Speaking in the White House at a meeting with U.S. governors, President Donald Trump criticized the sheriff’s deputies who stayed outside the school during the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, which he contrasted to his own hypothetical bravery. “I really believe I’d run in there, even if I didn’t have a weapon, and I think most of the people in this room would have done that too,” Trump said.
Critics noted Trump’s history of avoiding opportunities for heroism. He received five draft deferments he received during the Vietnam War, including one for bone spurs in his heels.
Trump has also admitted he can’t handle the sight of blood. “I’m not good for medical,” he told radio shock-jock Howard Stern in 2008. “In other words, if you cut your finger and there’s blood pouring out, I’m gone.” As evidence, he told a story about an 80-year-old man who fell off the stage during a charity event at Mar-a-Lago, the Trump resort. “And you know what I did? I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s disgusting,’ and I turned away,” he said. “I couldn’t, you know, he was right in front of me and I turned away. I didn’t want to touch him… He’s bleeding all over the place, I felt terrible. You know, beautiful marble floor, didn’t look like it.”
Trump’s daydream of rushing into a school during a mass shooting, so at odds with his admitted squeamishness, “was equal parts hilarious and human,” wrote Washington Post columnist Daniel Drezner. “The truth is that we all want to be the hero of our own story. If something bad is going down, we like to imagine doing the right thing.... For Trump to try to envision himself—and, it should be noted, others in the room—as heroes is about as normal a human response as I’ve seen from Trump.”
What sets Trump apart is not that he’s a hero in his own mind, but that he’s a public fantasist, given to loudly extolling embellished or entirely imagined achievements. Earlier this year, ahead of his first presidential physical, Trump said, “I was always the best athlete, people don’t know that. But I was successful at everything I ever did and then I run for president, first time—first time, not three times, not six times. I ran for president first time and lo and behold, I win. And then people say, ‘Oh, is he a smart person?’ I’m smarter than all of them put together, but they can’t admit it.”
The best athlete, always successful, the smartest person, a hero who would charge unarmed at a mass shooter. In seeing himself in these terms, Trump recalls Walter Mitty, the nebbish lead character of James Thurber’s classic 1942 story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” who keeps escaping from the everyday drudgeries by imagining himself as a brain surgeon, wartime pilot, and other heroic pursuits. The difference between Trump and Mitty is that the fictional character kept his reveries private, while the president constantly blurts them out. The public nature of Trump’s fantasies, and the fact that he’s the president of the United States, makes them impossible to dismiss as merely psychological quirks. His fantasies have real-world consequences.
Trump has convinced a significant minority of the American public to believe in his aspirational sense of himself. Trump’s business career was checkered, with frequent bankruptcies and bailouts by his father. But he elided these failures through the imaginary realm of reality TV, where he played a successful capitalist. Yet to his followers, he’s an unvarnished example of business success. The irony is that performing the role of a businessman turned out to be much more profitable for him than actually being a businessman—a lie that begat a certain truth, as his TV stardom allowed him to get rich off of his own brand.
Trump’s entire career is a vindication of the huckster adage, “Fake it till you make it.” For Trump, faking it and making it are one in the same. Reality and fantasy are one. His path to the presidency was based on selling the charade that he was a genius dealmaker who could outwit the Washington establishment and end partisan gridlock. The reality of his presidency has been the opposite: Trump’s lack of political experience or even basic understanding of how government works has made him an easy pawn for various factions in Washington, such as congressional Republicans and Vice President Mike Pence, to push their own agenda.
Trump’s politics share the same element of make-believe that marks his self-presentation. His solution to illegal immigration is to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. His solution to mass shootings is to arm teachers. On these and other issues, Trump imagines he can solve a complex problem with a magic bullet. And as he accomplished with reality TV, Trump has succeeded in getting others—namely his base, and Republicans in Congress—to believe in these fantasies.
But the Mueller investigation shows that the power of Trump’s fantasies may be limited, even among his supporters. Trump and his allies have crafted a fantasy version of the Russia story that’s worthy of a pulp novel. In their narrative, Trump is a besieged president, fending off a “deep state” conspiracy led by holdovers from President Barack Obama’s administration, who are spreading lies that are eagerly echoed by the “Fake News” media.
Citing polling data, The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent argues that this fantasy is convincing only hardcore Trump supporters. “The CNN poll suggests that the false alt-narrative spun by Trump and his allies—even to the degree that it’s merely intended to kick up a lot of fog to confuse people—just isn’t working on much of the American mainstream,” Sargent wrote. “Large majorities not only accept that the Russian sabotage happened, but also see it as a cause for serious concern that should be investigated and reject the notion that the probe is a ‘witch hunt’ to hurt Trump.”
These beliefs are even gaining purchase with Republicans. “It is true that the CNN poll finds that 71 percent of Republicans think the probe is a witch hunt,” he wrote. “But you can see cracks in Trump’s coalition: Twenty-six percent of Republicans say Russian sabotage is a serious matter that should be investigated, and non-college-educated whites tilt slightly toward that position, 50 percent to 45 percent.”
Trump has gotten far in life by selling a fantasy, and his brand still carries a lot of weight with his supporters. But Trump cannot market himself out of trouble forever. Over time, reality will chip away at the dream scenarios he conjures with such ease. He could very well face a major crisis in the next three years. And if he does, will he run toward the problem or look away in disgust?