Who Can Tell the Emperor When He Has No Clothes?

Donald Trump flaunted his elastic conception of truth in an interview with Time—but he may yet learn that facts are stubborn things.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

How can anyone convince the most powerful man in the world of something he does not wish to believe?

It’s not an idle question. In a remarkable interview with Time’s Michael Scherer, President Trump flaunted his elastic relationship with truth. Instead of weighing evidence, he explained, he prefers to trust his gut. “I’m a very instinctual person,” he said, “but my instinct turns out to be right.”

Trump unrepentantly rehearsed his litany of false or unsubstantiated claims with Scherer. Was Ted Cruz’s father linked to Lee Harvey Oswald?  “Why do you say that I have to apologize? I’m just quoting the newspaper.” (The newspaper in question is the National Enquirer.) Had the president tapped his phones? “A lot of information has just been learned, and a lot of information may be learned over the next coming period of time. We will see what happens.” Were there 3 million fraudulent votes cast in 2016? “Well I think I will be proved right about that too.”

When Trump believes something, instinctually, there appear to be only three possibilities. He is already correct. He will be proven to have been correct at some point in the future. Or he may simply insist—as in the case of the Iraq War—that he had always subscribed to whatever view is later proven right.

As my colleague David Graham put it:

Time and again, Scherer asks Trump about statements that he has made without evidence, and time and again, Trump insists that something that happened later retroactively justifies the claims he has made, effectively arguing that lies have been alchemically transformed into truths after the fact.

As a political tactic, the refusal to acknowledge any inconvenient fact or contrary claim has its short-term advantages. “Trump has discovered something about epistemology in the 21st century,” Scherer wrote. “The truth may be real, but falsehood often works better.”

But this is not a novel discovery, not some peculiar feature of our contemporary environment. “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it,” the satirist Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, “so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect.”

The trouble for Trump is that, sooner or later, the truth catches up. As a real-estate developer, he could simply skip 10 floors in a building, and announce it stood 68 stories tall. As an entertainer, he could rely on the selectively edited reality of television. His audiences would willfully suspend their disbelief. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular,” he wrote in Art of the Deal. “I call it truthful hyperbole.” And that insight helped him succeed as a candidate, too.

Even as a president, Trump’s inclination to trust only the stories that affirm his beliefs, and disregard the haters and the losers, is often an asset. His predecessor was haunted by a painful, sometimes paralyzing, awareness of precedents, constraints, and third-order consequences. As my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, President Obama grew “steadily more fatalistic about the constraints on America’s ability to direct global events” over the course of his terms in office.

Trump, by contrast, is willing to discard the expert consensus and act on his gut. Most presidents have deferred to their economic advisers and declined to prevent specific plants from closing, fearing they might set unsustainable precedents. Trump simply acted, preserving factory jobs at a Carrier plant in Indiana in November. He didn’t simply write them off as the collateral damage of creative destruction, and the workers there love him for it.

But if it can be liberating, it can also be crippling. Trump had his press secretary summon the press to insist that they believe him, and not their own, lying eyes, about the size of his inaugural crowd. One court after another has restrained his executive orders limiting travel, partially because he has disregarded advice to cease commenting on the cases. His unsubstantiated claim that Obama wiretapped his phones has embroiled his administration in weeks of controversy. Trump’s refusal to credit information that contradicts his gut instincts may help him persuade others to embrace his mistaken views, but it cannot possibly alter the underlying facts themselves. And as my colleague James Fallows warns, that’s likely to have disastrous consequences when questions of national security are at stake.

Perhaps no one else on earth is as prone to having their biases confirmed as an American president—surrounded by aides who serve at his pleasure, courted by sycophants who cater to his whims, subjected to malicious partisan attacks that make it tempting to conclude all criticisms are lodged in bad faith. Most presidents struggle against this, relying on spouses, longtime friends, and confidants to keep them grounded—and despite that, often succumb to the temptations of confirmation bias.

Trump sits alone in the White House, his wife in New York. He watches hours of cable television, favoring shows that tell him he’s right; his aides feed him a steady diet of favorable press clippings. He seems to see constant affirmation as less a danger, than a necessity.

His predecessors felt differently.

In 1770, John Adams stood before a jury, and argued that—despite what he, and they, might want to believe—the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre had been exercising their right of self-defense in the face of mob violence. “Facts are stubborn things,” he said, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Ronald Reagan took that line—“facts are stubborn things”—and made it the refrain of his valedictory address to his party at the Republican National Convention in 1988.

Sooner or later, this president, too, will learn of the stubbornness of facts.

Trump can revel in the adoring crowds that attend his rallies, and the supporters who line the roads along which he travels. But not even an emperor can prevent his subjects from noticing when he has no clothes.