him out on even the most egregious ones (e.g. Hillary Clinton started the birther movement). In true Orwellian fashion, they called Trump’s lies “arguments” and “allegations.”
All of which was like giving a kidnapper the rope with which to gag and bind up his victim in full view of the public.
A “post-truth” cultural milieu is a petri dish for growing demagogues. It’s a milieu that has been created over a period of decades not just by the widespread use of the Internet and social media, but by the Advertising industry’s misuse of language—the use of words not to communicate facts or to make a real connection, but to manipulate and to make a sale. An ever-present barrage of ads has primed all of us to see everything—not just Audis and Marlboros, but nations and politicians—as a ‘brand.’ The Trump brand? It’s bigger and greater. That’s what the slogan says.
Add to this mix an entire cottage industry dedicated to spreading the lies and disinformation that fueled Trumpism. Americans now read ‘news’ fabricated by teenagers in the small town of Veles in Macedonia—a job created by advertisers that pay writers for linking false stories to Facebook. Did you know that Hillary Clinton will be indicted in 2017 for crimes related to her emails? This falsehood was one of the ‘facts’ that pushed the Undecideds into Trump’s arms in the last week of the campaign. A fact made up by some 17-year-old in a country most Americans couldn’t locate on a map.
In the Brave New World of today, it’s not the Machine that rules us but our own ignorance.
Can democracy survive Trump’s assault on Truth?
Obama has been trying to reassure us by suggesting that we give Trump a chance. Trump, he said, is not so much “ideological” as “pragmatic.”
Sorry Mr. President, but I am not reassured. Men who pragmatically put getting the job done before any concerns with morality bring to mind Mafia henchmen. Heinrich Himmler, the bureaucratic expert credited with creating the extermination camps, got the job done for the Fuhrer. He was nothing if not pragmatic.
Some say Trump never counted on winning the election at all. He ran pragmatically, to elevate the Trump brand and further enrich himself and his family. But now that Trump’s got the title of Biggest Winner, expect him to hold onto it by continuing to employ his best winning strategies: lying and bigotry. He may not have a personal animus against illegal immigrants, Jews, blacks, Muslims, or Mexicans. But if the bigotry of others works to keep him popular, he will not hesitate to exploit it.
As for lying, here’s what to expect: I know you’re lyin’ cause your lips are moving.
What’s worse—naked bigotry or naked opportunism? In the end, it gets down to the same thing. A pathological pragmatist can lay the groundwork for the decline of democracy in ways that outlive his tenure in the White House. Minds colonized by lies and propaganda can work as well as tanks in the streets, and much less expensively.
The US may not be Putin’s Russia, or any one of the many nations in the world today in which the media is entirely an instrument of the state backed by the military. But a tyrant can enlist the media to his will by deadening and deluding people with lies and even getting laws passed that make true statements illegal.
A future in which media criticism of Trump could be made a criminal offense? Unthinkable. This was one of Trump’s campaign promises. Here’s something I learned from my family history: when a demagogue makes a promise, take him at his word. Don’t say Oh he doesn’t mean it. Or Oh he can’t do that. Yes he does and yes he can. Given the right conditions.
Imagine this scenario: With the help of his cronies and Republican opportunists in Congress, Trump rams through a law that declares criticism of the President a crime. Democrats filibuster until they drop but are finally, helplessly outvoted. The ACLU brings the law to the highest court to test its constitutionality. The Supreme Court is now dominated by right-wingers, with a 9th Justice beholden and loyal to Trump.
Is this a nightmare scenario? Yes. But don’t be too quick to dismiss it. American-style fascism is a real possibility. Emperor-like powers of a president in a democracy weakened by a corrupted Legislature, a partisan Supreme Court, and a degraded citizenry. The befuddled ignorance of the population in a “post-truth” society. These conditions make us ripe for a new fascism Americana.
Will the checks and balances integral to American democracy be enough to prevent this?
Checks and balances are not enough to moor us in democracy without a population that knows what’s real and what isn’t. Yes, the Truth can set us free, but only if we know it when we see it.
More than Trump’s verbal assaults on women, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, etc. et al., what I fear will be the final blow to our nation’s democracy is the continued erosion of critical thinking. It is possible that the exponential boost to knowledge enabled by information technology will be irrevocably undermined by its downside: the continued decline of the ability to think independently and with depth about the problems we face. Thought itself is imperiled in a “post-truth” world. It’s not far from here to dystopia.
The Founding Fathers knew that access to truthful information is essential to democracy. They placed freedom of speech and of the press before all other rights. If we are to remain a free society, the free press has a critical role to play. Journalism, if it is to mean anything in the future, needs to unbind its hands and refuse to be an unwitting tool of Trump’s bidding. Corporate TV news will have to consider whether profiteering from a tyrant’s doublespeak is their true function in a democracy.
If, as the psychiatrist R.D. Laing said, “insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world,” then the normalization of Donald Trump by the media will drive us mad.
The worst thing we the people can do now is to give Trump a free pass. Give him an inch and he will take a mile of freedoms while we’re busy trying to calm down and act like he’s just another politician. Make no mistake: Trump is not normal—psychologically or politically. He is an aberration—a dangerous continuation of the lowest, most degraded aspects of American political and popular culture, yes, but in a major respect something entirely new—a deviation from politics as usual that signals the breakdown of democracy. To normalize Trump is its own kind of lie.
Somewhere the Truth lies bound and gagged. If we can’t find our way to her, if we ignore her dim cries, if we begin not to care that she’s been taken from us, we will lose her. If we lose the Truth, we lose democracy.
It helps to remember that Trump didn’t actually win this election by popular vote. What tyrants generally fail to take into account is that tyranny arouses fierce resistance. We can resist. We can use our voices to freely assemble and freely speak, to protest the lies that brought Trump to power and that will be the lynchpin of his reign. We can rescue the Truth and keep it alive.