Opinion

Trump's losing war against reality

The president's primary preoccupation is to create an alternate reality — and he's livid it's not working

You may have heard a lot about the difference between Teleprompter Trump and Extemporaneous Trump: The first is presidential, responsible, and even inclusive, while the second is angry, impulsive, and inflammatory. The first is who we see when President Trump's aides have prevailed upon him to lower the temperature of a controversy or say the right thing, while the second is who we see a day or two later, the real representation of what Trump believes.

All that's true. But it's also important to look closely at what Extemporaneous Trump says, beyond the "25 crazy things the president said at yesterday's rally" listicles. When you do, you see that his primary goal when he's expressing his true feelings by talking off the cuff is to create an alternate reality — and he's livid that it's not working.

Teleprompter Trump actually makes substantive arguments about issues. You may find them shallow or misleading (they often are), but at least the aides who write the words are attempting to make a case for the things the administration is doing or wants to do. But when Trump is unscripted, he can't be bothered. When he addresses something substantive, his case seldom goes much deeper than, "Oh, it's terrible" (for something he wants to change) or "Oh, it's gonna be so great" (for something he's proposing).

But the main theme of events like the rally he held in Phoenix on Tuesday is: I am a victim, and why won't everyone believe the lies I tell? It is an instruction on who to listen to, who to ignore, and how to understand politics, but it's one that has grown increasingly desperate.

As he so often does, Trump used up a good bit of his time in Phoenix railing at the media. A lot of it was simple lies, like claiming CNN turned their cameras off so people wouldn't hear his amazing speech (they didn't) or that the media had claimed there were many protesters outside when in fact there were almost none (in actual fact, thousands of people came to protest him). But there was also an extended and at times incoherent riff about the criticism he had gotten for his response to the events in Charlottesville, in which Trump asserted that his extraordinary comments ("The words were perfect") were unfairly twisted around by the media: "You have some very fair journalists. But for the most part, honestly, these are really, really dishonest people, and they're bad people. And I really think they don't like our country. I really believe that."

Trump certainly complains about the media so much because he's personally aggrieved by every story that doesn't praise him to the heavens. But it has a practical purpose as well: If you can convince people to ignore or disbelieve what they see from any non-approved source, you've insulated yourself from bad news and criticism.

The flip side is that after Trump tells them who to disbelieve, he has to tell them who to believe. "Fox has treated me fairly," he said, adding, "How good is Hannity? How good is Hannity? And he's a great guy, and he's an honest guy. And Fox & Friends in the morning is the best show, and it's the absolute, most honest show, and it's the show I watch."

But the sources are only part of the reality he wants to weave. Trump's extemporaneous remarks are always studded with ridiculous claims about what people have said about him, both the extraordinary praise he claims he's getting, and the terrible things bad people are saying. As in, "We've signed more than 50 pieces of legislation. They said we've signed none — none. We've signed 50." In the real world, nobody says Trump has signed no pieces of legislation. But what people have said is that the bills he has signed have almost all been minor and limited, without any of the ambitious laws he and Republicans hoped for. That is what "they" have said, because it's true.

But the things people supposedly say are a force against which Trump must constantly fight, as well as evidence that there exists an imaginary conventional wisdom he is constantly proving wrong. "Remember, everybody said you won't bring [GDP growth] up to 1 percent," he said in Phoenix. "You won't bring it up to 1.2 percent." No one said that, because GDP growth is almost always over 1 percent unless we're in an actual recession or a temporary downturn, and it was 1.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2016 before Trump took office. But every Trump achievement is accompanied by an insistence that everyone said it was impossible to do something as fantastic as he has done.

So if you watch a Trump rally with its rapturous crowds (even if they're never as big as Trump claims), you might get the mistaken impression that he is succeeding in creating this alternate reality in which he leaps nimbly from triumph to triumph and supposed missteps are nothing more than fantasies spat from the imaginations of contemptible reporters. But he isn't. Yes, there are some people who inhabit the psychological world he wants them to, and their numbers are disturbingly large. But most Americans aren't buying it.

If they were, Trump's approval ratings wouldn't be in the 30s, an incredibly low level given that the economy is doing pretty well. Majorities of the public wouldn't believe that his presidency is basically a disaster and he's a deplorable human being — but they do. Who knows, he may change their minds by 2020, but for now, Trump's alternate reality is losing.

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