Opinion by Michael Gerson
In a storm of national challenges, perhaps the most urgent one is this: The president inhabits a different country from the rest of us.
It is a land where the novel coronavirus is harmless. Where hydroxychloroquine is still a miracle drug. Where President Trump’s handling of the pandemic is an example to the world. It is a land where Black Lives Matter is a movement of looting and violent subversion. Where the Confederacy is part of “our heritage.” Where police brutality is the desired norm. It is a land where every bad poll is a political plot, and the “silent majority” will always ride to Trump’s rescue.
Trump is not only using this right-wing information bubble to exploit his supporters. He also seems, increasingly, to have taken up residence there. As his failures have multiplied, his hold on political reality has loosened. Trump has become our boy in the bubble, with an intellectual immune system too weak for him to survive exposure to reality.
In one sense, every president struggles with this temptation. All of them live in a world of high security, familiar advisers and a cocoon of deference. How can you really be wrong when they play “Hail to the Chief” as you walk in the room? In most presidencies, this tendency is fought. Working with allies in the National Security Council and the State Department, I helped introduce President George W. Bush to a series of dissidents and human rights activists from Sudan, North Korea, China and elsewhere. Their stories touched Bush and focused his policymaking. At the White House, I sent Bush articles harshly critical of his foreign policy — which sometimes angered him but generally provoked discussion. This did not guarantee good results, but it enabled serious deliberation.
Trump has systematically removed sources of dissent and critical thinking within his administration — people such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. Sycophants now occupy those posts. From the start, the president expressed distrust for the U.S. intelligence services — even publicly preferring Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word over their findings. Trump has recently disputed the views of government public health experts and tried to shift and sabotage their professional advice.
For Trump, everything is politics, and all politics is personal. Disagreement with his impulses is taken as betrayal. Dissent is disloyalty.
So what are the sources of truth and authority in the land of Trump? There is the cool rationality of right-wing Twitter. There is the wisdom of golfing buddies. There is a constant consumption and regurgitation of cable television. There is Tucker Carlson for advice on epidemiology, Jeanine Pirro on constitutional theory, Lou Dobbs on immigration policy, Sean Hannity to polish his shoes.
We have entered a genuine crisis of truth. The president of the United States is allowing only inputs that reinforce his instincts. He is operating based on a set of views and assumptions that have no relation to the lives of Americans. The African American experience of injustice doesn’t matter to him. The deaths of the elderly from a preventable disease don’t register. The struggles of Americans in a disease-cursed economy are not even admitted. Instead, we get a huge helping of denial with a side of racism.
Does Trump really think this is the path to reelection? Does he believe that most Americans will give him a pat on the back for a job well done? Yes, he appears to believe this. It is part of his delusion to believe it is always November 2016. Hillary Clinton is still his opponent. The polls are still weighted against him. The experts and doubters will again be humiliated. If only he stays the course of polarization and intolerance. If only he refuses to doubt his bigotry and his destiny.
But Trump is not the strongman of his daydreams. In the real world of covid-19, racial injustice and economic suffering, his delusions are pathetic and dangerous. He combines the pretentions of a Caesar with the impulse control of a toddler. He is bound by his own compulsions and imprisoned by his own lies. The scent of his weakness is everywhere.
Because Trump cannot listen, he will not change. And it is no longer 2016.