Donald Trump's Alt-Reality

The president alleges that “any” bad polling is fake news. Which raises the question: Can you govern from the Twilight Zone?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

On Monday morning, President Trump took to Twitter to offer his broadest dismissal yet of the pesky world of reality:

By rejecting not The New York Times or CNN or other, specific news outlets (as he has done time and time again), but instead “any” party that offered critical information, it was the clearest indication yet that America’s 45th president intends to reject all facts that may complicate his vision or intrude on his (very positive) impression of himself, whatever their origin. After all, Trump won the presidency despite much advance polling pointing to his defeat. He has carried his skepticism of pollsters into the Oval Office, and broadened it to encompass data in general.

Since taking office 17 days ago, Trump has rejected objective facts to such a stunning degree that one wonders about the implications for a president who lives in a parallel reality: Can you really govern from the Twilight Zone? For much of the first half of Sunday’s Super Bowl match, there was a fair share of commentary on Twitter about whether the president would even recognize an Atlanta Falcons win over his preferred team, the New England Patriots:

… or whether he might just deny ever having picked New England for the win:

Beyond tearing at the president’s thin skin, this online heckling reflects a widely shared view: Trump denies reality when it does not suit him, thus his repeated claims of “Fake News!” (Surprising exactly no one, Trump left his own Super Bowl party early, as the Patriots were running a seemingly insurmountable 25 point deficit. This is not a man who likes bad tidings.)

In the immediate, this Trumpian proclivity towards fabrication and denial has forced his own staff into embarrassing logic pretzels. On his first day as press secretary, Sean Spicer was made to defend the president’s mistaken belief that his inauguration crowds were “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period.” Spicer was broadly ridiculed for spreading such a patently false claim and was compelled to offer his version of a clarification in later days, insisting that the “online” audience for the ceremony had been historic.

Given that Spicer must unfortunately still face hordes of journalists on a daily basis—men and women who are willfully tied to reality and all its attendant facts—one does not envy his position, stuck between the alternate universe of a president intent on broadcasting his own popularity, and a mass of reporters armed with facts to prove its non-existence.

On Monday, The New York Times reported on the specific nature of Trump’s information obsession, revealing that the president:

… often has to wait until the end of the workday before grinding through news clips with Mr. Spicer, marking the ones he does not like with a big arrow in black Sharpie — though he almost always makes time to monitor Mr. Spicer’s performance at the daily briefings, summoning him to offer praise or criticism….

This presidential haranguing is all happening as Spicer is serving as both press secretary and communications director. According to the Times,

Mr. Trump, several aides said, is used to quarterbacking his own media strategy, and did not see the value of hiring an outsider.

On their own, each of these positions is remarkably demanding. It is hard to imagine how Spicer is able to do both, while toggling between the Donnie Darko-esque hallucinations of the sitting president and the unsparing reality of the national press corps. It would not be at all surprising if Spicer’s first year in the White House is also his last.

Kellyanne Conway, already enjoying national mockery for her invocation of “alternative facts” to defend the president’s false claims on his crowd size, faced further humiliation on Monday when Cosmo and TMZ revealed that Conway had invoked the specter of the entirely made-up Bowling Green “massacre” multiple times, casting doubt on her mea culpa the week previous, when she tweeted:

The two outlets reported that Conway had twice previously referred to the massacre before her MSNBC interview—information that suggested this was not simply a slip of the tongue, but perhaps a more concerted intention to spread misinformation.

It is not clear that President Trump issued any directive about the imaginary “massacre,” but it is abundantly clear that the president is looking for problems to cite as reasons for his solution, a 90-day ban on citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and a total shutdown on refugee entry for 120 days. The fact that Conway, a respected pollster and strategist in her own right, has been pulled into a vortex to justify the President Trump’s parallel reality, does not bode well for her own reputation beyond the White House.

If you follow the movies, alternate realities are rarely shared: They are not the province of friends and coworkers, they are instead the dark imaginations of single minds. So it may be with President Trump. Already isolated from his family, alone most nights in the White House, he is a man whose world is shrinking—an established effect of any presidency, but a loneliness thrown into particularly sharp relief with this one, so early into its tenure. Trump’s paranoias and delusions will only isolate him further: Staff shakeups were a hallmark of his campaign, and things are likely to be no different in this White House—where the men and women are already under enormous pressure to invent realities that serve their boss’s, despite whatever of their best instincts may still exist.

And then there is the rest of the world, the one outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In addition to the national press corps, there is Congress and the judiciary, equal branches of government that are inextricably tied to reality, and will be likely sources of complicating and uncomfortable developments for this president, depending on the policies he puts forth. And then there is the American public: the Trump supporters who are waiting for the jobs to come back and for the country to be great again.

Should Trump fail to live up to these lofty promises, their disappointments in him will not easily be wished away. For the Americans who did not vote for Trump, merely the start of his presidency has been cause for mass protest, for powerful public displays of defiance and indignation. No matter how florid the imagination, conjuring up a world where all of these bodies either do not matter—or do not exist—is an impossible task.