Hearing former President Donald Trump insist in a new interview Wednesday that the "real" insurrection took place not on Jan. 6, 2021, but on Election Day 2020 — much like watching Republican officeholders trash-talking their colleagues to earn constituent applause and social-media attention — I'm repeatedly led to wonder: Do the GOP's elected officials and media cheerleaders believe their own bulls--t? Do they now practice politics entirely as performance art? Or have they passed through the looking glass into an alternative reality seemingly inhabited by a sizable chunk of Republican voters?
I follow and analyze politics for a living, and I honestly don't know the answers to these questions. We talk of Trump as a liar and bulls--t artist. The word "gaslighting" entered common parlance early in his administration for a reason. But is it all an act? Or a symptom of mass psychosis? The evidence is troublingly indecisive.
Think back to the very start of the Trump administration. There was the president of the United States, a day after his inauguration, insisting before a throng of employees and reporters at CIA headquarters that the crowd gathered the previous day on the Washington Mall was the largest ever for such an event, despite the fact that photographic evidence definitively proved otherwise.
When then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeated the claim before the Washington press corps for several days following the president's remarks, pretty much everyone assumed he was doing so under duress, flagrantly lying on orders from the man in the Oval Office. But did Trump himself believe it? Or was he just messing with his political enemies, guaranteeing the media would talk incessantly about him and his petty, trivial falsehood for days?
A few months after Trump's inauguration, we got a hint of an answer when journalist Elizabeth Spiers divulged the contents of a conversation she allegedly had with the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner back when she worked for him at The New York Observer. Kushner allegedly revealed that his father-in-law didn't really believe former President Barack Obama was born outside of the United States and held his office illegitimately. His "birtherism" was an intentional lie: "He doesn't really believe it, Elizabeth. He just knows Republicans are stupid and they'll buy it."
There you go! The mystery solved! It's all BS! Trump doesn't believe his own nonsense. He just makes up toxic lies and repeats them like a political P.T. Barnum playing to legions of suckers in the crowd.
But there are some complications to consider.
For one thing, Spiers made this claim in a tweet that has since been deleted. That could mean it revealed too much truth, so Kushner or someone even higher up in the administration prevailed against her to take it down. Or it could mean that the quote was inaccurate in some way. It's impossible to know for sure as she hasn't, to my knowledge, publicly explained the deletion.
Then there's Trump's own behavior in the wake of his loss in the 2020 election. Some have continued to say what an anonymous "national GOP strategist who worked to elect Trump" told Politico shortly after the Jan. 6 insurrection: "He knows he lost. He's a showman. And that showmanship had unintended consequences."
But is this really the case? Others have indicated to reporters that something changed with Trump after Biden was pronounced the winner of the election — like his mind couldn't process the reality of the loss. Could it be that he'd "gone native," as the saying has it? Whereas he used to knowingly sow BS for political gain, now he was ready to swallow it whole?
That would certainly help to explain why Trump spent considerable time in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6 meeting in the Oval Office with people like lawyers Lin Wood and Sidney Powell and his (recently pardoned) former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, all of whom fed him QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories about stolen ballots and faulty voting machines controlled by foreign powers.
It's one thing for Trump to order his vice president to intervene in the electoral vote count on Capitol Hill to somehow enable himself to remain in office after Jan. 20. That coupish behavior doesn't require or presume that Trump thought he'd actually won the election. It's something else entirely for Trump to listen to cranks who truly believe he was the rightful winner, denied his victory by nefarious forces. Why would he do that unless he was inclined to believe it himself and longed for vindication?
But did the cranks really believe it themselves? I can't say what was going on in the heads of Wood and Powell this time last year, but Wood recently released what he claims is a recording of a conversation between himself and Flynn in which the latter appears to say that QAnon is "total nonsense" and a "disinformation campaign created by the left." That would imply Flynn, at least, doesn't actually believe the lies and conspiracy theories he peddled to the president of the United States and which he regularly repeats to the disturbingly large number of Americans who apparently do believe in QAnon, Americans for whom Flynn has become a leading public champion.
Then there are the bizarre things regularly spouted by members of the most vociferously pro-Trump faction in the House of Representatives, which includes Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert. Those three and several other congressional Republicans unwaveringly back up Trump's claims about a stolen 2020 election while spewing plenty of additional lies, provocation, and comic-book level bile. Do they believe their own nonsense? Or do they say it because they assume their constituents are stupid and will believe anything?
I really have no idea. And in the end, maybe it doesn't matter. Both are bad, just in somewhat different ways.
If they don't actually believe their own lies, that makes them world-historical cynics who are playing with political fire — a fire that briefly burned out of control on Jan. 6 and could easily do so again in the future — but they would be somewhat less deranged when making decisions behind closed doors than they appear to be in public. On the other hand, if they really do believe what they say, this would demonstrate that they're far more honest and sincere than many of us tend to assume. But they would also be every bit as crazy as they sound.
Though perhaps the truest and scariest possibility is that neither option is wholly accurate — that what the Trumpfied Republicans are actually doing is practicing a form of politics and way of comporting themselves in the world in which the difference between truth and lies, veracity and falsehood, sanity and psychosis is no longer even relevant. In place of such distinctions would be an amorphous and indistinct blurring of wishes, interests, passions, assertions, and counter-assertions lacking any solid ground from which to evaluate any of it in objective terms. We'd get the worst of both worlds: reckless decisions behind closed doors and maximal craziness.
What would politics be like in such a world? Open your eyes and take look around.