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Does Trump Live in an Alternate Reality?

Some believe that the president is so divorced from actual governance that his statements have limited consequences. But that isn't the case.


It’s hard to accurately characterize President Donald Trump’s habit of making consistently false, frequently self-contradictory, often hypocritical, and always flamboyant statements. No word quite captures their all-encompassing magnitude, their frequency, and, often, their sheer pointlessness. “Lies” is always a good place to start, but in Trump’s case it only begins to cover the problem. “Bullshitting” is too cute for the rolling crisis we find ourselves in. “Gaslighting” implies that something strategic is happening, and Trump appears to be working on pure intuition. We don’t have the language to convey how serious the president’s lies—or obfuscations or exaggerations or feints or whatever else you want to call them—are.

Furthermore, we don’t know with any certainty what effect his public statements are having on policy. What does it mean when the president, say, offers a grieving Gold Star family $25,000 but doesn’t pay up? Does it imply that he thinks the military’s survivor benefits program is inadequate, or did he just want to weasel out of an awkward situation? Are his threats to start a nuclear war with North Korea serious, or a bluff? Does he really want to blow up Obamacare, or was that a poor attempt to move complicated legislative processes forward?

Axios’s Mike Allen has taken a stab at diagnosing the problem. Earlier this week, Allen argued that Trump’s inability to tell the truth represented a kind of ontological problem that the media was ill-equipped to handle. In a follow-up post, Allen took this argument in a more interesting direction, arguing that Trump’s brazenly untrue statements represent an “alternate reality” that is separate from the “reality” of policy-making cabinet officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

“It’s a feature, not a bug, of this White House for Trump to say one thing about policy, and for his cabinet or hand-picked officials to say or do the exact opposite,” Allen writes. “This dynamic—like the spreading of fake news or false statements—makes it hard for the media, Republicans, and his cabinet to determine when to take the leader of the free world seriously. ... This is not a plot of evil genius to keep friends and foes guessing. It’s the inevitable output of an improvisational president who often says whatever pops into his head.”

This is fairly banal stuff. Because everyone knows the president is full of it, it’s hard to hold him accountable and even harder to push policies through, since no one knows where the president stands on any one issue at any one time. (There is an element of Schroedinger’s cat to Trump’s presidency; he simultaneously stands for a very specific agenda and nothing at all.) This is basically the position of the rest of the administration, with Tillerson famously saying that the president “speaks for himself.”

But Allen’s analysis doesn’t go far enough. Here are a few of the examples he cites:

    • “SecState Rex Tillerson says North Korean diplomacy ‘will continue until the first bomb drops’; Trump tweets that he’s ‘wasting his time.’”
    • “SecDef Jim Mattis tells Congress that holding onto the Iran nuclear pact is in the interest of the national security of the United States; 10 days later, Trump threatens cancellation.”
    • “Trump threatens extreme action on immigrants, Muslims, ‘Dreamers,’ trade, NATO, and more, but aides and advisers wind up softening or delaying most—with the notable exception of the Paris climate deal.”

The problem here isn’t just that Trump is defying and ignoring the advice of his cabinet. The problem is that Trump’s lies are themselves becoming the main drivers of American policy. In certain instances, we may have ended up in a less disastrous place than what Trump had originally envisioned. But in the case of the Dreamers, Iran, and Obamacare, he kicked the issues to a flighty and inept Congress, which is now tasked with resolving these problems quickly. Trump may be bluffing or bullshitting or just plain lying, but these bluffs, bullshit, and lies are being woven into every major American policy.

Take the Iran deal, which Trump “decertified” against the wishes of most top cabinet officials. It is something of a cop-out, since Congress is likely to uphold the deal, but decertifying it carries considerable risk. In response, Iran could restart its suspected nuclear weapons program. The move also undermines the already questionable reliability of the United States, at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea. And both these risks were taken despite the fact that there were no real policy benefits to speak of.

Trump is trying to find a middle ground between a campaign promise to rip up the Iran deal and the reality that, though imperfect, the status quo is far preferable to any attainable alternative. Without a commitment to go all the way, the reasons for “decertifying” are entirely optical. And yet Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster both hit the Sunday show circuit to defend the decision and the integrity of the United States.

This uncertainty has bled into the attempt to address the dangerous situation in North Korea. There, the president’s low-rent madman theory—that he is so unpredictable that it keeps North Korea constantly guessing—has also crept into the more serious world of actual policymaking. Tillerson’s claim that diplomacy will continue until “the first bomb drops” is itself a variant of the kind of rhetoric that Trump uses with regard to North Korea.

While in normal administrations there is an attempt to minimize the daylight between the president and his cabinet, in the Trump administration there isn’t enough daylight between the president and a coterie of diplomatic and/or military officials who have the country’s best interests at heart—a group that Allen has referred to as the “Committee to Save America.” Trump’s approach to these issues is wildly irresponsible, and yet more often than not it ends up being the approach his administration ultimately undertakes. Whatever the Committee to Save America says in private to journalists and other policymakers, their public comments make it clear they’re living in the president’s reality.

This is especially clear in the “extreme action” Trump has taken with regard to the Dreamers (those young immigrants whose permits to stay in America have been tentatively revoked) and Obamacare (whose subsidies for low-income consumers have been tentatively rescinded). By foisting these problems on a reluctant Congress, Trump has theoretically stopped short of doing actual damage; after all, it’s possible for legislators to come up with solutions (even if it’s also possible that Trump may not ultimately sign them into law). But these actions have a real chance at being codified, and the fact that action was taken at all shows that it effectively doesn’t matter whether Trump’s more responsible cabinet disagrees with him. In both these cases, the preferred outcome for policy-makers would have been if Trump had done nothing.

There’s a temptation to isolate Trump from those around him and from the U.S. government writ large. It’s comforting to believe that someone, somewhere in the Trump administration, whether it be John Kelly or Rex Tillerson or Jared and Ivanka, is able to keep a handle on reality. The fact that some advisers are telling Trump to not do damaging things suggests there’s a degree of truth to this. But the bigger story is that Trump’s alternate reality is invading every aspect of American foreign and domestic policy, very much including those areas overseen by officials that have been deemed the sane ones.