It is instructive to imagine how the Roy Moore pedophilia scandal would be playing out if, on top of all the victim testimonials, Moore had been caught on tape lusting over children.
Because the best documentary evidence we have of Moore’s depredations is his signature—“Roy Moore, D.A.”—in the yearbook of a then-teenage girl, President Donald Trump has been able to tout Moore’s denials, and characterize the scandal as an insoluble case of he said-she said (she said, she said…). Privately, Trump even claims to believe that Moore is the victim of a conspiracy.
Likewise, because the news outlet that busted Moore is part of the dreaded mainstream press (does anyone think the conservative media would have pursued this story?), the right-wing propaganda apparatus had an opening to leap to Moore’s defense. Breitbart sent minions down to Alabama, and charged them with discrediting Moore’s victims; Fox News personalities joined Breitbart in a concerted effort to muddy waters and engage in Soviet-style diversion tactics. Most famously, the hapless propagandist James O’Keefe hired an equally hapless woman, and sent her out to lie to the Washington Post, in the hope that Post reporters would reveal themselves on hidden camera to be engaged in a conspiracy to defeat Moore, and that the Post itself would run her fabricated story about being first impregnated by Moore as a teenager then having an abortion at his behest.
Against this sickening backdrop, we learned that Trump himself has been telling U.S. senators and others—as if to test them—that he now believes the infamous Access Hollywood tape—in which he boasted about grabbing women by the genitals without their permission—is itself a forgery.
It is tempting to view Moore’s defiance and the story of Trump’s quiet “grab ‘em by the pussy” revisionism as distinct species of deception: One playing out in the public square, and one playing out in the byzantine confines of the president’s mind. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine now worries that we may have misjudged Trump as a man who lies methodically, rather than a man caught in the grip of delusion. The news articles that detailed Trump’s private myth-making note that Trump also continues to promote birtherism to confidantes and has convinced himself that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will vindicate him by the end of the year. Cable news hosts thus devoted lengthy segments on Wednesday to the question of whether Trump is losing what’s left of his grasp on reality, which in turn raises the thorny question of whether he needs to be deposed by Constitutional means.
I’m sympathetic to the view that Trump might be deranged. He’s clearly in decline. But he is also a person whose record in public life is perfectly consonant with the recent behavior that has everyone so alarmed. A world in which a dotty old man who won the presidency by accident might be removed from office to avoid calamity, while the conservative movement rends itself into pieces defending a pedophile, is an awful one to contemplate, but the reality we inhabit is probably worse. It is one in which a president who is both susceptible to and a proponent of disinformation, and a thriving conservative agitprop apparatus, have met their perfect matches. Trump and his allies have joined forces to erode shared foundations of truth anywhere they can. “The more brazen or shameless,” writes Greg Sargent of these tactics, “the more potent the assertion of power.” The president’s mental health is merely a sideshow.
If you imagine that the Access Hollywood tape had not been leaked to the Washington Post, but rather played for the Washington Post, whose reporters then described in the newspaper what they saw and heard, there is no doubt Donald Trump would have dismissed it all as yet-more Fake News from the Crooked Media.
Because his mic was on, he was forced in the heat of the campaign to privately acknowledge that the voice was his, and publicly (though extremely reluctantly) apologize for his comments. Beyond that, he disparaged the physical appearance of his accusers, called them liars, and threatened to sue them after the election. The concept and the biomechanics of genuine remorse remained genuinely alien to him, while his faith in his media allies to rally around him remained as robust as ever.
Trump was just as reluctant to admit that President Barack Obama was born in the United States, and only did so under circumstances in which he could also humiliate the media and baselessly assert that the whole sordid affair was Hillary Clinton’s fault.
Whether a symptom of mental illness or low character—whether to heal the ego wounds, or pull confidantes into the factless hall of mirrors where he has the rest of us imprisoned—it is not the least bit surprising that he would try to renege on these forced confessions, even if he can’t do so publicly.
Trump’s penchant for this kind of gaslighting isn’t new. Though it is no less a lie than birtherism, or the idea that NBC employees super-imposed his voice double on to a tape in which he and Billy Bush were actually behaving like proper gentlemen, Trump has yet to be forced to renounce his claim that millions of fraudulent ballots cost him the popular vote. And yet, as early as three days after the election, we learned that Trump “used his first official meeting with congressional leaders…to falsely claim that millions of unauthorized immigrants had robbed him of a popular vote majority.” Two days later, we learned that in the same meeting, he had sourced the fraudulent votes fabrication to a conversation he had with “the very famous golfer, Bernhard Langer.”
Langer, Trump told the assembled lawmakers, was standing in line at a polling place near his home in Florida on Election Day, but was denied the opportunity to vote, despite being surrounded by throngs of ballot-casters who “did not look as if they should be allowed,” but whose votes were counted anyhow.
It has been lost in the lifetime of the past year, but Trump made basically the whole thing up. Langer is German, was thus never in line to vote, and, according to his father, “is not a friend of President Trump’s.”
In another private conversation with lawmakers, which he joined by telephone from Asia, Trump repeated the lie—one which he tells at political rallies—that the Republican tax plan will hurt his bottom line, even though it will plainly benefit him and his family to the tune of billions of dollars.
Delusion or propaganda?
Maybe both, but certainly the latter. Trump sent his first press secretary, Sean Spicer, out to lie to the nation about the size of his inaugural crowds. Whether he was first and foremost motivated by narcissistic injury is unimportant when held up against his willingness to shatter the empirical foundations of shared truth.
Before he yielded his job to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Spicer greeted a Republican donor at the White House for a heads up on the latest turn in a right-wing conspiracy theory, which aimed to exonerate Trump and the Russian government for sabotaging Clinton’s candidacy by pinning stolen Democratic Party emails on a murdered DNC staffer named Seth Rich. Later, Spicer would claim complete ignorance of the Rich story.
As Sanders was taking over for Spicer, she promoted a different propaganda campaign by the aforementioned James O’Keefe, from the White House podium, encouraging “everyone in this room, and, frankly, everybody across the country” to watch a video whose accuracy she declined to vouch for.
After Trump retweeted a British neofascist party’s gruesome (and at least partially fabricated) anti-Muslim propaganda videos on Wednesday morning, Sanders deployed a fake-but-accurate defense on Trump’s behalf, protesting that “whether it’s a real video, the threat is real and that is what the president is talking about.”
We cannot dismiss the likelihood that a president who splashes around in these waters and surrounds himself with similarly depraved liars hasn’t been lost to self-deception, but simply lacks the ethical mooring required to be honest with others about himself. Trump may have slipped into dementia, but the behavior we are debating right now more closely resembles the false boasting of a high school virgin, in part because he’s been doing it forever.
Donald Trump has a fake Renoir painting hanging in his private jet, but he maintains it’s real even when confronted with the fact that the original is hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago. Trump ended up suing journalist Tim O’Brien, the man who identified the Renoir as a reprint, claiming O’Brien had libelously misreported Trump’s true wealth. Trump lost the case, but not before O’Brien’s lawyers had a chance to depose him under oath, at which point Trump was forced to confess to 30 lies.
That was just 10 years ago. My hunch is that if he were asked about the voice in the Access Hollywood tape under oath, he’d have enough presence of mind left to admit it was his own. We may yet be fortunate enough to see Trump testify under oath about other matters, and if that happens, I imagine it will reveal Trump’s private and public refutations of the Russia scandal have been just as empty as everything else he says—that Trump isn’t the victim of an imagination run wild, but that the rest of us are.