Trump’s Endless Summer of Discontent

Illustration by Max Burbank

BY MAX BURBANK | It’s September, but it’s still hot as hell in much of the country, not least our nation’s capitol, and in more ways than one. If my column were fiction (and you’ve no idea how much and how often I wish it were), my opening sentence would be an example of the “pathetic fallacy” — a literary device in which human emotions are attributed to aspects of nature, in this case late season oppressive and persistent heat waves.

Astute readers will note I have referenced this technique in previous articles, a rather grandiose assumption implying I have readers, a subset of which attend to my work with passion, but never mind. I’d defend my repetition in the following ways: First, I am what The New York Review of Books from a parallel universe in which I am an author of note once referred to as “an astoundingly lazy writer.” Second, when I learned the term in junior high school, it sounded naughty and made me giggle, because that was who I was, and it still does because that is who I am. And third, the “heat” is most definitely on the Persimmon Pretender occupying The Oval Office.

No matter what angle you look at it from, it’s been a rough few weeks for the man who, despite polls to the contrary, calls himself “your favorite president,” as in, “The good news is that your favorite president did nothing wrong!” Italics added by me, because yeesh, what a dink.

PERSPECTIVE: Express Yourselves

Lest you think the Kumquat King left himself an out for later, by not specifically saying your favorite president was Trump. (And oh yes, I said “lest,” an SAT word dog whistle to my elitist base. You’re welcome.) He also tweeted he had higher poll numbers than “Honest Abe Lincoln,” which is wrong, unless Trump meant he has poll numbers and Lincoln didn’t, since The Rail Splitter had been dead (a very unpopular state of being) for around 71 years before scientific polling began.

Trump lies. That’s not news, fake or otherwise. As of August 1, an aeon ago in Trump time, The Washington Post’s fact checker had documented 4,229 false or misleading statements made by the president, an average of almost 7.6 per day. The hotter things get for Trump, the more frequently he lies, and the more bizarre and easily disproved those lies become. To be fair, what else can he do? He certainly can’t support his claim to the presidency by telling the truth! What kind of case does “I mostly golf a lot and tweet real mean stuff without using too many different words” make for greatness?

Trump lies fluently, reflexively, with admirable gusto — but the individual lies are beside the point. He’s a human AR-15 loaded with an endless magazine of lies, but he’s just a single, albeit key, soldier. The war, an all-out assault on the very notion of objective reality, is what we need to pay attention to.

“Alternative facts.” Kellyanne Conway coined that beauty just two days into the reign of the Orange Oligarch. We laughed. After all, it’s an open secret in Washington that Conway is less an actual person than a Skeksis muppet Stephen Miller acquired from eBay in a large lot of “Dark Crystal” props, and had one of the kidnapped Disney Imagineers he keeps chained to a wall in the White House basement repurpose with animatronics, hydraulics, and evil.

“Truth isn’t truth.” That’s the Rudy Giuliani bon mot Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson labeled “The Trump era’s epitaph.” We should be so lucky. I like to think of it as merely the moment the president’s personal attorney shrugged off his old nickname, “America’s Mayor,” forever, in favor of the more descriptive “America’s Worst Lawyer.”

Illustration by Max Burbank

How seriously can one take this twaddle? Isn’t it just people who have never been very good at the whole sentence thing expressing themselves poorly? Are these idiots even capable of long-term strategy? I’ve argued in previous columns that Trump certainly isn’t, that Occam’s Razor suggest he’s less Machiavelli and more staggeringly dumb historical or fictional character I could theoretically cite while somehow not being offensive? I stand by that argument.

But what if Trump and his inner circle aren’t engaging in strategy? What if, instead, they are the virulent bacteria thriving in the agar gel of strategy’s Petri dish?

Way back in 2004, journalist Ron Suskind wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine about the general lack of interest George W. Bush, the artist formerly known as America’s worst president ever, displayed in facts. He quoted an unnamed White House aid describing the press as members of “what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

That quote is widely attributed to Karl Rove, who, as this strategy requires, denies it. He was senior advisor and deputy chief of staff to George W. Bush during the Iraq war, where in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, we destroyed a country we almost certainly knew in reality wasn’t involved while searching for weapons of mass destruction we almost certainly knew in reality didn’t exist.

Rove, and men like him, have plenty of Machiavelli in them — and while they are many things, no one would describe them as “staggeringly dumb.” They are more than capable of preparing a Petri dish and patiently waiting to see what sorts of pathogens will grow in it.

“What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” That’s the president not just chipping away at the very concept of objective reality, but taking possession of it. Branding it. Truth isn’t truth unless it’s Trump Truth. Facts aren’t facts unless they’re Trump Facts. At this point, the only way Trump can escape the justice of the reality-based community is by utterly co-opting the notion of truth.

And that task is perhaps the only thing “your favorite president” is more devoted to than golf.

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