Opinion

Why reality might stand a chance against Trump

Here's why the Trump White House can't just create an alternate universe in which everything he does is a success

There was an unusually revealing moment in a press briefing that White House spokesperson Sean Spicer gave earlier this week. (No, not the one you're thinking of.)

On Monday, a reporter had the clever idea to ask Spicer to simply state what the unemployment rate is, which seemed to flummox the press secretary. Spicer talked for a while about how there are several different measures and how committed President Trump is to creating jobs, finally settling on a stirring tribute to Trump's profound connection with the American worker ("It's not just a number to him"). What Spicer never actually said was that the unemployment rate at the moment is 4.7 percent, because that would mean admitting that Trump is inheriting an economy in pretty good shape.

I was immediately struck by a vision of the future. It's 2020 and President Trump is running for re-election. But the economy has not, as he promised, given us so much winning we got tired of winning. In fact, unemployment has ticked up a bit, let's say to 6 percent. So Trump goes out on the campaign trail and says, "When I ran for president four years ago, the unemployment rate was 42 percent! And now it's all the way down to 6 percent! So much winning!"

Could he get away with that?

The question isn't so much whether he'd say it, because he well might. He did indeed make the ludicrous claim before he took office that unemployment was actually 42 percent, and there's no reason to think he won't now use actual government data to claim that he's turned everything around.

And it's easy to see how Trump might find such rhetoric enticing. When he ran for president, he portrayed America as a putrid outhouse of a country, its citizens crushed by despair. All he would have to do is point to actual conditions, then claim victory.

In his inauguration speech, for instance, he proclaimed that the country was gripped by a crime wave, and promised, "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now." Lo and behold, by the time he stepped off the podium, crime had fallen to some of its lowest levels in decades! Sure, some nerd might say that it was already there, that crime has been falling since the 1990s. But as White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said when asked about Spicer's claim that the Trump inaugural had the largest audience in history, what some people call lies, the Trump administration calls "alternative facts."

Every administration tries to shape our perceptions of reality, by characterizing their achievements as stupendous and their mistakes as microscopic, putting the most advantageous interpretation on events. But you can do that without lying outright; it's called "spin," and while it's pernicious in its own way, it has the benefit of at least being somewhat defensible. And people's susceptibility to it isn't new; political scientists have long known that we tend to see the world through a partisan prism. When our party is in the White House, we're more likely to say that the economy is doing well, for instance, regardless of what the reality is.

Nevertheless, with Trump something different is happening. It didn't start just now — no presidential candidate in history lied as promiscuously as he did — but over the next four years we'll find out just how far an administration can go in creating an entire alternate reality, where even the most basic facts might not be accepted by the White House.

So far, it doesn't seem to be working very well; Trump's approval ratings are lower than for any incoming president since polling was invented.

But if you're waiting for Trump's followers to realize they were the victims of a con, you may be waiting a long time. As Alan Levinovitz recently wrote, "Trump's rise to power has followed a similar trajectory to that of quacks who peddle panaceas to the desperate — a bizarre and heartbreaking world I've long studied. Just like them, Trump will fail to deliver. But his supporters will find a way to exonerate him." If you admit you were scammed, it means you were foolish and naïve, and no one wants to admit to that. So you find ways to rationalize what happened, ways that forgive the con man.

But Trump might have more power to bend reality to his will if so many of the fights he gets into — and orders his aides to engage in on his behalf — were about things other than his fragile ego. Is it really that important to lie about inaugural attendance? Or the popular vote?

It obviously is to Trump. When he went to the CIA on his first full day in office, he spent most of his speech talking about how big his crowd was and how dishonest the media were for failing to praise it appropriately. Then two days later something similar happened: "Two sources confirmed to NBC News that Trump spent about the first 10 minutes of his bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders at the White House talking about the campaign and about how three million to five million 'illegals' voted in the election, causing him to lose the popular vote."

If in the whirlwind of assuming the presidency, Trump is spending his time perseverating on why everyone isn't acknowledging that everyone loves him, it doesn't seem like his effort to spread his "alternative facts" will be particularly systematic. As long as that remains his obsession, reality might actually stand a chance.

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