Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Welcome to the USAF
No, I’m not welcoming you to the flying branch of the military. I’m referring to the United States of Alternative Facts. Yes, folks, that’s where we are. Many people wondered whether the sobering reality of actually becoming president might engender a fundamental change in Donald Trump. The answer is a very loud “No.” Of course I am referring to the initial press conference of Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer, in which he offered five false statements in five minutes. When NBC’s Chuck Todd confronted Trump’s minister of propaganda, Kellyanne Conway, about why they would send Spicer out to lie about trivial things, she explained that Spicer was giving “alternative facts.” Todd wasn’t having any of that nonsense. “Alternative facts aren’t facts,” he said. “They are falsehoods.”
In his next appearance, Spicer played nice and tried to walk back some of the falsehoods, but it wasn’t long before Trump was again offering “alternative facts,” this time claiming once again that he would have won the popular vote if 3 to 5 million illegal aliens hadn’t voted. Of course he has no evidence to back this up, but Spicer cited nonexistent “studies.” This lie was thoroughly debunked when it was first floated, and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham took Trump to task over it and the dangerous ramifications it might create.
These episodes are not significant of themselves; in fact, they are rather trivial. But they are significant on a much larger scale because they are perfectly symbolic of who Trump is and what we can expect in the future in, unfortunately, far more significant matters. Donald Trump is perhaps the most insecure bully to ever gain fame and fortune. His skin is so thin and his ego so easily bruised that he reacts immediately to any slight, real or perceived, and any facts that do not portray him as the biggest, the best, the most popular, the most capable, or the most intelligent. Unfortunately for him, he is none of those things, so the facts are going to be against him almost always. And since he is too intellectually lazy to understand the issues he will be facing and the real facts that surround them, he resorts to conspiracy theories, fake news, accusations, and “alternative facts,” a euphemism for fantasy.
In addition to being insecure, Trump is also hyper-impulsive, exhibiting absolutely no impulse control. This is endearing to his devotees, because it makes him look tough and decisive. But when you are constantly attacking anyone who says anything against you, either verbally or, as is often the case with Trump, with early-morning tweets, it not only distracts you from more pressing matters (like getting educated on the intricacies of the many issues facing the president), but it also leaves you open to making impulsive decisions on far weightier matters. What can we expect, for instance, when the Chinese or the North Koreans or perhaps any of our allies do or say something to push the Donald’s buttons? What sort of international crises might we be facing because of a president with a hair trigger?
Another casualty of Trump’s ego is honesty, for which he shows a total disregard. In order to make himself look good or smart or popular, he must live in a universe of alternative facts. The truth is brutal, and he simply cannot abide it, so he makes up facts to fit his vision of himself. This is where the claims about election fraud and crowd size come from. Because it is the press’s responsibility to call out politicians who lie and prevaricate and deceive—that is the duty of a free press—it is inevitable that Trump will be at constant war with the media. Two grave dangers present themselves in this confrontation. One is that people are gullible, especially those who believe Trump is some sort of savior for a dystopian society that they have been told exists in America. These people would rather believe outrageous lies than carefully fact-checked representations by the press. This creates a real danger for the suppression of the free press, not through force, but through ignorance. Propaganda, as Joseph Goebbels so expertly proved, is a powerful opiate. We are already seeing journalists being threatened by rabid Trumpeters. What happens when some of those threats are followed up by violence? Notice I did not say “if.” A second grave danger stems from the sheer quantity of lies Trump can produce. We saw this during the campaign. He says so many totally absurd things that the media is inundated. They can’t keep up, and so many dishonest statements simply get a pass. Or they all blend together in one massive dump of dishonesty. The media and the public simply lose focus from exhaustion.
Another way in which Trump has used alternative facts is to paint a dystopian picture of America. This was his strategy from the beginning, particularly with his slogan, which proclaimed in an underhanded way that America is not great. We have fallen from our high ideals. Our cities are war zones. Our economy is in ruins. Foreign countries are taking advantage of us. Terrorism is tearing us apart. Of course we have problems, but this view of America does not represent reality. It is an alternate universe in which we need a strongman to set things right again. Unfortunately, too many Americans bought into this dark view of their own country.
Consequently, we are in uncharted waters in the United States of Alternative Facts. We have seen now for almost two years how Trump behaves. He has shown that he is incapable of change. Unfortunately, America’s voters have reified his inability to change. Success has led him to believe that he can always behave this way and still win. But the world will not bend to his whims. Conflict with both enemies and allies is inevitable. When Trump treats other countries with threats, lies, fraud, insults, ignorance, and impulsivity, they will not view America as the shining light on the hill we have always aspired to be. They will view us as a black hole of self-centered America-firstism. Instead of America being first, we will fade in our international influence, and when that happens, Trump will feel compelled to force the world to accept us as their superior. Who knows what wars might result from a megalomaniac whose ego knows no bounds?
And what will happen at home when the important facts start turning against Trump? What happens when his tax cuts produce greater inequality and stifle the economy? What happens when unemployment creeps upward, as it inevitably will (since we’re near full employment now)? What happens when the manufacturing sector can’t reclaim jobs lost to technology? What happens when trade wars turn the world against us? What happens when millions lose their health insurance and the Republican “replacement” falls far short of the ACA’s success rate? What happens when Trump’s promise to end inner-city violence and acts of terror is shown to be nothing more than boasting? I’m sure we will see a flood of alternative facts. How else can you explain failure away? In fact, we’re already seeing Trump’s nominee for Labor secretary suggesting that he will scrap the method of computing unemployment that economists claim is one of the most reliable and useful statistics the government generates. Why? So that when things turn south, the administration will be able to use its own statistics. More alternative facts.
All through the primaries, Republican candidate after Republican candidate warned the voters in earnest tones how dangerous, how incompetent, and how dishonest a Trump presidency would be. But the voters ignored them. And now his former opponents are falling in line behind him. Trump owns the Republican Party, and now they must own him. But they cannot control him or even deflect him from the ruinous course he is bound to pursue. As Trump presents his staggering array of alternative facts, the Republican establishment is virtually silent. Only Lindsey Graham and John McCain dare speak up. What do we hear form the likes of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Utah’s own self-styled Grand Inquisitor, Jason Chaffetz? Crickets.