The truth about Trump is not that he’s crazy. He’s a narcissist and a neurotic with a feral talent for attracting the attention he craves. And like it or not, we all inhabit the Trump-verse and we all are subject to its consequences.
If you want to understand the ways in which Donald Trump’s presidency is systematically corrupting the American mind, I have a book recommendation for you. It’s about Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The book is Peter Pomerantsev’s “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.” It was published in 2014, and it brilliantly tells the story of the (Soviet-born) British author’s sojourn as a producer for Russian TV. As the title suggests, at its heart it’s the tale of the substitution of reality with “reality,” of factual truth with interpretive possibility.
That’s also the central task of Donald Trump’s presidency. We were reminded of this again this week, on news that Trump is backing away from his public admission last year that he said what he said on the infamous Access Hollywood tape. Then there was his appalling insinuation Wednesday that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough might have killed an office intern in 2001. And his hallucinatory tweet last week in which he claimed to turn down an approach from Time magazine to make him Person of the Year for the second time in a row.
Before that it was his multiple attacks against his attorney general. Or his tweeting of a video pastiche in which he physically assaults CNN. Or his voter-fraud claims. Or the ones about the size of his inaugural crowds.
All this has given rise to the suggestion that Trump is mentally unwell. But the president also gives signs that he is perfectly well, can communicate relatively coherently when he wants to do so, and knows exactly what he is tweeting (and subtweeting), and to what effect.
This is where Pomerantsev is so instructive. In one of his book’s early scenes, he relates a professional homily from a man he identifies as a prominent Russian TV presenter. “We all know there will be no real politics” in Putin’s Russia, the man says at a staff conference.
“But we still have to give our viewers the sense something is happening. They need to be kept entertained. So what should we play with? Shall we attack the oligarchs? Who’s the enemy this week? Politics has got to feel like … like a movie!”
This is why there’s a Colosseum in Rome, and why public spectacle, theater, cinema,…