Donald Trump has said things in this presidential campaign season – and before – that are truly, madly, deeply not true. His critics have shown that these statements attest to a) his cynical willingness to lie, even beyond the normal bounds of political lying; b) his reckless disregard of reality; or c) his shocking level of ignorance. It’s not clear which characterisation is the worst. Any one of them casts grave doubt, to put it euphemistically, on his fitness to be president. But it hasn’t reflected in his poll numbers, at least not yet.
Here is another, separate mystery: Trump has said things in this presidential campaign season that are clearly and profoundly offensive to Americans’ core beliefs – severely undercutting religious tolerance, respect for fellow citizens and equality before the law. Any of these offences should – you’d think – cause a scandal and read Trump out of decent political discourse. Yet it hasn’t mattered more than marginally to his rhetoric or his supporters’ loyalty, at least not yet.
To say that Trump is Teflon when it comes to this behaviour of his and the impotence of his critics is to understate by orders of magnitude what’s happening here. We’re not talking Teflon, we’re talking Kryptonite.
You remember: Even though Superman can see through all other materials, he can’t see through Kryptonite. And when he comes within field-force distance of Kryptonite, he gets weak.
At the risk of overdoing the symbolism, the lesson is that the former is more important than the latter. It’s because Superman can’t see what’s behind the Kryptonite that he becomes weak in its presence. If you can’t see it – if you don’t know what it is – then you can’t figure out how to fight it. The failure to see causes the incapacity to act.
So far, Trump’s critics have seemed too angry to be able to see what’s behind his seeming imperviousness to them. But there is no making sense of the Trump phenomenon, let alone figuring out a plausible strategy for addressing it, unless you stifle your outrage long enough to examine it with dispassion.
This is not just a question of who’s right and who’s wrong on particular political issues. The problem is that there is very little in the establishment – not just Democrats but corporate Republicans, let alone Wall Street Republicans – that pays respect to, or even reflects at all, the concerns and world view of voters who are more – choose your word – conservative, religious, parochial, Main Street, rural, fearful, economically insecure, salt-of-the-earth, local, Wal-Mart, above-ground pool, bridge-and-tunnel, non-calorie-counters, drinkers of sugary sodas . . . .
The gap is so wide that it is no longer enough to talk about different parties or ideologies. It’s almost as if there were two alternate universes of political discourse.
When a critic from Universe A states that a lie was told by an avatar of Universe B, the population of Universe A says that a lie was told – and the population of Universe B says that the sound emitted by the critic from Universe A is just a bleat from an ox that’s just been gored.
Universe A says it’s a fact that a given massacre wouldn’t have taken place without the availability of guns. Universe B hears nothing except the fact that Universe A wants to take its guns away. Universe A says it’s a fact that immigrants contribute more to US society than they take from it. All that Universe B hears is the establishment campaigning for continued access to cheap labour.
There is no interpenetration of truths.
There are different theories about how the gap in perceptions – not just of opinions but of facts themselves – got so wide. Some people say it’s all the fault of Fox News – highly unlikely, though Fox benefits from that gap handily. Others say the problem goes back to the Vietnam War, when antiwar protesters concluded that the received truth about the war – received from the government, that is – was a lie. One man’s facts were another man’s propaganda.
Then again, it may be that the gap was never so narrow as it looks in retrospect.
Consider, there is this quote attributed to Senator Daniel P Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions – but not to his own facts.” Say, for example, that the unemployment rate is 10 per cent. You may think it’s too high or too low, but you can’t deny the 10 per cent.
The quote seems to recall an era in which you could, indeed, win a political argument by appealing to facts on which everyone was forced to agree.
I remember, though, Moynihan’s first Democratic primary campaign for the Senate, in 1976. The country’s unemployment rate then hovered between 7 per cent and 8 per cent. The Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act, known as the Humphrey-Hawkins bill, was making its way through Congress, instructing President Gerald Ford that by 1983, the unemployment rate for individuals aged 20 or more had to be no more than 3 per cent. Signing on to Humphrey-Hawkins seemed to be totally necessary if you wanted to get the Democratic Senate nomination.
Moynihan said he was going to support Humphrey-Hawkins. I was then his campaign’s issues director and grossly naïve. How, I asked him, can you honestly say that it’s possible for the government to get the unemployment rate down to 3 per cent?
He looked at me, paused for a beat, then said, “Three percent is what we have.”
In other words, even if the Bureau of Labour Statistics declared a 7-to-8-per cent unemployment rate, the “real” unemployment rate – made up of people who were capable of working, wanted to work, and couldn’t find work – was less than half that number.
You weren’t entitled to your own facts – but you could develop your own elegant and serpentine interpretation of the facts. In that sense, maybe the distance between then and now not so vast after all.
Still, there remains a qualitative difference between straining to make the facts fit your deeper realities and just plain not giving a damn about what the establishment’s facts appear to be. The latter situation is what we face now. Does the establishment say there were no crowds cheering 9/11 from the rooftops of Jersey City? Well, the establishment is just covering up those crowds. It might even have absconded with the videotapes.
If Watergate was a cancer on the presidency, this open chasm of disregard is a cancer – that is not too strong a word – on the American political organism.
In fact, it is not too much to say that the candidacy of Trump has – brace yourself – done an immense favour for people who care about the future of American democracy.
He has put us face-to-face with a foundational fact about representative democracy: Even if you hold groups of your fellow-citizens in contempt, it is dangerous to behave as if you do.
If you don’t preserve elements of a common language and a common frame of reference, you will lose the ability to persuade them that they are hearing a lie.
And, in the end, they may have the votes.
Trump may still destroy himself politically. The Republican Party may figure out how to keep him from getting the nomination. He may run as a third party candidate, handing the presidency to Hillary Clinton. Any of these events would keep us from having to face the worst consequences of the problem that his candidacy has exposed.
But the warning is clear enough.
Suzanne Garment, a lawyer, is the author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics.”