If you want to understand the ways in which Donald Trump’s presidency is systematically corrupting the American mind, I have a book recommendation for you. It’s about Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The book is Peter Pomerantsev’s “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.” It was published in 2014 and it brilliantly tells the story of the (Soviet-born) British author’s sojourn as a producer for Russian TV. As the title suggests, at its heart it’s the tale of the substitution of reality with “reality,” of factual truth with interpretive possibility.
That’s also the central task of Donald Trump’s presidency.
We were reminded of this again this week, on news that Trump is backing away from his public admission last year that he said what he said on the notorious “Access Hollywood” video. Then there was his appalling insinuation Wednesday that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough might have killed an office intern in 2001. And his hallucinatory tweet last week in which he claimed to turn down an approach from Time magazine to make him Person of the Year for the second time in a row.
Before that it was his multiple attacks against his attorney general. Or his tweeting of a video pastiche in which he physically assaults CNN. Or his voter fraud claims. Or the ones about the size of his inaugural crowds.
All this has given rise to the suggestion that Trump is mentally unwell. That’s the charitable interpretation. But the president also gives signs that he is perfectly well, can communicate relatively coherently when he wants to do so, and knows exactly what he is tweeting (and subtweeting), and to what effect.
This is where Pomerantsev is so instructive. In one of his book’s early scenes, he relates a professional homily from a man he identifies as prominent Russian TV presenter. “We all know there will be no real politics” in Putin’s Russia, the man says at a staff conference.
“But we still have to give our viewers the sense something is happening. They need to be kept entertained. So what should we play with? Shall we attack the oligarchs? Who’s the enemy this week? Politics has got to feel like … like a movie!”
This is why there’s a Colosseum in Rome, and why public spectacle, theater, cinema, TV and now the internet have always been handmaids of dictators. In Russia, it’s all about casting the president as a bare-chested action hero, pumping out anti-Western conspiracy theories and serving up remakes of Western sitcoms and reality shows.
“The new Kremlin,” Pomerantsev notes, “won’t make the same mistake the old Soviet Union did: It will never let TV become dull.” Authoritarian dominion requires effective methods of mass distraction.
Trump isn’t a dictator, and his influence over media that isn’t Fox or Breitbart is negligible. But Trump does control his Twitter feed, with its 43.7 million followers. And he exerts a deeper level of control simply through his ability to bait hostile media at will with his every seemingly nutty utterance.
The benefits, for Trump, are threefold: a political opposition that is exhausting itself — and much of the public — with its perpetual state of moral apoplexy; a political base that thrills to his readiness to scandalize the bien pensant; and an effective means of distraction from his electoral, legislative and foreign policy failures.
In other words, the president is conducting a kind of meta-politics, the purpose of which is to erase ordinary standards of political judgment. The question is not “How am I doin’?” as the late New York City mayor Ed Koch used to ask. It is, gladiator-like, “Are you not entertained?” Even those of us most aghast at this administration must confess we are.
The Trump news is scarier, funnier, more salacious and more relevant than anything else on TV. It’s why the apolitical Jimmy Fallon has floundered in the age of Trump while the hyperpolitical Stephen Colbert has thrived. For a president who cares more about ratings than he does about polls, this is the ultimate vindication. He minds less if you hate him so long as he knows that you’re thinking about him.
The truth about Trump is not that he’s crazy. He’s a narcissist and a neurotic with a feral talent for attracting the attention he craves. In Russia, Putin can compel attention thanks to his complete control over most media and many other aspects of ordinary life. In the United States, citizens can deprive Trump of his political oxygen simply by turning off and tuning out.
But that isn’t enough. “For if one part of the system is all about wild performance,” writes Pomerantsev of Putin’s media calculations, “another is about slow, patient co-optation.” Like it or not, we all inhabit the Trump-verse and we all are subject to its consequences.
How do we pay attention without paying him a kind of homage? Can we respond to his outrages without drowning in our own?