Rationality is hard to maintain in an irrational world, but, as Alice found on the other side of the mirror, it is mostly worth the effort—and the surest sign of rationality is the ability to imagine that your view might indeed be the backward, mirror-image one. So, as the short weeks pass and the crazy of the Trump time mounts, it seems incumbent on those of us who believe that we are in the middle of a national emergency, rising for the past year and now in full bloom, to try to find out why we might be wrong—to synthesize, if possible, from as many opposing sources as we can, why this might be a hyperbolic or even hysterical view, one not justified by the facts.
The opposing, or, if you prefer, comforting view, as best I can distill it, is threefold. First, that Donald Trump is a blowhard but not a Benito: the scary things he says are mostly just smoke in the room. Second, that what his opponents most object to are not “Trumpian” policies but Republican ones, which, like it or not, now dominate the electorate. (Even if one questions the popular vote, there are the G.O.P.’s Senate, House, and gubernatorial majorities to explain away.) Then there is the claim that even the most controversial of his policies—though perhaps poorly articulated or sloppily executed—involve actions that are well within the norms and rules of American politics. Finally, there is the warning that continued liberal “hysteria” only further insults and emboldens the armies of Trump supporters, who, whether a strict majority or not, certainly number in the tens of millions. By seeming to call their views illegitimate, according to this argument, one only reinforces their well-earned feelings of rejection.
Let’s flesh out these objections, one at a time. Like Ralph Kramden, whom he in certain ways resembles, Trump, when he tweets and frights, is a man whose impotence is as apparent as his anger. “You’re going to the moon, Alice!” Ralph roars, and Alice just stands there, a mordant expression on her face. Well, the country just stands there, too, equally unaffected. (In fact, “Saturday Night Live” might make something of a White House-“Honeymooners” skit, with Steve Bannon as Ed Norton.) Trump may be a cross between Ralph and Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, this argument goes, but such types are not threats to our existence. The tweets are just ridiculous, and Trump has been schooled in their absurdity.
The recent episode in which Trump berated Nordstrom for dropping his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line, this argument might go on, shows the underlying impotence of his anger. Nordstrom is doing just fine. And people may, in any case, have missed the key element, which is Trump’s remark, about his daughter, that “she pushes me to do the right thing.” The right thing, in this context, clearly means the decent and humane thing, and what is interesting, and what too many liberals may have overlooked (the reassuring voice says) is that, on some level, he recognizes that the right thing is the right thing. Ivanka may be sighing in desperate exasperation that her liberal friends refuse to recognize that her father is capable of doing the right thing when nudged, but her nudging job is harder when he perpetually feels himself insulted. Ease up a little, and it will all be better.
A similar argument might be put forward regarding Russia, and it goes like this: the Russian interference in the election involved the release of largely anodyne e-mails that any decently executed campaign with real popular fire in its belly could easily have survived. Trump himself, after all, survived revelations far worse, and Barack Obama survived the man who officiated at his wedding being shown on video crying out “God damn America.” If this was the worst Russia could do, the argument continues, then it was not very much, while the pivot toward a less contentious relationship with Russia, just on minimal great-power lines, might really be a good idea. The likeliest form of true catastrophe on the planet, after all, involves panicking an armed-to-the-teeth Russia with absurdly overstretched NATO guarantees. (When did we all decide that the sovereignty of Estonia was worth a nuclear war?) Historians a hundred years from now will be scratching their heads at the liberal desire to convert a cold war into a hot war. Meanwhile, questions about where people are allowed to emigrate from, and how many can arrive from any one country at one time, have long been a subject of legitimate debate and legislation and even executive decree. You may not like the results, and you may find the spokesman scary, but, really, these voices say, it is overwrought to pretend that there is anything historically radical about Trump’s actions. His specific actions may have been abnormally announced, but they are not in themselves abnormal. And meanwhile, back home, who can really see Neil Gorsuch as any kind of outlier? What liberals are objecting to is not a threat to the Republic, they conclude, but rule by Republicans.
The trouble with these views, and what makes them cheery but false at best—or sinister or opportunistic at worst—is that they are deliberately blind to both the real nature of the man and the real nature of the threats he makes and the lies he tells. Many autocratic governments have built this road or won that war or engineered a realist foreign policy. They remain authoritarian and, therefore, fatally arbitrary. In a democracy, our procedures are our principles. Every tyrant does nice things for someone. You cannot be a friend to democracy while violating its norms—and when we say, “He violates democratic norms,” we undermine our own point, because “norm” is such a, well, normal word. In truth, what he violates by his statements are not mere norms but democratic principles so widely shared and so deeply important that “bedrock value” is closer to the mark than “democratic norm.”
The falsehoods that Trump tells are of a scale and recklessness that, even if they seem to be of minimal harm for the moment, are still inherently sinister, not merely silly. The falsehood that Trump tells about the three million fake voters in the Presidential election is typical. No sane person—not merely no other politician but no one you have ever known—would make a claim of that kind: so obviously crazy and inarguably false, implying an impossible set of human circumstances. Their effect is not merely to comfort his ego but permanently to discomfit our democracy. This is not “I am not a crook”; it is not a claim that there are weapons of mass destruction; it is not “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” These are all ways of parsing reality, or normal fibs told by normal people. Trump’s falsehoods are deliberate attempts to warp the entire field of veracity, so as to defy the simplest parameters of sanity. From now on, whatever happens, no election will be convincing to his followers—not the midterms, not the next Presidential one. Remember the three million! The Russians’ goal was not to help Trump alone but to discredit democratic proceedings, and they have succeeded. There is a telling moment in Selwyn Raab’s fine book on the history of the New York Cosa Nostra, “Five Families,” when John Gotti, after having his predecessor, Paul Castellano, killed, is overheard on tape deliberately “wondering” to his followers whether it might not have been the police who killed Paul. His listeners all knew exactly who whacked whom, but it was essential to his power to be able to make them deny even the most obvious truth of their own violence. When Trump suddenly blames “the media” for the departure of an adviser he summarily fired only the day before, he is engaged in a similar kind of reality-warping.
To tell these truths about these lies is not to assault or patronize Trump’s supporters; it is to remind his supporters that they are being deceived, and are complicit in their own deception. The boy who said that the emperor had no clothes was not an élitist insulting the plebeian parade spectators. He was a truth teller trying to awaken them to what was right in front of their eyes. It is not anyone’s job to pretend that Trump is anyone other than who he is in order to protect the feelings of the people he has duped. It is everyone’s job to tell the truth in order to protect the country. Élitist? Not a bit. The evangelist for evidence is the truest kind of egalitarian we have.
Relying on the occasional good moods of the autocrat or saying soothing things about how he doesn’t really mean it—look, he pays the mortgage!—is exactly how desperate families reconcile themselves to abusive fathers. It would be nice to buy the more benevolent view. What rational person wants to live in a time of perpetual crisis? But, try as one might, no reasonable person can. For to buy in is to buy into blindness; it is to pretend that a good policy (or a good man) can have a poisonous wrapping, and that a toxin known too well to history will this time somehow dissolve harmlessly, all on its own. It won’t.