In November 2016 in these pages, I asked whether truth could survive Trump. I wrote then that the newly elected President effectively confounded Oscar Wilde’s belief that politicians were not the consummate prevaricators because they generally at least pretended “to prove, to discuss, to argue.” By contrast, Trump exemplified “the temper of the true liar, with his frank fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind.”
In the ensuing two years, as I hardly need remind readers, Trump has amply vindicated this judgment. But if I was glum in 2016 that a man of such character could attain the presidency, I was not yet sufficiently pessimistic about the consequences.
Trump is not merely contemptuous of truth; he is convinced that the very concept of truth is meaningless, that all speech is instrumental, and that everyone lies as easily as he does for his or her own advantage. And he has extended this perverse understanding of free speech to the media. As night follows day it is therefore self-evident that any criticism of his presidency, any exposure of his falsehoods, any attempt to lay bare his flabbergasting self-contradictions, such as the transformation of “Little Rocket Man” into love object at the drop of one flattering missive, can be nothing other than “fake news” propagated by a “lying press” determined to thwart his will.
What has become clear, however, is that Trumpian shamelessness, no matter how much it shocks the consciences of those dismayed to wake up every morning to find that this man is still President, is to far too many voters a matter of complete indifference. They take his defiance of norms as a token of blunt-spoken frankness (“frankly” is one of his favorite words, with which he often prefaces self-serving distortions of the facts). They do not even care when he departs from the facts altogether to accredit racist and anti-Semitic myths: “I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said, if George Soros had paid for the migrant “caravan.”
None of these things bother people who see an economy that is doing quite well. Like all presidents, he gets credit for his good fortune while arousing remarkably little anxiety about the future ills his rash overconfidence is likely to bring. Until now, critics have sputtered and fumed but landed few real blows. The Democratic takeover of the House at least provides a platform from which to mount a more concerted attack.
But Trump has already laid the groundwork for his counterattack. The media, he claims, are the enemy of the people, the Deep State is dead set on blocking his way forward, and all investigations are “witch hunts” fomented by his demonic adversaries. To those adversaries, his manifest flaws of character seem utterly disqualifying. But it remains true that something like 40 percent of the population find his virile expression of a naked will to power a refreshing change from what they take to be the deceptive evasiveness of an emasculated “politically correct” elite. “You are the elite,” he tells them, even calling them “the super-elite.” He embodies the resentment of people who have felt excluded, disrespected, and deprived of voice. His narcissism becomes their strength. His lies become their truth. Their hurt becomes his weapon.
And we have yet to figure out how to respond. Rex Tillerson told former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel that 2016 was the “Can you hear me now?” election. “They” have now been heard, no doubt about that, but “we” are still looking for the right way to make them hear us, despite having shouted ourselves hoarse for almost two years. Perhaps it is time to seek a quieter rhetoric, because what we have been shouting until now has fallen on stone-deaf ears. Some voters refuse to react to the horror of Trump. What they are waiting for is a progressive program and a candidate capable of articulating it without apology.