“There’s no answer for it,” she told me, “which is why it is so seriously disorienting to people. We’ve never seen anything like it. We don’t know how to meet it. It’s an attempt to construct a reality, and when it comes from the president, he has the capacity to impose that reality on the nation.”
Insulating the president from fringe ideas has gotten tougher over time. At a staff meeting early in the term, former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus held up a copy of a news article from a dubious source that Trump had seen, a person familiar with the matter told me. Priebus cautioned aides that information that hadn’t been properly vetted shouldn’t cross the president’s desk.
When he succeeded Priebus, John Kelly tried to professionalize Trump’s briefings and see to it that he heard both sides of an argument—the sort of practice that was routine in previous White Houses. To the staff’s frustration, though, Trump would often return to the Oval Office mentioning something he’d seen on cable news the night before and wanting to go in a different direction, forcing aides to scramble, another person familiar with the matter said. Late in Kelly’s tenure, which ended last year, Trump was listening less and less to the advice coming from White House staff and more to that from his own outside sources, this person said. With the arrival of Mick Mulvaney as acting chief of staff at the end of last year, whatever structure was left largely collapsed, people close to the White House told me. Trump gets information how and when he wants.
One source is his phone—a fount of misinformation for anyone with a Twitter addiction. A recent New York Times investigation of Trump’s Twitter habits showed that he has “retweeted at least 145 unverified accounts that have pushed conspiracy or fringe content.” In July, he retweeted a post from one unverified account that said Obama supporters were using protests to undermine his presidency, the paper reported.
Constructing his own reality necessitates an attack on fact-finding institutions that are central to American democracy—universities, nonpartisan government agencies, law enforcement, the intelligence community, and the news media. For Trump’s version of events to take hold, he needs people to accept that the facts leaping out at them aren’t to be believed, that institutions wedded to objective truth aren’t to be trusted.
Here, Trump’s imprint will be hard to erase. Trump acolytes inside the Republican caucus are aping his methods and standing with him as he advances his fact-free claims about Ukraine’s complicity in the 2016 election. Unceasing attacks on “fake news” have resonated with a certain audience. Polling from The Wall Street Journal/NBC News shows that in 2010, 60 percent of Republicans had either no or very little confidence in the national news media. As of June—two and a half years into Trump’s presidency—that figure had grown to 74 percent. “Conspiracy theories go right to the jugular of what a democracy is,” Vitriol said. “The stakes are as high as they could possibly be.”
One day, the conspiracist in chief will leave office. His successors will face a choice: Exploit the damage he’s done to democratic institutions and norms, or see if it can be fixed.