Donald Trump became president thanks to an unlikely confluence of factors — they include the covert interference of a foreign power, some unforced Democratic errors, a global tide of rising white populism, and sheer dumb luck. But the man himself deserves ample credit for the central innovation of his presidential campaign: Its unprecedented assault on the very fabric of reality.
Most politicians lie because they want to promulgate an alternative version of the truth. But throughout the 2016 election cycle and the ensuing presidential transition, Trump used lies to chip away at any stable distinction between truth and falsehood. Through a combination of subterfuge and self-contradiction, he was able to force both journalists and voters into a perpetual state of confusion.
This strategy served Trump well throughout his presidential campaign. Neither his political opponents nor the press ever learned how to dispel the fog of lies he had created. And because he had no policy record to speak of, Trump was able to maintain an aura of practiced inscrutability. He was a dark mirror onto which voters could project their innermost hopes and desires.
But in delivering him the White House, Trump’s lies have reached the limits of their usefulness. The presidency will impose constraints on his power to distort reality. And if journalists and anti-Trump forces exploit these new limitations, they might succeed in breaking a key instrument of authoritarianism.
The burden of authority
Trump’s greatest weakness is that he now has no choice but to govern.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump was able to routinely confound both his opponents and the media by constantly changing his public stance on important policy matters. Regarding key proposals like a ban on Muslim immigration, a wall along the Mexican border, and the preservation of Medicare, Trump and his communications staff got in the habit of openly contradicting one another. All too often, journalists took the bait and interpreted ambiguous or untrue statements as evidence that Trump was “pivoting” on core issues.
There were never any pivots. Instead, Trump’s reversals were designed to create a state of perpetual ambiguity, so he would never be committed to a single proposal. Political scientist Henry Farrell has compared this to the way in which Cosimo de Medici — a fifteenth-century Florentine power broker from the Medici clan — kept his goals deliberately opaque in order to maximize his range of options at any given time.
Trump won’t be able to conceal his hand forever. Now that he has the authority to enact some of his proposals, he will need to give them concrete form. Sure, he could try to prevaricate indefinitely regarding some of them, but even deliberate inaction is a form of policy. If he tries to delay any movement on the Mexican border wall until a prospective second term, for example, his base will likely penalize him for stalling. But if he launches into negotiations with the government of Mexico within his first 100 days, he might find himself locked into a course of action that will alienate other voters.
And where the president tries to avoid making any decisions, his administration will make the decisions for him. The members of his cabinet will pursue their own agendas within their departments, binding Trump to policies that he did not choose.
Congress will similarly limit Trump’s range of choices. In a divided government, Trump might have been able to rely on congressional gridlock or Democratic intransigence to insulate him from the risk of enacting laws. But with Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate, parliamentary veto points offer only partial security. Congress will send legislation to the president’s desk, and he’ll be forced to either sign or veto it. There is no third option.
Congressional Republicans are already starting to box Trump in when it comes to health insurance. As long as he was campaigning, the president could maintain a position of studied incoherence on the topic of Obamacare, calling it a “disaster” while promising in vague terms to preserve core elements and expand affordable care to more people. But with a concerted attempt to repeal the health law already underway, that position is no longer tenable.
At some point, Trump will be forced to embrace a particular insurance plan, crafted either by his own administration or by a faction within Congress. And whichever plan he chooses will likely alienate at least some members of his governing coalition. In fact, he is already shedding supporters who didn’t believe he would support Affordable Care Act repeal.
President Trump can try to deflect attention from these policy debates through empty pageantry and social media tantrums. But when you have real influence over whether countless people will lose their health insurance, reality has — to paraphrase former President Barack Obama — a nasty habit of reasserting itself. Symbolic gestures like the Carrier deal have already started to yield diminishing returns; while such stunts might give the president one or two decent news cycles, none of them have the longevity of a years-long health care debate. And none of them touch the lives of whole swaths of voters.
Clearing the smoke
Whether he likes it or not, Trump is about to start building up a concrete policy record. This leaves journalists with both a critical opportunity and a grave responsibility.
The White House will likely use every tool at its disposal to distract the press from the tangible consequences of Trump’s decisions. If reporters decline to take the bait — if, instead, they commit themselves to detailing the ways in which the Trump administration is affecting real people’s lives — they can sustain a vibrant, vital role in the public sphere, even without access to administration sources. But if they dwell on royal court politics and tailor coverage in order to win a few anonymously sourced scraps from senior White House officials, they’ll become little more than a vestigial appendage of Trump’s propaganda machine. Call it the “Diet Breitbart” option.
Focusing on the big picture does not mean entirely ignoring Trump’s tweets and tirades. It does mean keeping them in perspective and understanding their real purpose. The president’s war on reality is a real threat to liberal democracy, and it deserves to be covered — but only if it is taken seriously and properly contextualized.
Because of his unlikely ascent to power, Trump has at times appeared to be almost politically invincible. He isn’t. In fact, after a brief post-election bounce in the polls, he has become the most unpopular president-elect in the history of modern polling. He has entered office a widely reviled figure, presiding over a crumbling coalition.
But while he has weaknesses, he is not weak. He still has the power inflict an enormous amount of harm on both American institutions and human lives. Documenting that harm won’t be pleasant; it won’t be futile either.