Donald Trump is not a liar.
This may seem to be a ridiculous assertion given the continuous stream of falsehoods that tumble from his lips. Trump’s speech is littered with “alternative facts,” wildly questionable superlatives, ego-inflated claims and reversals of things we have previously heard him say.
But when considered within their larger context, describing his false utterances as lies is not an accurate description of their role or intent.
Donald Trump is a performer. An actor. That is his public persona.
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Trump is a one-man show, being at the same time originator of the Trump persona and extemporaneous writer, director and performer of his drama. He doesn’t behave as a typical public figure or politician, but rather acts out the character he has created of himself within the fictional story line he unfolds moment by moment. The author rolls out the new norms of his ongoing drama in a sequence of what in real life would be considered unacceptable, offensive behaviors.
Beginning with the Republican primary debates, Trump the actor began with a series of gratuitous insults, tagging offensive names on each of his opponents and holding them up to ridicule: “low energy Jeb,” “little Marco,” “lying Ted.” Once the ice had been broken, as the next insult was no more offensive than the previous one, the whole soliloquy became self-normalizing.
Being so thoroughly out-of-bounds even as political confrontations, one was moved to consider if such boldly repeated assertions could possibly have any truth to them. Is Jeb really low energy? Does Ted really lie? If it is so shamelessly and guiltlessly repeated, perhaps it is true or at least partially true?
While the other candidates thought they were engaged in a political debate, Trump had no interest in debate. He transformed each encounter into the setting for his own drama, into an issue-less brag aimed at diminishing the personhood of his opponents. In vanquishing them, he turned his opponents into zombie servants, whose only surviving future would be to loyally serve their new master even as they actually despised him. (Who can forget the image of the vanquished Chris Christie having been reduced to a sniveling sycophant, sulking in the background.)
The truth or falsity of given utterances were of little consequence. It was the theater that was the thing — the mounting power and unpredictability of the protagonist that was the message. Issues and facts mouthed by the others became repetitive and boring, just predictable background noise.
The denials of things we had all heard Trump say, the gratuitous attacks on all opponents or opportunistically constructed enemies, the false new issues conjured solely to divert attention from current embarrassments, the utter shamelessness of the protagonist — all served to command our attention and stoked our anticipation for the next outrage.
What is most amazing is that the drama with all its shock, its reversals, its diversionary tactics and its unpredictability has been sustained for weeks and months. In normal discourse, this would be seen as an endless stream of lies, but in Trump’s rendition they are nothing more than convenient devices for enhancing the continuity of the dramatic narrative.
And all the world is its stage.
We haven’t elected a president. We’ve auditioned and hired a role maker and role player to conduct a vast, alt-science fiction experiment that can only be played through once. As we move from the audition to the real world of governing, lies and posturing are no longer sufficient to support the drama. Lacking substance, the play acting is rapidly falling apart.
Just how is it all to end, not just for him, but for each one of us, supporters and detractors alike, and for our country and the world? Whatever the outcome, we will forever be damaged by its consequences.
Richard S. Levine of Lexington is principal architect for Center for Sustainable Cities Design Studio.