How Donald Trump Distorts Democracy and Reality

I knew I’d eventually read textual analyses of Donald Trump’s blustery tweets in books about 2017. I just didn’t think it would happen so soon.

In the pocket-sized The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time, journalist and WNYC radio host Brooke Gladstone explores how Trump’s tweets, speeches and administration itself have given rise to a frightening new maelstrom of deception. “It is not the lies that pose the existential danger to democracy,” writes Gladstone, who is best known as the co-host of WNYC’s On the Media. “It’s the lying, the kind of thoroughgoing lying that gives rise to a whole new reality or, better still, to no reality at all.” Terse and timely, the book makes the case that reality has shifted way off its axis under Trump, with Gladstone drawing on 20th-century thinkers as wide-ranging as Hannah Arendt and Walter Lippmann to give historical context for Trump’s authoritarian overtones.

And the tweets? They’re surprisingly complex nuggets of manipulation. The book cites linguist George Lakoff’s taxonomy of four categories of Trump tweets—the “preemptive framing” tweet, the diversion tweet, the trial balloon and the deflection tweet—to show how Trump transmits his distortions directly to your smartphone. The result is a presidency that aims to exert power over your perception of truth and falsehood. Gladstone writes directly for an audience that’s been debilitated by anxiety since November 9; her analyses, smart and informed, are like little capsules of sanity in a world that’s gone mad.

Gladstone wrote the book in just two weeks, shortly after Trump’s inauguration. It was urgent and frenzied, but also cathartic. Gladstone says she felt better, and more hopeful about the country, after writing through her thoughts. In a recent conversation with Newsweek, she discussed existential anxiety in Trump’s America and the fragility of individual reality bubbles. This interview has been lightly condensed.

Trump Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops at the Naval Air Station Sigonella before returning to Washington, D.C., at Sigonella Air Force Base in Sigonella, Italy, on May 27. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Your book landed on my desk, and it just seemed like exactly what I needed to read right now. We're so surrounded by anxiety about Trump. For one thing, it’s remarkable that books about the election are already being published.
This was a deep dive. A two-week deep dive. Basically, I was channeling this new kind of anxiety I felt in my cohort. A sense of dislocation. A sense that things really weren’t the way that you thought they were, in terms of how the nation worked and your role in it and your certainty about things. My sense was, this was something new. We’d entered new territory. There was so much that happened in the run-up to the election. We saw all this cracking and smashing of norms occurring. By the time he was elected, reality had just broken into many sharp shards that you had to pick your way through.

In the book, you write that “by degrading the very notion of shared reality, Trump has disabled the engine of democracy.” Do you think democracy is based on a shared reality?
I don’t believe, as I argue in the book, that there really is much of a shared reality. There’s some consensus. But fundamentally, we all live in our own individually, let’s just say, bespoke worlds. It isn’t so much a shared reality as it is simply that you can’t negotiate if you don’t have a common pool of information from which to draw. Democracy demands that you and your negotiating partner—your opponent—have a common set of facts to draw from. You can argue over which is most important. You can argue about the ultimate goal. But you all have to be working from the same basic understanding of impact, of data, of fact.

And Trump has assaulted all of that.
Well, he’s devalued the whole idea of it. And since democracy is essentially a negotiation—and if a negotiation requires a common pool of information, and if that no longer exists, then it opens the door to authoritarianism. Which is what has so many historians worried. I think that is part of that icy spear of anxiety that sticks in many people’s entrails. Probably more than half the country.

Was there a particular moment during the campaign when you first noticed that Trump was degrading reality itself?
You know, all candidates lie, and all presidents lie. It was the sheer accumulation of it. And, even more, a willingness to contradict yourself the next day or deny the evidence that was on a tape of something you previously said. In other words, to have no particular compulsion to prove that you’re right. An absolute disregard for your own credibility. And calling upon your own constituents to disregard it as well. To say that it isn’t important what you say, that it isn’t important what you assert. It isn’t even important what you believe! You just have to create a picture that offers a different future for people who feel they’ve been ignored, not just for decades, but sometimes generations.

There were some particular lies during the campaign that remained in the news cycle a long time. For instance, the thing about Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks. That was one of those moments where it just became apparent that Trump—
Didn’t care! And it wasn’t just constructing his own reality. Because one could argue that many previous campaigns have done that.… If you remember, a dozen years ago, Ron Suskind wrote an article in The New York Times where he talked about an unnamed aide to George Bush, which later turned out to be Karl Rove. And [Rove] said that guys like Suskind, the journalist, were in “what we call the reality-based community, people who believe that solutions emerge from [the] judicious study of discernible reality.” And Rove said, “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality, we’ll create another one. And then another one.”

But those were consistent. This next step, [with] Trump, is that he’s saying facts don’t matter. Facts are just another special interest. Information itself has an agenda. He’s basically asserting, over and over again, what [Stephen] Colbert joked about: “Oh, reality has a well-known liberal bias.” He’s saying [that] anything in the real world that doesn’t fit in with what I assert—

...is fake news.
I won’t even use that phrase anymore. “Fake news.” It was co-opted in almost record time.

It’s become quite meaningless.
But he still uses it. He says any tools of accountability, whether it’s the mainstream media or the congressional budget office—they’re all nothing but agenda. Facts do not matter. Facts do not exist. Reality is a liar. And information is your enemy.

In your book, you turn to a lot of studies of authoritarianism.
I do spend a lot of time with Hannah Arendt. Let me just stipulate: I am not saying that Trump is Hitler. I’m not saying that Trump voters are Nazis. Absolutely not! What I am saying is that Trump is not the first person who has bent reality or undermined the idea of reality for his own purposes. If you say the truth doesn’t matter, that’s a show of power: “I make the truth. And I can change the truth. I can throw thousands of truths at you, one right after another.”

Hannah Arendt spoke very directly about this. This is, I think, the source of the anxiety. It isn’t that a candidate got elected that it seems a majority of the voting public didn’t want in the office. We’ve all had candidates we don’t like, even hate, distrust, fear. This isn’t about that…. It’s about a system, and it’s about a kind of eruption of our own certainties. A kind of earthquake in our beliefs and understanding of how the world works.

Hannah Arendt A photograph of the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, whose work greatly informs Brooke Gladstone's new book "The Trouble With Reality." Ryohei Noda/Flickr

You also cite Philip K. Dick and Walter Lippmann. Do you think that those thinkers offer any real prescription for dealing with an authoritarian regime? What is their solution?
They weren’t offering prescriptions. They were offering observations and insights into the world as people were experiencing it—in the ’50s for Hannah Arendt, in the ’20s for Walter Lippmann. This was about trying to figure out moments of existential fear. What I was trying to do was delve into this icy, almost nauseating anxiety that I felt and so many of the people around me seem to be feeling. But this book isn’t a prescription. It’s the best explanation.

Your book is clearly addressed to a reader who is disturbed by Trump. Is there anything you would say to a Trump voter?
I think I would just say to them that: “I’m ready!” I’m ready to find out how their reality works. In order to find a way to reconstruct my own.

In your book, you identify four types of misleading Trump tweets. This reminds me of an ongoing debate among pundits: Do you think Trump is some sort of mastermind who has a grand plan for misleading the media, or do you think he’s just an idiot who stumbled into this, and someone else is pulling his strings?
I argue in the book that it doesn’t matter. I argue that if there was anybody who understood history at all, it may have been Steve Bannon. I argue that Trump applied these same techniques to his business life long before this: exaggerating the number of floors in Trump Tower, calling a disaster a success over and over again. This worked for him. This helped make his career. He applied it to his campaign because it’s clearly as natural as breathing. He understands fundamentally, as he wrote in Art of the Deal, that people want things to be the biggest, the best, the most unprecedented, and “a little hyperbole never hurts.” His understanding of human nature may not go any deeper than that. But he understood it so profoundly and applied it so consistently. It didn’t matter whether he’s a mastermind or a fool.

Related: Has any president ever been as despised in his hometown as Trump?

What effect has this assault on reality had on your own mental health, and what do you recommend in terms of self-care?
I found it incredibly helpful to write the little book. Now that I know there are historical precedents, I believe that it will pass. I think the Republic will survive. But it’s still battering. The corruption. The conflicts of interest. The endless launching of shiny objects for reporters to chase like dogs chase squirrels. 

From all the thinking you’ve done, how do you think Trump’s administration will end? Do you think he will get impeached or wind up resigning?
If I’ve learned anything from writing this book, it’s that I probably don’t know my ass from a hole in the ground. 

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