The Marker of an Authoritarian

Trump insists on editing reality to conform to his own needs—if necessary, with a Sharpie.

Donald Trump
Evan Vucci / AP

In retrospect, perhaps the nation should have seen President Donald Trump’s spat with the weather report coming. He began his presidency not only by lying about the crowd size at his inauguration but also about the rain: Speaking before the CIA, he announced that the sky had immediately cleared of rain when he began his inaugural address, when in fact it had sprinkled steadily throughout the speech. So his refusal to let go of a misleading tweet stating that Hurricane Dorian would affect Alabama—a saga that has expanded to include numerous tweets, a defaced map, and reportedly, threats by a Cabinet official to fire staffers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—is less than surprising.

It’s difficult to say anything profound about these events, precisely because the incident itself is so absurd. To take it seriously is to prolong it, and the president’s raging is so bizarre that giving the matter new life feels almost impolite, like refusing to let a family member live down an awkward outburst at the dinner table.

But now The New York Times has reported that pressure from acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross pushed NOAA employees to issue a statement disavowing a Birmingham weather forecast that contradicted Trump’s inaccurate tweet. And this moves the president’s Hurricane Dorian temper tantrum from the realm of the embarrassing into the authoritarian. The saga of Dorian is a snapshot of Trump’s refusal to accept the reality of a world that looks any different from what he wants to be true, and a demonstration of how such an instinct in a leader is incompatible with the requirements of democracy.

The story began when the president tweeted on September 1 that Alabama, among a handful of other states, would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by the incoming hurricane, which was at that point moving over the Bahamas. NOAA’s Birmingham office clarified on Twitter that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian,” in what National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini later described as an effort to “stop public panic” over the hurricane.

This set off a chain of angry tweets from the president. Days later, he displayed an outdated NOAA map of the hurricane’s projected path apparently altered with a black Sharpie to extend into Alabama. Two days later, NOAA released an unsigned statement reprimanding the Birmingham office and backing the president—prompting an investigation by NOAA’s inspector general and criticism from the agency’s chief scientist, Craig McLean. Now, the Times reports that the repudiated statement was the result of pressure from Mulvaney, who leaned on Ross—who, as commerce secretary, oversees NOAA—who, in turn, ordered political appointees at the agency to placate the president or lose their jobs.

In the spring of 2017, BuzzFeed published an article asking: “If Donald Trump Told You to Evacuate Your City, Would You?” The point was that, in an emergency situation, Trump’s routine falsehoods have left the average citizen with little reason to trust any presidential declaration on public safety. It’s no longer a hypothetical question. As McLean argued, NOAA’s politicized backing of the president “compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety … If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster’s warnings and products, that specific danger arises.”

Trump’s behavior regarding Dorian is yet another example of his strained relationship with the truth, something that is at this point so routine as to be barely worth commenting on. In the language of the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, he is a “bullshitter”—someone who does not so much lie in order to consciously obscure the truth as make statements without any thought or care to what the truth might be. Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, is careless, in that it requires no commitment to a stable universe of facts. And Trump’s falsehoods are careless insofar as he makes them without any regard for consistency or internal logic, but there is also a stubbornness to them. His bullshit is a way of insisting that the world take the shape he wants it to have, regardless of the facts on the ground.

If he declares that he is a genius and surrounds himself with people who are slavish enough to agree, then he can, as far as he is concerned, remake the world into one in which he received top marks at Wharton. If he plays the character of a successful businessman on The Apprentice, he can run for office—and win—on the imagined strength of his business record. He can create a world in which he receives adulation for things he has never actually done.

For this reason, Trump seems to take the most glee in the aspects of the presidency that allow him to reshape the world by fiat. He appears to enjoy exercising the pardon power—an anonymous White House official once described it as Trump’s “favorite thing” to The Washington Post—in part because the granting of clemency allows him to cut through the usual procedures that constrain him from doing as he likes. By declaring a person pardoned, that is, Trump can literally make it so.

But there are some things in the world that are not amenable to being reshaped at the president’s whimsy. Among them is the weather. If it is raining, it is raining, whether or not Donald Trump tells you that he is getting wet.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt has been much quoted over the past several years on the matter of lying in politics, but it’s her work on the nature of democracy—in the sense of a shared political life among citizens—that offers the greatest insight when it comes to Trump’s authoritarianism and his falsehoods. The core of Arendt’s argument is that, as she puts it, “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world”—in other words, that we exist buffeted by the actions of others and never entirely in control of our own fate. Democratic politics, in her view, requires an embrace of this unpredictability and an acceptance of the world as shared. She contrasts this with the desire of the monarch or the tyrant to maintain control and shape reality to their will. Trump is an atypical tyrant in that he is more interested in declaring the world to be a certain way than he is in actually putting in the work to shape it, but the control he demands over truth is absolute.

Arendt’s point is that there is something undemocratic about the refusal to admit that one lives in a world in which not everything is under one’s control—that other people exist and will be able to determine independently if a hurricane is not coming when the president says it is. And because such a world is undemocratic, it is also lonely, cut off from the flow of life with other people. It has no room for conversation and debate, much less dissent. “I am all alone (poor me) in the White House,” Trump tweeted in December 2018, slamming congressional Democrats for refusing to follow his legislative agenda.

Writing in The Atlantic, David Graham described Trump’s effort to “make [Hurricane Dorian’s presence in Alabama] real by sheer force of anger.” Notably, the Times story on the political pressure placed on NOAA quotes a “senior administration official” suggesting that the Birmingham office, as the paper puts it, “had been motivated by a desire to embarrass the president more than concern for the safety of people in Alabama.” The suggestion, the Times notes, was offered “without evidence.” It is striking that the administration’s instinct was to see NOAA Birmingham’s actions as an affront to the president, rather than considering whether they might have been directed by a responsibility to the people of Alabama or an allegiance to the facts of the forecast. Everything orbits around Trump—the only person whose experience of the world matters, and who can therefore dictate the terms of reality.

Trump’s refusal to let go of his initial prediction on Alabama has caused some commentators to wonder openly about the president’s mental well-being. Peter Wehner argued that “Donald Trump’s disordered personality … has become the defining characteristic of his presidency,” pointing in part to Trump’s “bizarre fixation” on Hurricane Dorian. The MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted, “The Alabama obsession feels … clinical … if someone in your life was acting this way, you’d be legit concerned.”

It is impossible to diagnose Trump from afar. But whether or not there is a pathology at work here, Trump does not appear to live in the same world that most other people do—a dangerous trait in any leader, but one especially unsuited to the president of a democratic nation. Democracy, as Arendt writes, depends on the existence of a shared universe of mutually agreed-upon facts—like whether or not it is raining in Alabama. It also depends on the willingness of leaders to acknowledge that some things, including the weather, are beyond their control. That is not Donald Trump’s way. He is the strong man standing alone at the front of the crowd, who is strong only when there is no one there to tell him differently.