“You know what,” the president’s adult son said, “if it’s a cult, it’s because they like what my father is doing.”
One of the problems with cults, however, is that its leaders tell its followers to ignore external sources of information – because in order for the scheme to work, the leaders must be seen as the sole authority for truth.
All of this came to mind watching Donald Trump Sr. in Kansas City yesterday, where the president addressed this year’s national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). Officially, this was an official White House event, but practically, it wasn’t long before Trump turned the gathering into another partisan campaign rally, which included this unscripted declaration:
“Just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
In his novel 1984, George Orwell wrote, “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
Seven decades later, the dynamic Orwell described seems eerily familiar. Americans may see and read about current events, but their president is asking us not to trust our lying eyes. Instead, to understand “what’s happening,” we must instead turn to Donald Trump and those who deliver the kinds of messages he approves of.
Indeed, the scope of these efforts appears to be expanding. The New York Times reported overnight on what happened on Air Force One recently when the president learned that Melania Trump’s television was tuned to CNN.
He raged at his staff for violating a rule that the White House entourage should begin each trip tuned to Fox – his preferred network over what he considers the “fake news” CNN – and caused “a bit of a stir” aboard Air Force One, according to an email obtained by The New York Times. The email, an internal exchange between officials in the White House Military Office and the White House Communications Agency last Thursday, also called for the ordering of two additional televisions to support Beam, a TiVo-like streaming device, to make sure the president and first lady could both watch TV in their separate hotel rooms when they travel.
At the end of the email chain, officials confirmed that tuning the TVs to Fox would be standard operating procedure going forward.
The channel-flipping flap was the latest example of how Mr. Trump, at a pivotal moment in his presidency, is increasingly living in a world of selected information and bending the truth to his own narrative. As his aides work to keep him insulated from the outside world, Mr. Trump is doubling down in his efforts to tell supporters to trust him over the words of critics and news reports.
We’re accustomed to politicians peddling falsehoods to the public and hoping to get away with it. What we’re seeing with Trump, however, is qualitatively different. This is what Rachel described on the show last night as “deliberate trafficking in unreality.”
As regular readers know, it’s become a staple of the Trump presidency. The White House hasn’t exactly been subtle about its vision: Don’t trust news organizations. Don’t trust the courts. Don’t trust pollsters. Don’t trust U.S. intelligence agencies. Don’t trust unemployment numbers. Don’t even trust election results.
The list, however, keeps growing. The FBI is suspect. So is the Justice Department. So are climate scientists. So are medical professionals who aren’t comfortable with regressive GOP health care plans.
The authority for truth will tell us what’s true. Others are not to be trusted.
Adding insult to injury are those who volunteer to go along with these tactics. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Science Committee, advised Americans last year “to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”
This is a twisted perspective, not just because the president routinely has no use for reality, but also because, in a democratic society, the idea that truth-seeking citizens must turn exclusively to the national leader is so antithetical to American norms, it’s genuinely offensive.
It is, however, eerily consistent with a Republican president who told voters during the campaign, “Politicians have used you and stolen your votes. They have given you nothing. I will give you everything… I’m the only one.” In his GOP convention speech, Trump added, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it…. I am your voice.”
And that voice is now telling us not to believe what we see and read.