Liberal Democracy In The ICU

The extinction-level event is here — and the indictment of Trump proves it.

Aug 4, 2023
Boarding his plane after an arraignment in DC federal court yesterday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

There are many times in attempting to understand the Trump phenomenon that I simply return to the lessons of his very first day in office.

On Inauguration Day in 2017, the crowds on the Mall were large but understandably not as huge as the masses who showed up when the first black president took office back in 2009. This was not in dispute by any sane person. You could see and compare the photos. The National Parks Service confirmed it. Yet Trump was unable to accept this. He insisted his crowds were larger. He got his sad little spokesman — remember Sean Spicer? — to reiterate this untruth to the press. Again. And again. Trump tried to force the NPS to revise their count. I think it’s fair to say that he still believes his crowd was bigger — with absolute certainty and mindless passion.

This is pathological narcissism to such an intense degree it renders an individual effectively insane. It is not lying in the usual sense — which depends on a shared reality that the liar knowingly distorts. As I wrote in my first column on President Trump back in February 2017,

Trump’s lies are different. They are direct refutations of reality — and their propagation and repetition is about enforcing his power rather than wriggling out of a political conundrum. They are attacks on the very possibility of a reasoned discourse, the kind of bald-faced lies that authoritarians issue as a way to test loyalty and force their subjects into submission.

This is who Trump is. It is why he cannot comprehend and will always directly threaten any democratic, legal or constitutional norms, if they do not echo his narcissistic desires. Does he realize this? The indictment has a handful of moments that indicate he does. One is when he publicly floated the idea of voting machines being rigged by an international conspiracy, after privately saying of Sidney Powell, who invented this crap: “She’s getting a little crazy, isn’t she? She’s really gotta tone it down. No one believes this stuff. It’s just too much.”

Another example is when Trump tried to persuade his vice president that Pence can overturn or suspend the certification process in the Congress. When Pence refused, Trump said: “You’re too honest.” Another is a national security briefing when Trump calmly agreed not to take action: “Yeah, you’re right, it’s too late for us. We’re going to give that to the next guy” — i.e. president-elect Biden. Another is when the acting attorney general told Trump that the DOJ couldn’t and wouldn’t change the outcome of the election, and Trump replied, “Just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”

Yet another is a statement released by Trump that “The Vice President and I are in total agreement that the Vice President has the power to act.” He surely knew that was a whopper, given Pence’s resistance just a few hours before Trump issued that statement, in a one-on-one meeting.

But that’s it. Surely if Jack Smith had more, he would have included them. Maybe there will be a superseding indictment, as in the documents case. Maybe some other private slips would help reveal Trump’s knowing mendacity. But I doubt it. Michael Wolff, who has observed Trump close-up, writes today that, in meetings with him after the election, “I don’t know anyone who didn’t walk away from those conversations at least a little shaken by his absolute certainty that the election really was stolen from him.”

My own view has long been that Trump is beyond truth and lies: his ego is everything; there is nothing outside it; it is the only reality he knows. If he were to acknowledge any facet of a reality that does not flatter his ego, he would have a psychic break. So he doesn’t. He is beyond accountability because he only lives in the moment, and reinvents the past at will. He is a truly postmodern man: no truth exists apart from his; and any alternative reality has to be attacked mercilessly. Because his whims oscillate, so do the non-facts he invents to satisfy them. He is a spluttering, glowering fusillade of fantasies. He is, in Wolff’s words, “a man whose behavior defies and undermines the structures and logic of civic life.”


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