The Fantasist

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In his article this weekend about the Republicans' failure to make good on their central mantra, repealing and replacing Obamacare, The Washington Post’s chief correspondent Dan Balz made exactly the right point: "For seven years, Republicans have lived what turned out to be a fiction."

That's true. But I'd like to take the opportunity to note that Republican ideology has been riddled with far more extravagant fictions for a while now. The denial of evolutionary biology and climate science, the belief in an imminent takeover of the American legal system by sharia and of everything else by the UN, the idea that anti-white prejudice is America's most serious racial problem—these and other pieces of make-believe have been peddled to Republican voters by conservative media and politicians since the turn of the century. Not long after Daniel Patrick Moynihan first said that people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts, a lot of Republicans were disagreeing, and turning the GOP into a Fantasy Party.

Donald Trump didn't make that happen—he just took advantage of the transformation of the GOP (and of presidential politics into show business) to become fantasist-in-chief. Trump lies shamelessly and compulsively, and because politicians in general fib and dissemble, his supporters excuse that. But a key difference with Trump is that he doesn't merely lie: He's also a fantasist, a credulous believer in fictions. I think he really believed that Barack Obama was born outside the U.S., that we don't know “who really knocked down the World Trade Center,” that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton.

His belief in the self-servingly and excitingly preposterous seems to be kind of a method acting trick as well, given that he always has been a performer, playing a character named Donald Trump—not just for 15 years on reality television, but in the news media and in life before and since then. So when he was saying on the campaign trail a year ago that his new health-care system would be “something terrific," “something great,” “insurance for everybody,” “Immediately! Fast! Quick!”—he probably could have passed a lie-detector test.