Andrew published a brilliant “diary” in New York Magazine this morning that I hope gets read far and wide. It is a meditation on how it feels to watch a crazy person close up, when every fiber of your rational being wants to scream “he can’t really be crazy, there must be some strategy behind his apparent craziness.” You keep grasping at straws that will allow you to wiggle out from under the “crazy” explanation, but you just can’t find one. Yet your mind still rebels from the necessary conclusion. And this produces a kind physical sickness, a mental miasma you just can’t shake. And that’s exactly where so many of us are today. And Andrew captures all this beautifully.
First, there is a telling analogy, asking us how we would treat this experience if it were a part of our normal daily lives:
“I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him? If you showed up at a neighbor’s, say, and your host showed you his newly painted living room, which was a deep blue, and then insisted repeatedly — manically — that it was a lovely shade of scarlet, what would your reaction be? If he then dragged out a member of his family and insisted she repeat this obvious untruth in front of you, how would you respond? If the next time you dropped by, he was still raving about his gorgeous new red walls, what would you think? Here’s what I’d think: This man is off his rocker. He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional. If he kept this up, at some point you’d excuse yourself and edge slowly out of the room and the house and never return. You’d warn your other neighbors. You’d keep your distance. If you saw him, you’d be polite but keep your distance.”
This is what we’re dealing with, this is the reality our minds are trying so desperately to grasp. If it were happening next door, we would know how to respond. But it’s not happening in your neighbor’s house, it’s happening in the White House. All of the symbology and mythology and history of the place engulfs and embraces the occupant. There he is in the Oval Office, at the President’s Desk, in the Cabinet Room surrounded by the representatives of his power, at the podium behind the Presidential Seal, descending from the steps of Air Force One. All these accoutrements of Presidential Power demand deference, respect, awe – yet at the center of all this stands a man we know to be a pathological liar, a bully, a thug, a narcissist, a disgusting human being. No wonder our brains are spinning.
Andrew captures this feeling perfectly:
“I think this is a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months. It is not so much this president’s agenda. That always changes from administration to administration. It is that when the linchpin of an entire country is literally delusional, clinically deceptive, and responds to any attempt to correct the record with rage and vengeance, everyone is always on edge.
There is no anchor any more. At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.”
Andrew also correctly diagnoses the lies as more than typical political lying. These are not just efforts to hide an uncomfortable aspect of a shared reality, they are efforts to deny the existence of any reality beyond the false reality conjured up by the words of the liar himself:
“all the traditional political fibbers nonetheless paid some deference to the truth — even as they were dodging it. They acknowledged a shared reality and bowed to it. They acknowledged the need for a common set of facts in order for a liberal democracy to function at all. Trump’s lies are different. They are direct refutations of reality — and their propagation and repetition is about enforcing his power rather than wriggling out of a political conundrum. They are attacks on the very possibility of a reasoned discourse, the kind of bald-faced lies that authoritarians issue as a way to test loyalty and force their subjects into submission.”
Now, this sounds more like a strategy than madness. Does this give us the out we desire, the evidence we need to say “no, he’s not crazy, he’s just an authoritarian using tried and true tactics to consolidate power.” I don’t think so. The unsubstantiated story about Donald Trump having “The Speeches of Adolf Hitler” on his nightstand notwithstanding, I don’t think he’s a thoughtful student of Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, or Castro. It doesn’t fit with other known aspects of his mental disorder – the attention deficit syndrome, the impatience, the inability to absorb new information, the limited vocabulary and intelligence, the profound historical and political ignorance. No, I think it’s just a coincidence of mental disorder mimicking something more thoughtful.
This hypothesis can be tested, however, and Andrew explains how to do it when he offers advice to the Press for dealing with Trump’s constant lying and reality-denial:
“Here is what we are supposed to do: rebut every single lie. Insist moreover that each lie is retracted — and journalists in press conferences should back up their colleagues with repeated follow-ups if Spicer tries to duck the plain truth. Do not allow them to move on to another question. Interviews with the president himself should not leave a lie alone; the interviewer should press and press and press until the lie is conceded. The press must not be afraid of even calling the president a liar to his face if he persists.”
I have argued elsewhere that Donald Trump’s lying will be the signature feature for his Presidency, and the ultimate cause of his inevitable downfall. I believe this is true because I believe he is not strategic but delusional, and therefore is clinically incapable of acknowledging and backing down from his lies.
This is the hypothesis: to him, they are not lies, they are real.
So, what will happen if journalists follow Andrew’s advice? If Trump is acting strategically and lying to achieve some greater purpose, then if those lies start to become a liability toward achieving that purpose, he will back off. He will admit he was wrong or misspoke or was misinformed, or whatever euphemism and level of accountability he chooses to articulate, and that will be that. We can heave a sigh of relief (?) and conclude that Trump is not crazy.
But the historical record makes this outcome very, very unlikely, because Donald Trump has never backed down from a lie, no matter how egregious and how persistently the Press and political opposition demands he do so. Now, it could be argued that when his occupation was businessman/showman, lying did serve a greater purpose, which was to draw attention and strengthen his brand.
Perhaps the five-year birther lie campaign can be explained this way.
But now that he is President, he gets more attention than any other person in the world, and his lies are under constant, massive scrutiny. Worse yet, the constant lying, even in the face of easily accessible refutation, is damaging to his already thread-bare credibility. So why continue, as Andrew documents admirably with regard to just this week’s lies?
Because he can’t help himself. Because he is sick.
And he is making us sick just watching him. And Republicans in Congress know that when this game of Hot Potato ends, they will be holding the potato. But that’s a topic of another day.