WASHINGTON — Truth caught up with Donald Trump after years of giving chase.
The twice-impeached president painted a fantasy world in office, starring himself. In this world, he did things bigger, better, more boldly than all who came before him while facing enemies more pernicious than any in creation.
Trump routinely said things that were not only wrong, but the precise opposite of right. He said them over and over, no less so when the deceptions were exposed.
We’re rounding the corner on the virus, he said repeatedly, when the obvious reality was that the most lethal stage of the pandemic was just picking up. On the cusp of this danger, he spread the suspicion that masks make you more vulnerable to COVID-19, not less.
Then came his election defeat and a menacing twist in his life history of assaulting the facts.
That’s when Trump, primed for months to declare the election stolen from him, spun a web of deception and denialism in an effort to overturn the will of voters, pairing his words with furious and futile action in the courts and intimidation of election officials. This all exploded in violent insurrection at the Capitol by followers inflamed by his sustained and flamboyant lie.
The United States, that self-described beacon of democracy, that supposed shining city on a hill, came under the flickering shadow of his gaslight.
“Who’s the banana republic now?” asked newspaper headlines an ocean apart in Kenya and Colombia.
Trump leaves incoming President Joe Biden with repair work to do on the government’s credibility in a country where millions went along with their president’s fantastical ride — believing his persistent falsehoods about masks, election fraud, socialists in the halls of power, antifa rampant in the streets, tormenters at every turn.
It’s a legacy of “magical thinking,” said Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland. “They have a full-blown independent reality, totally cut apart from the world of facts.”
In psychology, gaslighting means manipulating people to question their own perceptions, memories or even sanity. It tends not to work so well on judges.
The courts proved to be the bulwark against Trump’s machinations. The three justices he placed on the high court did nothing to help him when they had the chance. Dozens of federal judges — Trump nominees among them — blocked his course, finding no merit in his complaints of voting and counting fraud.
Yet he had waged the fight with the support of legions of his voters and more than 100 Republican members of Congress who supported his challenge of Biden’s election certification on the same false pretenses peddled by Trump.
“It really matters that the president of the United States is an arsonist of radicalization,” Kori Schake, a senior national security and State Department aide in the George W. Bush administration, told a postelection conference. She dared hope “it will really help when that’s no longer the case.”
By being so determinedly loose with the truth, Trump stayed true to character in the White House.
The arc of his life reveals insistent fabrication and exaggeration, as well as one vast understatement, attributed to him in his memoir and singular in its audacity: “A little hyperbole never hurts.”
In his days as a publicity hungry real estate developer in New York, he would pretend to be a publicist named John Miller as he got on the phone with the press and planted flattering secrets about Donald Trump, such as “actresses just call to see if they can go out with him and things.”
His deceptions would start to take on much larger dimensions with deeper consequences, as when he tried to perpetuate the lie that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and thus was an illegitimate president.
Then in office, Trump used the extraordinary reach and power of the presidency to tell Americans not to believe what they could see with their own eyes.
Trump underplayed the threat the coronavirus posed while admitting he knew better. For weeks in the fall he spoke of the U.S. “rounding the corner” on the pandemic even as infections rose across the country. He further encouraged his believers to let down their guard by telling them that most people who wear masks get COVID-19, far from the truth.
Throughout his term, to go with Trump’s flow was to suspend logic, to disdain arithmetic, to ignore that his latest statement contradicted what he said days before. It meant buying into “alternative facts” — a phrase that spurred sales of George Orwell’s dystopian book “1984” when it was coined by a Trump aide.
“It’s simply gotten to the point where Donald Trump has told so many lies in so many different ways … it just makes you wonder if we’re living in a post-truth world,” said Richard Waterman, a University of Kentucky political science professor who studies the presidency.
Trump’s fabrications were the racing heartbeat of his rallies. The counterfeit fed the charisma.
At a postelection rally in Georgia, Trump railed for nearly two hours in a speech where it was easier to suss out the true statements than the false ones.
The Democrats, he said, “want to rip down buildings and rebuild them with no windows. I like windows.” He said they “want to take away your beautiful Christmas that we just got back.” He said “Democrats will have dead people voting and you got to watch it — dead people.” None of that was true.
Calvin Woodward, The Associated Press