Donald Trump often stands near a helicopter on the White House’s South Lawn while reporters shout questions at him. Certain elements of this ritual are the same every time. The wheedling honk of Trump’s voice and the uneasy tilt of his standing-on-a-hoverboard-for-the-first-time posture are constants, as is his customary air of triumphal huffiness. The whining white noise wash from the helicopter bends everything in the same strange direction, with everyone involved only kind of getting maybe three-quarters of what everyone else is saying. The questions change and the answers mostly don’t. It’s never a conversation, although it unfolds roughly along those lines.
It’s worthless, of course. Reporters shout something at Trump about a thing he said or did or his response to someone’s else response to something, and then he shouts that he did it because he felt like it or actually didn’t do it at all, or that the criticism of what he did is offensive and illegitimate, or that the question itself is. If he’s asked a question by a woman, he gets extra spicy. If he’s wounded or inconvenienced, he’ll sometimes take a few rapid lurching steps away and then look around with his lips pursed and his eyes cast up, which mostly makes him look like someone searching for a bathroom in a crowded airport terminal. If there is a purpose here, it is the theater of it—the theater of Trump’s strange fey boorishness and the towering and obvious lies he tells, which exist not to convince but more to signal his ongoing unwillingness to be constrained by fact.
This is more or less what Trump has always thought the news should be like: people with microphones clamoring for his opinion and asking him about himself. For decades the man has dreamed of reporters calling out “please, sir, what’s the latest on your personal feuds” or “sir, how did you achieve this amazing success?” while he delivers flirty winking answers. That this is not the way it goes now that he’s president clearly causes him great frustration. Watch these pissy helicopter-adjacent scrums and you may see a lumpy pink dope bellowing “we’re looking into that very strongly” in response to questions he transparently can’t answer and dispensing whatever thudding speculative idiocy he thinks will get him to the next question. Other people will see what Trump sees. The important thing for him is that the microphones are still pointed in the right direction.
The culture has been inching further and further into Trump’s gilded funhouse for years now, and you surely do not need me to tell you that it fucking sucks in there. But we are, by now, all the way in. Trump is nearly as ubiquitous in the culture as he has always believed he should be; the one deeply held belief that has been evident throughout his whole faithless disgrace of a life is people should be talking about Donald Trump more, on television, and he has just about seen that part through. All Trump wants, all he has ever wanted, is to be able to keep doing and taking and saying whatever he wants whenever he wants. He ran for president for this reason and this reason only.
His politics, to the extent that they’ve ever been legible, have always been off-the-rack big city tabloid bullshit—crudely racist exterminate the brutes/back the blue authoritarianism in the background and ruthless petty rich person squabbling in the front. His actions since becoming president have been those of a dim, cruel child playacting at being a powerful man—giving orders without quite knowing what they mean or how they might be carried out, taunting enemies, beating up the people he can afford to beat up without having to be called to account for it, lying as needed or just for yuks. He hasn’t changed a thing since graduating from punchline to president. It’s been clear for decades that Trump was both an asshole and a dummy; this is now a problem not just for the odd unlucky cocktail waitress and his staff of cheesy apparatchiks but for literally every person on earth.
Presidents exert a kind of ambient influence on the culture, but as Trump is different than previous presidents his influence necessarily feels different. Barack Obama wanted to be a cosmopolitan leader who brought people together and into a deeper empathy through a mastery of reason and rules; the country he governed doesn’t work like that, though, and the tension between that cool vision and this seething reality grew and grew. By the end, his presidency had the feeling of a prestige television show in its fifth season—handsomely produced and reliably well-performed but ultimately not really as sure what it was about as it first appeared to be. Trump has no such pretense or noble aspiration, and has only made the country more like himself; living in his America feels like being trapped in a garish casino that is filling with seawater, because that is what it is.
For someone who does it so frequently, Trump is not especially talented at lying. His dissimilations are all easy to see through; the things he heatedly accuses his enemies of doing are always things that he has done himself, is currently doing, or obviously aspires to do in the future. He is always desperate, in the way that selfish and needy people are always desperate. His fears transparently run the show, both the normal human fear of failing and the more specific ones he picks up on the cable news channel he watches, which splits its broadcast day between fulsomely flattering coverage of him and armchair generalship in a sprawling race war the network is imagineering out of rhetorical abstraction and into bloody existence. Watching hours of that every day would destabilize anyone; for Trump, who is very vain and very stupid and has always cared more about TV than anyone should, the result is equilibrium, or entropy.
It’s so easy to see the shape of what Trump wants in the ways that he lies and lies about what is—in the way he gooses crowd numbers, in the way he tells stories about strong men weeping at his feet in gratitude for all he’s done for this country, in the gap-intensive conspiracies and bizarre causal helixes that he invents to explain away his failures. What’s most striking about Trump’s lies, beyond their overwhelming volume and bombast, is how they reflect his own monomania. So Many Are Saying various things that somehow all wind up being about him; they’re Saying It More And More because there is nothing else and no one else that he could imagine anyone wanting to talk about. The metastasizing They that opposes him grows by the day, and cares about him every bit as much as he cares about himself. They will do, are always somewhere doing, whatever it takes to make him look like an idiot who fucks up and lies constantly. Nothing, certainly not the lives of any number of strangers or whatever is left of any national ideal, is more important than the survival of his most obvious throwaway fantasy.
Everything returns to him, sometimes along a longer arc than others, but always in good time. His obliterating vanity can sometimes give this a darkly comic aspect, as when he was hilariously and transparently jealous of the few days of theatrical bipartisan mourning that followed John McCain’s death, but it is generally too ghoulish to laugh at. Trump’s engagement with the world is fundamentally an envious one—other people possess what should be his, everything that is not him is just getting in his way. This is why his response to the challenge of his office seems to top out at blustering and uncomprehending impatience. Those opiate deaths and wildfires and our fortnightly mass shootings are Quite Frankly So Tragic, but it is palpable that the only real response Trump has to them is that they distract from what everyone had been talking about before, which was and by rights should continue to be him.
Trump and a lot of the people in his thrall are, it seems safe to say, gone. They will continue to walk among us—Trump will be in a golf cart—but they will never come back. They are somewhere else. There is nothing they are not prepared to believe if the right people say it; they will choose the right lie over any truth not just without regret but with pride.
America loves to tell stories about itself to itself, and if these are not all quite lies they are mostly much sweeter and safer than fact. The lies that Trump has told since his party lost badly in the midterm elections have ranged from the usual—the loss was actually a win, thank you to all—into more explicit and desperate denial. It’s not a new thing for Republicans to justify voter suppression and resist vote-counting, but as Trump has subsumed his party the importance of his particular fantasies—Trump still, somehow, does everything off the opening position that he has never been wrong or lost—the attendant need to make his lies true has grown and grown. He will lie if the truth doesn’t fit and millions will hear that lie as a truth for that reason. Order will supersede Law, because it is easier that way. This is all open field. Anything that needs be can be labeled a fraud or the bought-and-paid-for result of a conspiracy, any fact can be made into something else afterwards.
Trump won’t stop. He won’t stop because he’s never told the truth in his life and because this is all he has and all he has ever had. He wakes up every day to the mess he’s made and says and does whatever he must, at whatever cost, to get through the day. Like many in his generation, Trump has mistaken the end of his life for the end of the world. He can’t imagine, let alone care about, what will be left after he is gone, if only because no one who matters to him will be around for it. His politics, such as they exist, boil down to this: he is trying to hold on, and will spend the rest of his life trying not to be found out. Every day is like this now. He could do this forever—he talks often about serving for longer than one more term—but that’s mostly because he has so much invested in never stopping. He is over-leveraged as always; he can only ever do more.
In the most basic sense, just in terms of getting off his ass to do the basic boring things presidents do, Trump can’t do the job. He can’t care and he won’t work and he never tells the truth both because he doesn’t know it and is afraid to know it. There is no reason to ask him or anyone who works for him questions—a half-truth isn’t true enough and even a half-lie is still a lie, and they will never do better than either. The work that needs doing, which Trump and his people cannot do or even see, is plain and urgent. It’s all much bigger than him.
(Header image: Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive on Marine One helicopter to board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to Paris)