Neil Buchanan: Welcome to Trump's Alt-Fact Twilight Zone

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This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

To put it mildly, the first several days of his presidency have not gone well for Donald Trump. He is picking fights with the press and is obsessed with trivialities in an effort to settle scores. In this, there might be an opportunity to control the man.

Surely the most instructively silly fight that Trump has chosen to pick is his insistence that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than reported. It is all about the "dishonest press," as Trump always has it, trying to take away the glory that he is sure rightly belongs to him.

Trump, of course, was never going to say something modest and classy: "It's interesting that the Obama crowds were bigger. I confess that I hoped for a bigger turnout, but that's water under the bridge and I have important work to do now. Moving on."

But even if he must be childish about it, there are better ways to respond. Even a quick taste of sour grapes—such as "Who cares?"—would have turned this into a non-story. Or perhaps a nice conspiracy theory about Trump supporters being afraid of Black Lives Matter protesters raging in the streets of Washington?

Instead, he let everyone know that he cares a lot about this, and he is forcing his spokespeople to go along with him and keep the story alive.

Related: Neil Buchanan: How Will Trump Abuse Power? Count the Ways

In the first of what will surely be a long line of headlines with similar wording, Monday evening's lead story in The New York Times was, "Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers." This is significant in part because it represents the press's decision—surely a difficult one, but one that is essential in these abnormal times—to use the word "lie" to describe Trump's utterances. But it also exposes Trump's main weakness.

What was the particular lie in this instance? That millions of votes for Hillary Clinton had been cast illegally, a claim that was completely debunked when Trump first tried to push it after the election. In a bizarre twist, however, Trump did not pull out this lie to use in a Twitter rant or in a speech to a friendly crowd. No, he repeated it in a closed-door meeting with the leaders of both parties of Congress.

Think about how utterly bizarre this is. Trump wasted everyone's time on this sideshow in his first official meeting with the leaders of the other political branch of the United States government. Why? Because he is Trump, and everything revolves around feeding his ego.

After all, when he secured the Republican nomination in May, he spent inordinate amounts of time bragging about it and insulting his former adversaries. Since November 8, he has tried mightily to say that his election was not in any way tainted or diminished. It is a losing battle that he refuses to abandon.

This means that, if Democrats talk about Trump's excruciatingly unlikely and narrow win in the Electoral College, they will not merely be moaning about what could have been. Repeating the facts on a regular basis—an 8-track tape loop of Trump's shame—could keep him preoccupied trying to come up ever more unhinged denunciations of reality.

So let us run through some of those facts about the 2016 election. Again, if Trump had ignored these things while Democrats harped on them, he could have made his opponents look small. But he lacks that skill.

The obvious place to start is where Trump is stuck, that is, the loss of the popular vote. According to a CNN article summarizing the certified final vote count, Hillary Clinton "outpaced President-elect Donald Trump by almost 2.9 million votes, with 65,844,954 (48.2 percent) to his 62,979,879 (46.1 percent)."

Does that mean she won the election? Of course not. Does it drive Trump crazy? Of course it does.

In addition to the repeated lying about voter fraud, Trump has tried to argue that he would have won the popular vote if he had tried. Here, we move into alternative realities, but the most important thing to remember is that Trump's explanation focuses on what only he would have done differently under a different set of rules, whereas he conveniently ignores that Clinton would have campaigned differently, too.

Trump, for example, says that he would have gone back to New York to pick up the votes of plenty of his hometown fans, but he did not bother to do so because New York was not in play. He also claims that other states would have been easy pickings for him. This requires a number of responses.

First, Clinton did not campaign in her adopted home state, either. Nor did either of them campaign in California, which went massively in Clinton's favor. What does that mean? Clinton effortlessly built up huge margins in uncontested left-leaning states. Trump now claims that those places would have been ripe for him. Based on what evidence? (I know, this is Trump. Evidence is never welcome.)

Second, neither of the candidates campaigned in a lot of right-leaning states, either. Trump won Texas by 800,000 votes. Were there no Democrats in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin or Houston (which elected an openly gay mayor in 2010) who did not bother to vote because they knew that their votes did not matter in their red state?

Even some of the brightest red states have large numbers of Democratic voters, because some cities exist in those states, and the partisan divide is actually more urban-versus-rural than red-versus-blue at the state level.

For example, Alabama has Birmingham, a city that passed a local minimum wage increase in 2015 (which the Republican state legislature tried to nullify, and which the city fought in court to save). Even Utah has Salt Lake City, which was electing Democrats to Congress until the Republican state legislature gerrymandered the state's congressional districts.

There are surely millions of people in both red states and blue who would have voted in a competitive election, some for Clinton and some for Trump. That, in fact, is the major reason that the Electoral College should be abandoned.

Third, when Trump went to vote on November 8 in Manhattan, he was surrounded by a booing crowd. If there were legions of Trump fans in New York who would have voted for him had it mattered, they certainly did not bother to come out and support their man in the (orange) flesh.

Fourth, a bizarre variant on the argument against focusing on the popular vote is that it was all about California. That is, Clinton's margin in the Golden State was larger than her overall popular vote win. I am not sure what this is supposed to mean, or why it is a talking point for Trump. Even in a popular-vote contest, California's votes should not count?

We can only speculate about who would have won in that kind of election, and I understand why people with a generosity of spirit that Trump could never understand have been willing to say that Trump might have won a straight-up popular election. I think that they are wrong, but neither side can prove it, because it is an argument based on dueling counterfactuals.

But this is why it is so fascinating to see Trump bristle about this, even after he has taken the oath of office. It clearly has gotten under his thin skin. He has advertised his weakness and all but invited people to continue to remind him of his shame.

Rather than saying, "Well, I guess we'll never know," he says, "I definitely would have won!" And that all but begs people to respond tauntingly, "I don't think so."

Moving beyond the popular vote, we come to Trump's claim that he won in a landslide in the Electoral College. Stephen Colbert and others have had fun pointing out that Trump's margin was the 44th highest out of 56 presidential elections in U.S. history.

Trump's puny 304 electoral votes wither in the shade of Obama's 332 in 2012 and 365 in 2008. Bill Clinton (370 and 379), the first George Bush (426), and Ronald Reagan (489 and 525) make Trump's victory look as small as his hands. Trump barely won more electoral votes than Jimmy Carter in 1976. "I did better than George W. Bush" is not exactly a bragging point.

Moreover, as I pointed out in a column last week, Trump's margins of victory in the swing states that won the Electoral College for him were extremely narrow. If only a combined total of 53,555 Trump voters had voted for Clinton instead of Trump in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the election would have been Clinton's. Trump's combined margin of victory in those three states was less than four-tenths of one percent.

Then there is the fact that millions of people turned out to vote for Republicans down the ballot but did not vote for Trump. Senator John McCain (who certainly has reason to taunt Trump) recently pointed out that he won reelection in Arizona by more than 12 percent while Trump won that state by 4 percent. That was the story elsewhere as well. Trump, for example, won Ohio by 8 percent while that state's Republican candidate won his Senate race by more than 21 percent.

This is actually rather astounding. More than a quarter of a million Ohioans made the effort to go to the polls to vote for Senator Rob Portman while voting either for Clinton or another candidate (or simply leaving the presidential line blank). Hyper-partisanship was supposed to have made ticket splitting obsolete, but not when it came to Trump.

There would be some value in bearing these facts in mind for Democrats who want to prevent themselves from becoming despondent, to fight the tendency to convince themselves that they had done worse than they actually did last year. As I suggested above, however, Trump has made it clear that he is truly bothered by all of this, which means that it is not mere balm for the losing side.

Of course, it is possible that the right way to deal with Trump is to avoid annoying the man-child who now possesses the nuclear codes. I am not the first person to notice Trump's similarity to the main character in a classic 1961 Twilight Zone episode, a 6-year-old boy who possesses awesome powers and forces the cowering people in his little town to say supportive things or face horrific consequences.

Maybe, therefore, continuing to needle Trump is a bad idea. Rather than deliberately provoking him by repeating these facts showing how he lucked into the presidency, it might be wiser to say, "Yes, that's right. Everything is great. You're great. You won in a landslide, and everyone adores you!"

The problem is that Trump's need for affirmation seems insatiable. When people knuckle under to him, he moves onto the next thing that he needs to prove how great he is. He has already announced a slogan for his 2020 campaign, if you can believe it. Telling him what he wants to hear merely increases his neediness.

Trump is going to make a lot of bad decisions on policy while he is president. The more time that he spends responding to slights, real and imagined, the less damage he might do on substantive matters. He has given his opponents a clear road map to distract him. They would be foolish not to use it.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.

Neil Buchanan: Welcome to Trump's Alt-Fact Twilight Zone | Opinion