Greg Sargent at the Washington Post has long been making the case that Trump’s main communications strategy is to assault the notion of shared objective reality itself. In Trumpworld, the only arbiter of crowd sizes or climate science or wiretapping is Donald Trump himself, and everything else is “fake news” regardless of what facts might invalidate his narrative.
And for a while, it was working. During the presidential campaign, Trump lied with reckless abandon but never seemed to suffer for it. That’s partly because his opponent also suffered from perceived credibility issues, but it’s mostly because the news media treats presidential elections like a game where any claim is in bounds as long as a candidate can get people to believe it. And because Trump is the sort of figure it’s hard to take one’s eyes off of, his tweets and pronouncement manage to derail news cycles and capture attention. It was thought that perhaps we were entering a new political era in which reality simply no longer mattered.
But campaigns are one thing. Governing is another. And Trump’s reality distortion field is failing him now that he has to grapple with something more than campaign coverage.
Sargent himself noted this fact almost a week ago, referencing reports that Trump’s tweets were no longer having the narrative-driving force they once did. But the failure of the Republican health plan has cemented the degree to which Trump is losing his ability to gaslight and confuse enough people to get his way.
Donald Trump has always carefully crafted the image of a tough guy negotiator, through ghostwritten books and reality TV show characters. But it’s not wholly clear that Trump has ever had more than a few tricks up his sleeve: bully people with money and influence, play hardball, pretend to refuse offers, and when all else fails swamp the opposition with attorneys. It’s not exactly a creative arsenal, and Trump wouldn’t have had it available to him in his business career without a lot of inherited wealth and strings pulled on his behalf.
But when he attempted to play those games with the Republican Congress, they simply laughed in his face. When he attempted similar gambits against the federal judiciary over his travel bans, the judges simply used his own words against him.
Now his tweets do less to drive national narratives in his favor than they do to cause him embarrassment and scandal, whether it’s promoting a Fox News show or claiming to be wiretapped by his predecessor.
The reality distortion field is breaking, and people are becoming immune to Trump’s simplistic mind games. Without them, it’s not clear what Trump has left. He’s certainly no policy expert, and he doesn’t have the relationships on Capitol Hill to sustain him. It must be miserable for him.
But then, reality does have a way of reasserting itself.