Trump Pentagon Speech
Credit: The White House/Flickr

The political landscape changed on January 3, 2019. That is the day the new Congress was sworn into office, giving Democrats a majority in the House and leading to the election of Nancy Pelosi as speaker. After two years of doing almost nothing to get his wall built, it was around that time that Trump became fixated on it, leading to a government shutdown and eventually his declaration of a national emergency.

“We’re talking about an invasion of our country,” Mr. Trump said speaking from the Rose Garden in urgent terms familiar during his campaign.

Yet in the two years since Mr. Trump took office, there had been no single official appointed within his administration to champion the wall. A revolving cast handled negotiations with Congress over paying for it. And the picture of what, exactly, the wall should be kept shifting. In late 2017, Mr. Trump talked privately to his staff about limiting the length of new wall construction because such natural barriers as a “valley of snakes” on the border already deterred passage.

The wall’s reemergence as a top priority within the White House came after the Republican Party’s loss of the House in November’s midterm election, and after goading from conservative media kept Mr. Trump focused on the border wall, current and former White House officials said.

The fact that Democrats now control the House of Representatives doesn’t just mean that the president will experience more defeats like the refusal to fund his wall. Democratic Representative Adam Schiff now chairs the House Intelligence Committee. No matter how hard Trump works to discredit the Mueller probe and find an attorney general who will bury the special counsel’s report, he’ll have to deal with this:

In an interview on CNN, Schiff rejected Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr’s statements from earlier this month, in which Burr said evidence shows no collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia.

“Chairman Burr must have a different word for it,” Schiff told host Dana Bash on “State of the Union,” pointing to communications between Russia and Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump aides George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn.

“You can see evidence in plain sight on the issue of collusion, pretty compelling evidence,” Schiff said, adding, “There is a difference between seeing evidence of collusion and being able to prove a criminal conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Schiff said special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on potential Russian government meddling in the 2016 election might not be the final word on the matter.

But it’s not just Schiff’s Intelligence Committee Trump has to worry about.

The Trump administration’s free ride from Congress is over.

New Democratic House committee chairs are set to launch subpoena-powered investigations into the president’s finances, Russian interference, and administration ethics scandals. After two years of low-energy Republican oversight, the Trump administration’s policies and its basic competence in running the government will be under serious scrutiny for the first time.

As the prospect of all of that unfolds, Tim O’Brien—who wrote the book TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald—has some insight into how the president handles losing. He suggests that in Trump’s world, it never happens.

It was inevitable that Trump would refuse to be stymied by Congress, and that he would take a victory lap regardless of what happened in the real world. In that context, his border-wall machinations are only partially about appeasing conservative pundits or his political base; for the most part, they’re about appeasing his sense of himself. He’s been doing this sort of thing his entire life: Spinning victory yarns from incontrovertible losses was a hallmark of his troubled business career…

It was only after Trump recognized in January that he was being consumed by a government shutdown he set in motion — and that he had been politically emasculated by a woman to his left (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) and to his right (pundit and firebrand Ann Coulter) — that he fully embraced a border wall as his last stand.

In other words, Trump’s obsession with a border wall and his declaration of a national emergency are the president’s attempts to spin a delusion about “winning” in order to pretend he isn’t losing, which, as Tony Schwartz suggests, the president equates with obliteration.

To survive, I concluded from our conversations, Trump felt compelled to go to war with the world. It was a binary, zero-sum choice for him: You either dominated or you submitted. You either created and exploited fear, or you succumbed to it…Trump grew up fighting for his life and taking no prisoners. In countless conversations, he made clear to me that he treated every encounter as a contest he had to win, because the only other option from his perspective was to lose, and that was the equivalent of obliteration.

That is why O’Brien ends his piece with this warning:

Trump is cornered and outmaneuvered, so we’re likely to get more of the same as he continues to test the Constitution and the boundaries of presidential authority: constant spinning about winning, even when the losses are apparent.

In addition to the obvious danger of having a president test Constitutional boundaries, there is the more subtle threat of having one who traffics in delusion. I am reminded of something Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote back in 2012.

We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Donald Trump and his enablers will do everything in their power to distort reality as the president faces the prospect of losing. That is what propaganda looks like.

The only thing that will stop truth from being annihilated is for us to be clear about what the president is doing and maintain our critical thinking.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.