We all used to know what it meant. The world as it is. Objective facts that provide the foundation for rational – not emotional – judgments and actions.
But the old definition of reality has taken a serious beating during the nearly three years Donald Trump, the reality-show president, has been in office. Partly because Trump himself seems to live in a reality separate from the one most of us inhabit. Partly because too many people still can’t accept the objective facts of his presidency.
This reality car crash will be on full display on Wednesday when Trump attends the Nato heads of government meeting in Watford, while in Washington the House judiciary committee takes over hearings from the intelligence committee, the next step towards his inevitable impeachment. Pictures of pomp and ceremony and outrageous Trump behaviour will be juxtaposed with testimony about his high crimes and misdemeanours.
Trump’s presidency has revealed the reality of what America has been for some time: a hopelessly divided nation whose institutional structures are rotten. The economy is riddled with corruption. Education is in a wretched state.
The Washington press corps has proved itself incapable of reporting the Trumpian reality. Reporters too often indulge in clickbait speculation about his mental and physical health. They report as fact gossip about who is about to quit the administration and blow the whistle on him. So far none of the generals and other high-ups humiliated and forced out of his cabinet or as chief of staff have done so. Washington journalists continue to feed a commercial model of journalism where it is understood that reporting objective facts doesn’t pay the bills. Speculation and rumour leading to online traffic do.
And, of course, Trump supporters don’t interact with the mainstream press; they live inside the Fox News filtered facts zone, a separate reality.
In politics, Trump’s Republicans have become a dangerous faction as defined by James Madison in the Federalist Papers. They are a single-minded group whose actions are “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”.
But that didn’t happen after Trump was elected. It was a process that has steadily unfolded over the last quarter of a century. In the last seven presidential elections the GOP has won the popular vote just once. Yet the Republican faction acts as if America is essentially a one-party – their party – state.
Republicans have relentlessly refused to work at the most basic bipartisan level with Democrats. They have deliberately tried to wreck Democratic presidencies, culminating in Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to give a hearing to Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.
Although the GOP’s elites resisted Trump initially, it should be no surprise that they have come around to backing him blindly. He delivers for them and for their base.
The reality of the Trump voter has been plain to see since the latter stage of the 2016 campaign. I was in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, right after the bizarre debate performance where he stalked Hillary Clinton round the stage like a psychopath. What I learned in there confirmed what I had found out in Ohio several months earlier – his supporters were unswayable. They were loyal to the man. Nothing would make them change their minds.
And he has been loyal to his supporters. Although Trump lies like no other president in history, he has been surprisingly true to his promises to the unswayables.
He promised to appoint “conservative” justices to the Supreme Court and delivered two. He made good on his promise of a massive tax cut, even if the biggest beneficiaries were the very rich.
He promised to build a wall with Mexico, and even though he’s had no success in doing so Trump keeps trying to get it built. In the meantime, he is severely punishing those unfortunates who have tried to cross into the US, especially children. That works for his supporters. They no longer care about his promise to make Mexico pay for the barrier. The main thing is to keep the foreigners out by whatever means necesssary.
Trump promised to put “America First”, a slogan whose origins are in the 1930s isolationist movement. And he has pursued an independent, isolationist foreign policy, heedless of international relationships.
The way he’s done it has been unpresidential, but the US has been headed towards isolationism since the failure of the Iraq war followed by the 2008 crash. In 2016, candidate Trump told the New York Times his views on America’s role in global security. Asked if he would remove troops from Japan and South Korea, he said: “I would. I would not do so happily, but I would be willing to do it … We cannot afford to be losing vast amounts of billions of dollars on all of this. We just can’t do it any more.” Asked about Nato, he said, “Nato is obsolete …” and complained about how much the US paid to keep the organisation going.
Around the same time, President Barack Obama told the Atlantic magazine. “I suppose you could call me a realist in believing we can’t, at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery.”
When Obama walked away from his own red line in Syria and refused to strike the Bashar al-Assad regime after the Syrian dictator dropped chemical weapons on his own people, was it that different from Trump walking away from Kurdish allies in northern Syria? Each was taking a step towards redefining the extent of American leadership in the west’s security architecture.
Of course, Trump and his supporters would bristle at the idea that he was just following in Obama’s footsteps. Much of the time Trump seems to be a living paraphrase of Karl Rove’s statement: “We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality.”
Trump has had a galvanising effect on the Democratic grassroots
But there are important facts too easily forgotten in the panic caused by the Trump reality distortion field. His base is unswayable, but it is far from the majority. Trump supporters represent at most 26% of America’s eligible voters. He lost to Hillary Clinton – an unpopular candidate – by 3 million votes.
Trump has had a galvanising effect on the Democratic grassroots. A year ago, during the midterm elections, I spent a Saturday morning in suburban Atlanta with a bunch of Democratic party volunteers who were canvassing the neighbourhood. They were overwhelmingly women who had no prior political experience. Many had gone on the Million Women March the day after the Trump inauguration.
All over the US, people like them helped the Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives. In Georgia, Lucy McBath, a woman of colour, ran as an anti-gun candidate in Newt Gingrich’s old district and won. Stacey Abrams, another black woman, came within a whisker – and a bunch of suppressed ballots – of winning the governorship of that state. The trend continued into 2019’s off-year election. Democrats took over the legislature in Virginia. They kept hold of the governorship in Lousiana. The Democrats’ surge in the old Confederacy included taking the governorship of Kentucky – despite the Republican tying himself tightly to Trump.
In the separate reality Trump and his supporters inhabit these results may not mean much; in the reality you and I inhabit that is a positive indicator for the 2020 election.
Michael Goldfarb is the host of the First Rough Draft of History podcast. www.goldfarbpod.com