Since the election, I’ve been really torn about what to think of Trump’s crazy tweets. The baseless Hamilton cast attacks, the New York Times fight, and now the deranged claims of millions of “illegal” votes. On the one hand, it seems like an attempt to distract from more substantive issues: the Trump U lawsuit settlement, his giant pile of conflicts of interest, his string of terrible cabinet appointments, etc. But on the other hand, though the substance of his attacks seem petty and trivial, they also represent, I believe, grave threats themselves.
For the person heading to the White House to accuse some Broadway performers show for being “very rude”, and then to call the show itself “highly overrated”, that is petty and trivial, certainly. But it’s also an attempt at a horrible chilling effect. It says: if you cross me in the slightest, I’ll use my bully pulpit to directly attack your character, even your livelihood.
So, which is it? Or, put another way: how should the media cover those statements? Ignore them as ridiculousness that they shouldn’t be distracted by? Or take him to task for real, actual bad behavior?
I think this article from ThinkProgress nails what’s really going on here (though it didn’t make me optimistic about how to fight it): Trump’s lies have a purpose. They are an assault on democracy. Some key quotes, but as always, I hope you read the whole thing.
If Bush and Rove constructed a fantasy world with a clear internal logic, Trump has built something more like an endless bad dream. In his political universe, facts are unstable and ephemeral; events follow one after the other with no clear causal linkage; and danger is everywhere, although its source seems to change at random. Whereas President Bush offered America the illusion of morality clarity, President-elect Trump offers an ever-shifting phantasmagoria of sense impressions and unreliable information, barely held together by a fog of anxiety and bewilderment. Think Kafka more than Lord of the Rings.
Thinking of it this way, even the “good” news out of his camp contributes to the confusion. Changing his mind about the wall, about Obamacare, about trying to jail Clinton, it all helps muddy the waters. The more he can make people say, “wait, what??” – whether they’re relieved or outraged at what he said – the better.
When fake news becomes omnipresent, all news becomes suspect. Everything starts to look like a lie.
There’s been a lot of discussion, and hopefully there will be more, about fake news. It’s a real thing (no irony intended), with a variety of issues, angles, and enablers. So fake news sites that are engineered to go viral and drive clicks and all of that, that’s one thing, but the key here is that first as a candidate, now as President-elect, and soon as President, everything Trump says is automatically “news” (e.g., his ranting about millions of illegal votes).
When political actors can’t agree on basic facts and procedures, compromise and rule-bound argumentation are basically impossible; politics reverts back to its natural state as a raw power struggle in which the weak are dominated by the strong.
That’s where Donald Trump’s lies are taking us. By attacking the very notion of shared reality, the president-elect is making normal democratic politics impossible. When the truth is little more than an arbitrary personal decision, there is no common ground to be reached and no incentive to look for it.
Lastly, this is the kicker, for me. This is a grave undermining of our entire society. Thanks, Trump.