In one of his recent interviews Barack Obama used the expression “truth decay.” If President Trump were a philosophy professor, his course would be Solipsism 101. “The view or theory that the self is all that is known to exist” is how the word is defined, and it’s a perfect description of the Trumpian worldview.
Subjectivism of course has a long line of advocates, including Bishop Berkeley, who famously stated, “esse est percipi,” to be is to be perceived. But Berkeley naturally believed in God, and Trump appears to be on the golf course while others like Joe Biden are going to church.
Solipsism is a philosophy that also informs episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” like the one in which Dennis Weaver plays the part of a condemned man who warns that the world will disappear once the switch is pulled (“Shadow Play,” from 1961). The plot might be reframed to deal with an election where the casting of doubt on reality causes the eradication not of the world, but simply democracy. How can you have elections when one party cries “foul” before the voting has even begun?
One of the ways that a human being can be traumatized is to have their reality doubted. The Trump presidency has been predicated on the notion of lying, with the country’s chief executive being accused of having twisted the truth approximately 20,000 times during his term of office. The torture has been fairly elegant and all-consuming, since the more than 81 million people who voted for Joe Biden have been reminded at least once a day that what they’ve seen and done is a fiction. It’s the kind of brainwashing that went on in John Frankenheimer’s “Manchurian Candidate,” which may be one of the great essays on individual and collective trauma.
Daniel Goldhagen wrote “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” in which he held German society, and not just a few aberrant individuals, to task for the Holocaust. So, there is precedent for the notion that a huge percentage of a population can partake in a delusive belief, perpetuated by a charismatic leader, that brings about deadly results.
Trump is an enormously regressive individual. Take for instance the sobriquets that he uses to describe people. “Pocahontas” for Elizabeth Warren and “Crooked Hillary” (an interesting choice from one of the greatest liars in American history). It’s schoolyard name-calling elevated to the level of politics. The total disrespect for other human beings reflected in the president’s bad sportsmanship (and refusing to concede) is also reflected in the collective regression of his crowds of supporters on the campaign trail.
Regressive behavior is symptomatic of dictators in general. Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, one of the greatest imagined despots of all time, is really a gigantic baby whose petulant behavior bears a striking resemblance to the tantrum Trump has thrown in the wake of his loss. Unable to gracefully admit defeat, he has refused to come out of his White House to play with the other kids.
How to account for the implacability of the assault on truth and the attempt to undermine the democratic process? Let’s say this becomes a way of life. Elections occur and the losers discredit results, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Never before has there been such a determined assault on factual truth. Elections have been troubled and contested, but usually there’s a consensus of agreement following the kind of recount by hand that has, for instance, gone on in Georgia.
That is not the case, however. There is, in fact, no length that election commissions could go beyond handing the election over to Donald Trump that would satisfy this one half of recalcitrant Republican voters. The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about the Republicans, “This is not a political party. This is a cult,” when asked why so few Republicans have broken ranks.
The scorched-earth policy is a tactic of retreating armies. Paris would famously have been turned to rubble if it weren’t for Lt. Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz disobeying the Fuhrer’s orders to destroy the city. Who will be the von Choltitz of the current White House? Who will be the hero who will sabotage Trump’s last-ditch effort to leave America in such tatters that the incoming Biden regime’s efforts will be doomed to failure?
“Motiveless malignity” is how Coleridge described Iago’s actions in “Othello.” Will Trump’s wholesale, unremitting, and meritless accusations of a rigged election do lasting damage to the democratic process?
Trumpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Trumpty Dumpty had a great fall . . .
Francis Levy of Wainscott is the author of the comic novels “Erotomania: A Romance,” “Seven Days in Rio,” and “Tombstone: Not a Western.” He blogs at TheScreamingPope.com.