Symposium | Trump Vs. Democracy

Attacking Reality

By Dahlia Lithwick

Tagged DemocracyDonald Trumpfree pressNews

I’ve been writing about the Constitution for two decades, and for virtually all of that time I believed that the document existed to protect things I liked to think of in terms of art, such as “freedom” and “rights.” But as Donald Trump has assailed the norms and values and guardrails that comprise what we think of as “the rule of law” and “separation of powers” and “independent judiciary,” as well as other legal-sounding notions, it’s occurred to me that the Constitution doesn’t just act to secure freedom from tyranny, but in fact to protect against tyrannical manipulation of reality. And that Donald Trump’s war on reality has actually eroded precisely the things the Constitution sought to protect.

There could have been no clearer evidence that a candidate who lied extravagantly and unhesitatingly was going to be President in the same fashion than his famous claim about his inaugural crowds being larger than Barack Obama’s. Former Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe,” was belied by photographic evidence, contemporaneous witnesses, and the press. And while Spicer joins the Sharpie-wielding changers of weather maps, and a long line of White House press secretaries, on the ash heap of truth—all willing to distort reality to suit Trump’s swirling, Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds view of the world—the willingness of respected officeholders, decorated heroes like John Kelly, and esteemed public health officials such as Dr. Deborah Birx, to shore up Trump’s worldview was also seemingly infinite. If tens of thousands of lives, or our national security, or the possibility of a free and fair election are compromised as a result of the distortions, so be it.

Amidst the more than 20,000 (as of July) provably false claims he has made, Donald Trump has never lied about this one fact: that the only public narrative his followers could trust in immutably was his own. In July of 2018, in a speech in Kansas City to the VFW, Trump said this: “Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. . . . What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” You may or may not recall that imprecation. I may or may not have written about it. Today, it looks like one of a million flashing red sirens suggesting not simply that the President of the United States was at war with truth, and with journalists, and with fact and empirical evidence, but that he was also at war with any message or messenger that didn’t convey the truth as he saw it. Whether it’s Fox News, or the local Sinclair Broadcasting property, the story was not to be trusted unless it came from “us.” Indeed, if someone could have sold blinders and earmuffs with the words “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” it might have made for a good Trump product for the two years that followed.

Trump’s war on what is true, what is known, and what is provable led to catastrophic results when a global pandemic hit the United States in 2020, and the real irony is that while he was telling Americans not to believe what science, the international medical consensus, and the media had confirmed, he appears to have understood all along that it was correct. In other words, he was lying even about the fact that he was lying, which reveals a theory of mind that had not been much in evidence through the rest of his presidency.

In some sense, not one thing that I have written above is revelatory. Donald Trump is a lifelong pathological liar. He surrounds himself with people who either pay his lies to disappear, or conform the world to match his lies. He has never been confronted with truth in any meaningful way, and as a consequence, he has deftly managed to get journalists, bankers, foreign dignitaries, United States senators, military leaders, and almost anyone else in his orbit to tell small lies for him, and then to tell galactic lies for him, and given the choice, many people agree to do just this.

That brings me back to the Constitution, which I once believed to be an instrument that protects “liberty” but increasingly suspect was intended to promote just enough truth for us to understand what “liberty” actually means. Scroll down for a minute through the Bill of Rights, and it seems that the Framers were almost fanatical about preserving mechanisms for testing and evaluating competing realities. This is indisputable in the obvious freedoms of the First Amendment—of speech and religion, of the press and assembly, and to petition the government. The concern was that citizens be able to speak and publish truth as they knew it, to gather and disseminate it, to bring it to government for remediation. But the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure requirements and warrant obligations, its probable cause provisions, and the Fifth Amendment’s due process and self-incrimination and fair trial provisions, all protected against state attempts to distort knowable truth with planted evidence, pretextual government searches, paid witnesses, and tortured confessions. The big idea, in short, wasn’t just that Americans, unlike British subjects, would be inchoately “free” from government overreach, but that they would be free to test what was real and what was tyrannical; free to weigh competing truths—religious, political, legal truths—and to decide for themselves what was real and what was fake. This all seems uncontroversial and unobjectionable, and even trivial, except that in the breach, it’s not just the Constitution or the rule of law that Trump erodes when he insists, four years later, that Mexico is paying for the wall. He has been quite systematically trashing the constitutional tools Americans were given to find out for themselves whether that claim was true.

It is not an accident, then, that some of Trump’s assaults on the pillars of constitutional democracy struck most cruelly against the free press, against free speech, against peaceable assembly, and fair trials, or that he has used his pardon and clemency powers to disturb meticulous legal fact-finding, or that he has deployed an independent Justice Department to feast upon his political enemies. Yes, these were attacks on constitutional rules and norms, but they served not just to make us un-free. They served to make us un-tethered, which, as it turns out, is just about as terrifying. Trump’s war on verifiable truth wasn’t just a narcissist’s effort to have everyone inhabit the reality show that plays on loop in his head. It was a war on a system of checks and balances that don’t merely exist to sweep back tyranny, but that allows us to comprehend what has been taking place all around us, in the first instance.

From the Symposium

Trump Vs. Democracy

No President in our history has presented such a threat to the Constitution and our democracy as this one. In this special issue, we asked 35 contributors to describe different aspects of the assault. We could have asked twice that number.


Interfering in Investigations

By Barbara McQuade


See All

Read more about DemocracyDonald Trumpfree pressNews

Dahlia Lithwick covers the courts and the law for Slate and hosts their biweekly podcast, Amicus.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus