On Tuesday morning, Donald Trump, whose unsurprising character defects still never fail to surprise, tweeted a Russian-sourced conspiracy theory claiming that the 75-year-old peace activist who remains hospitalized after his head was smashed open by Buffalo, New York, law enforcement officers was in fact a tech-savvy “ANTIFA provocateur” who “fell harder than was pushed.” The president also linked to a report from a conservative cable news outlet, One America News Network, for support. That report claimed, with no supporting evidence, that the man “was attempting to capture the radio communications signature of Buffalo police officers.”
The problem for Trump—but actually the problem for all the rest of us—is that we all saw the video. We all saw a peaceful 75-year-old approach the Buffalo police officers, who then push him to the pavement and walk past his bleeding body. In fact, the existence and wide circulation of that video are what forced the Buffalo Police Department, which originally claimed that a person “was injured when he tripped & fell” during a “skirmish involving protestors,” to suspend the two officers. The existence of the video, for all intents and purposes, closed the case, at least in the court of most sentient public opinion.
But closed cases are actually Donald Trump’s specialty. And the more compelling the evidence of a closed case is, the more apt he is to relitigate it. It’s no accident that some of Donald Trump’s most incendiary claims require his true believers to accept that their own eyes cannot be believed. Whether it’s photographic evidence of his lackluster inaugural crowds or hand-altered meteorological maps, almost every Trumpian fictionalized tour de force starts with a false claim—also known as a lie—that is readily disproven or even obviously wrong to the naked eye, and then subverts it. The more overtly false, the better.
Indeed, Trump himself has made the Orwellian claim that, among the many entities he insists lie constantly—the media, the FBI, the intelligence community, the entire House of Representatives now that it’s Democrat-led, the nameless and faceless “deep state” conspirators—the lyingest liars out there are our own eyes and ears. In July 2018, Trump, while addressing a Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Kansas City, told those assembled that they shouldn’t trust their eyes and ears at all and should instead get their facts from Trump alone. “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening,” Trump said. “Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.” In some ways it’s an old play, presaged by George Orwell in 1984 when he warned that “the Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” It’s a double whammy that demonizes and delegitimizes the media as a whole while also—as Tyler Cowen has argued—wringing loyalty from all those who must then repeat the lie and cover for it. Every repetition of a lie deepens their loyalty.
But casual lies alone are for amateurs; the real authoritarian move is to construct an entire false reality—an unreality—around those lies. That’s what we’re now seeing from Trump and his loyalists. On Wednesday morning, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany made just this move on Fox & Friends. Speaking about the peaceful protester pushed to the ground in Buffalo, host Brian Kilmeade asked, “Does the president think that this guy is part of antifa?” McEnany replied that “the president was raising questions based on a report that he saw, questions that need to be asked, and [in] every case we can’t jump on one side without looking at all of the facts at play.” Trump’s press secretary added, “This individual has some very questionable tweets, some profanity-laden tweets about police officers,” going on to suggest darkly, if baselessly, that “there are a lot of questions in that case.”
By later on Wednesday morning, Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola was doubling down. He tweeted: “What part of having a guy who is trying to steal police frequency so he can sabotage them is offensive to you? He flopped better than Michael Jordan trying to get a charge foul. Seriously—be objective. This guy is no angel.” Even gravity itself, it seems, is a deep-state actor now. Asked on television to explain how precisely none of what Arriola described was apparent in the video footage we all laid eyes on, Arriola acknowledged that, “apparently, he was pushed by the police. … That was caught on video, so that’s clear, but what’s not clear is the motivation that the gentleman had in even confronting the police, and so I called into question, ‘What’s the real story?’ ”
See what he did there? Arriola claimed that people who saw what they saw were part of a “rush to judgment” and that “everything that is being videotaped nowadays makes it to social media, and right now, there’s a rush to judgment of the police, and I think that is very dangerous.” The act of recontextualizing that which happens clearly in plain sight is dressed up as subtlety and nuance—or, in McEnany’s parlance, as “asking questions.” But what’s actually happening is an effort to persuade the public that they didn’t see what they themselves have seen—or at least that they didn’t understand what they saw, or thought they saw. And most Senate Republicans, caught between amplifying Trump’s lie or calling it out, opted for door No. 3, pretending they were too busy to have seen Trump’s reprehensible tweet, or at least too busy to care. That may not be loyalty per se, but it is certainly complicity.
Trump has already spent years telling Americans to distrust their media, their intelligence community, their law enforcement, their judges, their health professionals, and at least some of their legislators, mayors, and governors. And he’s long told Americans to distrust their own eyes—going right back to his first day as president and his outlandish claims about inaugural crowd size. But now he’s building whole new unrealities, ones in which seeing isn’t believing—ever. We don’t even need to await the era of easily created deepfakes, in which altered images foster fakes that look as real as reality. Donald Trump builds deepfakes in the mind; and, for some audiences, they prove just as durable.
When authoritarians construct their own unreality, they try to stop actual reality from intruding. Trump’s now trying that, too. Recall that the Trump campaign has been suing news organizations for publishing op-eds the campaign finds too critical of Trump—despite the statements targeted in those op-eds actually being true—for a while now. On Wednesday afternoon, the Trump campaign went further. It sent a cease-and-desist letter to CNN demanding that the network retract and apologize for a poll that CNN aired, showing Trump trailing Joe Biden badly in the polls. Never mind that CNN’s poll was quite similar to polling from other leading media platforms and universities. Never mind that the Trump campaign failed to identify what made CNN’s purportedly defective. Never mind any of that. As Trump increasingly concocts his own unreality, he seeks to banish the unwanted intrusion of actual reality. He also sends the message that none of us can trust ourselves to make judgments; his word is reality, instead.
It’s like the slow act of pushing out the fenced perimeter around the White House: Trump is increasingly holding reality at a distance, and trying to move it further and further away. Reality isn’t looking good for Trump—that’s what CNN’s real poll showed—and, more importantly, the reality of Trump’s presidency isn’t looking good for most Americans. That’s why Trump’s latest authoritarian turn is to build, lie by insane lie, a different America, and to demand that his supporters see only that America. It’s why he’s lying about fraud in mail-in balloting and lying about his polling numbers. If Donald Trump has his way, by November, his supporters may not believe the vote tallies or even their election officials. This long into Trump’s presidency, it can become easy to dismiss the crazy little lies, but we are being trained to accept the really big ones. They’re coming at us faster than we may believe.