By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
“I don’t need to do this,” Trump said just before Presidents Day, in the middle of declaring a phony national emergency to build a wall on the Mexican border.
For a man who’s employed hundreds of illegal immigrants himself, it was, on one level, a rare moment of honesty. There is no emergency. Illegal border crossings are at a multi-decade low, immigrant crime rates are lower than those for native-born citizens, and net illegal immigration has been negative since 2007, with more new arrivals due to visa overstays than border-crossings. Building a wall won’t solve any of the problems Trump harps upon, none of which are an emergency. So he really didn’t need to do it.
And yet, he did. As a life-long grifter, he had no other option. It was the only the way to keep the grift alive. As conservative never-Trump pundit and longtime radio host Charlie Sykes explained on MSNBC’s AM Joy:
Sean Hannity understands. ‘Look, I’m going to shill for you, Mr. President, but I can’t sell this if it’s just a cave-in on the wall. You have to do an emergency in order for me to go out and get the base riled up and think that you are fighting for them’…. I think they’re both actually afraid of getting crosswise with their own base. This is a president who absolutely cannot lose even 3, 4, 5 points off of his base, and Sean Hannity knows that.
In response, Presidents Day protests were organized nationwide at more than 260 locations, from New England to Hawaii (including Torrance, Los Angeles and a dozen other Southern California locations), while multiple lawsuits were announced, including one from California and 15 other states, and House of Representatives members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joaquin Castro introduced a resolution to block the declaration.
“Trump is the emergency” read a sign from Rise and Resist at a protest in front of Trump International Hotel on Saturday. But Trump is actually only a symptom of a much deeper emergency, the result of decades of dysfunctional trends, which he’s been able to exploit, despite his own tenuous grasp on power.
Trump’s weakness has been a repeated theme of political theorist Corey Robin.
“The main consequences of Trump’s bully pulpit that we’ve seen is that his signature positions — opposition to trade and immigration — are more unpopular today than they were on the eve of his election,” Robin tweeted over the weekend.
But his weakness only makes him more desperate and more dangerous to an entire system gone haywire — haywire enough for him to be elected in the first place.
Even as his signature positions have grown increasingly unpopular, Trump’s chance of re-election remains surprisingly strong. A recent Emerson College poll of possible democratic candidates found that all of them beat Trump, but Trump did 4 to 6 percent better than his approval numbers, reflecting the modern prominence of negative partisanship — voting against the other party, rather than for one’s own — another facet of the deeper emergency symptomized by Trump.
Trump no doubt believes he can drive down support and, more importantly, turnout for whomever he faces in 2020, so keeping things close is all he really needs. That’s why Sykes’ point about maintaining his base is so critical to understanding what’s going on. In an us-versus-them election, Trump has a shot. But in an issue-based one, not a chance.
For example: A mid-January ABC News/Washington Post showed Americans opposed building the wall 54-42 percent, with two-thirds opposed to using a national emergency, and only a quarter agreeing with his claim of a border crisis.
Democrats’ issues are much more popular:
- Nineteen states raised their minimum wages last month, while a Hill-HarrisX poll found 55 percent support for a $15/hour minimum wage, with another 27 favoring a smaller increase.
- On Medicare for All, an August Reuters/Ipsos poll from this past August found 70 percent support, with 52 percent support among Republicans — the same level found in a Hill-HarrisX poll in October.
- The Green New Deal is even more popular. A Yale and George Mason University poll from this past December found that 81 percent of registered voters say they either “somewhat support” or “strongly support” a suite of proposals covered by the plan, including 57 percent of conservative Republicans!
- Even the idea of a 70 percent marginal tax on incomes over $10 million got 59 percent support in a Hill-HarrisX poll, including 45 percent of Republicans.
The only way for Trump to win is to keep the focus away from all those issues, and the media — which loves to believe it’s standing up to him — will probably help him do it, because they seem incapable of adjusting to new realities. The combination of commitments to false balance, self-defined “newsworthiness” and horse-race campaign coverage cripples their ability to provide the information voters actually need and want. In 2016, the result was more front-page New York Times stories  on Hillary Clinton’s emails in the last six days than serious policy stories in 69 days. The Times literally spoon-fed its readers a Trump’s-eye-view of the race.
Since then, the press has haltingly groped its way toward identifying Trump as a pathological liar — one who repeats lies shamelessly, regardless of how many times they are debunked. So the Washington Post, which has documented thousands of Trump’s false statements, has finally created the “bottomless Pinocchio” for false claims repeated 20 times or more. But simply counting lies this way does nothing to inform us or illuminate what’s actually going on.
There are at least three types of lying to distinguish: Ordinary lies are told conscious of the truth, to deceive about some aspect of the world. Bullshitting is the indiscriminate spouting of whatever’s convenient — truth or lies — in order to deceive about the bullshitter’s own intentions. Gaslighting involves manipulating reality — not just with words — to undermine others’ ability to trust their own judgment, and belief in their own sanity. Cult leaders and dictators engage in gaslighting all the time. Their ultimate aim is to redefine reality as anything they say it is. Saying, “Hillary Clinton started birtherism, and I ended it” was Trump’s crowning gaslighting act of the 2016 campaign.
Trump’s refusal to be bound by facts is merely more extreme than his predecessors’ — remember Iraq’s non-existent WMDs? — but not different in its central thrust. Trump’s gaslighting is deployed to portray himself and his supporters as morally superior to “disgusting” others. Hence the baseless claims that Mexico was “sending” rapists and murderers, that “Democrats want open borders,” etc.
The Greeks distinguished between two types of knowing: logos, about how things work and mythos, making sense of what things mean. Trump’s wall isn’t an actual object in the world of logos, subject to rational discussion. It’s a magical, mythical object, conferring “unbelievable” blessings — “So much winning, you’ll say, ‘Stop! Stop!’”
Until the media wakes up and realizes what Trump is doing and describes it accordingly, it will continue to haplessly aid his re-election, pretending that his fairy tales are — or at least could be — real. And he will continue to paint them as goblins, when they’re actually functioning as his ever-faithful elves.