In November, the Times reported that Donald Trump has, at various times during the past year, told people that he does not believe it is his voice on the infamous “Access Hollywood” recording, from 2005, in which he bragged about assaulting women while speaking with the television host Billy Bush on a hot mike. The Times, surely being charitable to its sources, noted that such claims from Trump have been “stunning” to his advisers. After all, the facts of the matter were long ago settled. Trump himself appeared in a slapdash video after the tape leaked in which he stated, “I said it. I was wrong. And I apologize.”
Pre-Trump conventional wisdom would hold that the President has nothing to gain in resurfacing and re-litigating the matter, especially at a moment when the culture seems to be at last taking sexual harassment and assault seriously. Yet post-Trump reality has shown that the only truly damning stories are the ones that lack a counter-narrative, no matter how feeble or implausible. And so, with Trump’s vague hinting at some conspiracy of voice-altering or overdubbing, the President has provided one, conjuring with his special alchemy of delusion and self-regard a speck of nothing that becomes, merely by its gauzy existence, something.
There are many ways to describe this mode of Trumpian anti-reality; I’ve been reminded of a recurring gag on one of this year’s best new TV shows, “Big Mouth,” a raunchy Netflix animated series about the mortifications of puberty. The characters, after spouting some bit of outrageous nonsense, say to their doubtful peers, “You’re picturing it, and we’re talking about it.” A clueless seventh grader thinks that two men have sex by putting their penises inside each other: “You’re picturing it, and we’re talking about it.” The ghost of Duke Ellington, who lives in the main character’s attic, thinks that all the Jews stayed home from work on 9/11: “You’re picturing it, and we’re talking about it.” A creature known as the Hormone Monster brags of engaging in acts of sexual depravity with the singer Rod Stewart: “You’re picturing it, and we’re talking about it.”
By now, every critical analysis of Donald Trump, our own national Hormone Monster, notes that he rose to political prominence on the back of birtherism, and though he meekly disavowed it during the campaign, he’s never abandoned the rhetoric and the methods he used to push the lie forward. (In the piece on the “Access Hollywood” recording, the Times also noted that Trump has taken to talking about Obama’s purportedly questionable birthplace again, as if finding comfort in rocking out to his greatest hits.) As with Trump’s birther operation, his most outrageous statements in the past year have worked—in the sense that people are talking about them and picturing them. Some people may even believe them, but the true audience seems to be those who don’t believe and who get tied in exhausting mental knots trying to respond. President Obama wiretapped Trump’s phones. The editors of Time magazine wanted to make Trump its Person of the Year again, but he turned them down. And just this morning: he’s never met any of the women who claim that he sexually harassed them.
These counter-narratives don’t even need to be especially persuasive. In a perverse way, the more shameless they are, the better, since these flagrant statements of untruth contaminate the adjacent truths around them. The only response seems to be to simply throw up one’s hands or make a joke on Twitter, or just shrug and say, “lol nothing matters.” Or we respond earnestly, talking about and picturing these lies, if only to refute them, and, in so doing, we somehow manage to debase ourselves in the process. When Trump retweets vile Islamophobic videos that purportedly show Muslims committing wanton acts of violence, or when Roy Moore, reading from Trump’s admit-nothing playbook, gets onstage and claims that he is the victim of an anti-Christian crusade, they are clearly full of shit. But, when we point that out, some of it gets on us.
The left, though perhaps constitutionally less adept at this kind of thing, nevertheless has its own totems of alluring nonsense—promises of impeachment and white-hot smoking guns proving Russian collusion just one Mueller bombshell away. And atop this hill of bedtime stories is the so-called pee tape, alluded to in the dossier of unverified information compiled by the former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, which suggested that the Russian government had been “cultivating, assisting and supporting” Trump for several years and had compromising information on Trump based on his “unorthodox” sexual behavior.
Trump, in January, tweeted that the dossier was “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!,” but he found himself on the perpetual losing end of his favorite juvenile schoolyard game: the country was picturing a lurid and scatalogically specific rumor, and he was talking about it. The pee tape may turn out to be the Pizzagate of the left, a sordid dive into an absurd realm of conspiracy hokum, but for those who dream of Trump’s comeuppance the truth of the thing hardly matters. For those who have comforted themselves by picturing it, dreaming about it, and lighting candles to its eventual surfacing, it may as well already exist.