I was interrupted this morning by a solicitation call that used a new wrinkle to deceive me: when I picked up the phone, there was the usual pause that comes with a robo-call, and then what sounded amazingly like a real person saying, “Oh, excuse me, I was having trouble with my earpiece.” And immediately ‘she’ launched into her sales pitch about how I’d recently stayed at one of their motels and that made me eligible for a free stay somewhere. When I tried to yell at her to go stuff it, the female voice just kept talking because, of course, it was not a person but a recorded message. And I was infuriated, as we often are these days, both for having been deceived, and for having been stupid enough to believe there was a real person on the other end with a real message.
This, it seems to me, represents a fairly accurate metaphor for what has been happening on the political level since Donald Trump began his successful bid to become President. We keep thinking that there’s a real person there, and that a real person would not, could not indulge completely in lies, including the continuing lie about himself. There must be some substance to his campaign, there must be some policy, some ideology, and there likewise must be some substance to this person, there must be a real, a flesh-and-blood persona beneath all the glitz and hype and hyperbole and juvenile posturing.
The events of the first week of this presidency, however, indicate that we were/are wrong. There is no substance whatever. Or perhaps we should say that the only substance inheres in the underlying reality of Trump: the man who is a serial liar, a fake-news artist, a carnival barker who has no allegiance to anything that might be called substance or reality or truth or democracy. His only allegiance is to himself and the inflated image he has of himself and his ability to con people. He is a balloon consisting mostly of hot, fetid air. The balloon will burst as it always has, but until it does, this carnival barker is going to take a whole lot of people and their benighted hopes into the dark rot of his insecurities with him. And that might include a large portion of the planet and its helpless denizens as well.
The thing that fascinates me is how we got here. How did the allegedly greatest and most successful democracy in history get to a place where the truth that must be its bottom line has been so degraded, where the currency of fact it swears by has been made so worthless? How have we reached a place where the major spokesperson for the President of the United States, this piece of trumpery named Kellyanne Conway, could actually defend the lies of his Press Secretary as “alternative facts?” I know, reams have already been written about this, but the phrase is so stunning, betrays such a fealty to deception and outright contempt for public opinion, that it may well end up the signature moment of this abysmal presidency. How could anyone have the unmitigated gall to utter such a thing in public? How could a public spokeswoman for the most powerful man in the world think she could get away with such an utterance?
I think we have to come back to the training that Americans, and consumers worldwide, have been receiving for the last century. The training I am referring to is the training engaged in by capitalism and its shills who have gradually, and with accelerated vehemence in recent years, trained a worldwide audience to expect that lies posing as truth are both ordinary and believable. Every commercial—whether on TV or in print or online—is an exercise in this training. And it is not that the lies, at this late stage in the advertising game, are subtle or hidden or disguised. The lies are clearly meant to deceive at the same time that the recipients of the lies are meant to understand the game and be in on it: it’s all lies, it’s all misdirection, it’s all ‘accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative,’ for that’s what we do, and more than that, that’s what you expect. You the consumer. You the object of our attention and our billions of dollars. You know we’re deceiving you, know that when we say our product is reliable it probably means it’s going to fail because we design it to fail after a short time, or become obsolete, or fall apart—but you’ll buy it, enough of you, anyway because we have trained you to want more than you have. Have trained you to think there is always a chance that a new wrinkle or a new look or a new fad that everyone is trying might actually give you some satisfaction for a little while. Might make others like you a little. Make you feel a part of something even though it’s contrived, like everything else. And so even though you know it’s a con, you go for it because that’s the game you’ve been trained to take part in. That is, you’ve been trained to ignore the lies, even accept the lies as part of the deal—especially if they are cast as a bargain.
The upshot is that, inevitably, the contagion of lies has spread to the presidency, to our democracy. Of course, such lies have been polluting politics (and especially other forms of it like monarchy or totalitarianism) for a good many years now. But until this presidency, the lies have been more or less subtle, hidden, covered with rational-sounding justifications. We didn’t mean it. We ‘misspoke’. What we said was misinterpreted. Everyone else was fooled by the evidence too. Now, however, we have seen assembled the greatest collection of liars ever crowded into one place at one time—and that place is the White House. The lead, of course, the liar-in-chief, is the president himself. The man seems to have no sense of probity at all, no moral sense, no sense of shame, no feedback mechanism that would prompt a normal person to retract or at least modify a lie before he could be caught in it. No. This guy lies with not just a straight face but with a straight conscience—or what might pass for a conscience; which, in his case, seems to conform to only one standard: does it benefit me? old number one? And if it does, then regardless of what else it does or who else it hurts, it passes the smell test. ‘The three million votes by which Hillary won the popular vote were fraudulent.’ No evidence (in fact, all the evidence says just the opposite). No qualifiers. Simple fact—which is to say, if the president utters it, then it must be true.
This ethic then passes down and infects everyone around him. Sean Spicer, for example, the new president’s Press Secretary. Who not only displays the same truculence in defending his boss’s claim that the inauguration crowd for Trump was the biggest in history, but then displays the same pretense about how demoralized he is that the press doesn’t seem to like him. Doesn’t seem willing to take his bullshit at face value. You’re always picking on us, he whines. Why don’t you pick on Hillary? Kellyanne Conway displays the exact same ‘ethic.’ Ask her a question and she doesn’t answer, but reacts with pretend hurt: why don’t you give him the benefit of the doubt? Why don’t you wait to see how he fulfills his promises? Why don’t you attack Jill Stein for questioning the vote in Pennsylvania and Michigan? Or with howlers like the one where she called lies ‘alternative facts’. And the chief strategist, Steve Bannon, pushes it even further: ‘The media is the opposition,’ he declares. ‘They should just shut up and listen.’ Listen to the lies, he means, without question or comment.
It’s astonishing. Or would be if it weren’t for the fact that this is the kind of thing that eventually trains people to accept lies for truth. The American public has been trained by advertising over the years to accept gross exaggeration as normal, as fact. Now it is being trained by the Trump administration to accept lies as just alternative forms of fact. And the poor bastards who have an incentive to believe this blather, this father of lies because they voted for him, they’re shaking their heads in agreement. Everyone lies anyway. Politicians lie. Advertisers lie. The media lie. It’s all rigged anyway, it’s a tough world out there, the immigrants are liars the elitists are liars reporters are liars the terrorists are liars who want to destroy us, so what’s wrong if our guy has to lie to protect himself, and us.
And there you have it. Truth no longer matters. In the arena where Donald Trump holds forth, the lie is king and the truth is for suckers. It’s long been the credo of carnival barkers; now it’s the credo of the President of the once-democratic United States. Long live the king.