From the first day that Trump assumed the presidency, the White House was embroiled in one or another kind of chaos—some of it the result of internal wrangling, some of it a product of the press responding to his provocations. Longtime Beltway observers were shocked by all the turmoil.
But Trump—wielding his Twitter account, which he described as his way of “speaking directly to the people”—also demonstrated that he was masterful at creating distractions that kept his critics and the press hopping from one outrage to another, paying little attention while he quietly enacted his agenda on a broad array of policy fronts.
Trump’s first real foray into enacting his agenda came when he followed through on his campaign promises to sign a Muslim immigration ban when he became president. One of his first executive orders, issued January 27, banned all entry to the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations: Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
Several states sued to block the order. Trump’s legal team argued that the order was not a “Muslim ban”—a religion-based ban would violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause—but soon ran aground on the shoals of Trump’s own campaign rhetoric. The federal judges who reviewed the case all cited Trump’s vows to institute a “Muslim ban” as evidence that the order was intended to apply a religious test and therefore was likely unconstitutional, and ordered it blocked.
The judges’ rulings infuriated the president, who tweeted after the ruling February 4: “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!”
Yet Trump’s legal arguments foundered again when the case went before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court upheld the order blocking Trump’s order.
That weekend, the Trump team sent out one of his senior advisers, Stephen Miller, thirty-one, to act as the administration’s spokesman on the news talk programs. Miller is a former Jeff Sessions staffer closely associated with Stephen Bannon, with a background of dalliances with white nationalists. Miller made an indelible impression.
“The president’s powers here are beyond question,” he told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. “We don’t have judicial supremacy in this country. We have three coequal branches of government.”
He also criticized the appellate court. “The Ninth Circuit has a long history of being overturned and the Ninth Circuit has a long history of overreaching,” he said. “This is a judicial usurpation of power.”
A week later, on February 21, Miller told Martha MacCallum at Fox that any executive order that superseded the first one would follow the same template: “Fundamentally, you’re still going to have the same basic policy outcome for the country, but you’re going to be responsive to a lot of very technical issues that were brought up by the court and those will be addressed. But in terms of protecting the country, those basic policies are still going to be in effect.”
On March 6, Trump filed a second executive order banning travel from Muslim nations, but Iraq was dropped from the list. In his order Trump claimed that Islamist terrorists posed the greatest domestic threat to Americans, and that those six nations had a history of producing immigrants who later committed terror crimes. That order, too, was struck down by a federal judge, who ruled that Miller’s February 21 comments were evidence that the order’s intent had not changed.
Such floundering displays of incompetence became part of the daily White House circus. In mid-February, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn was accused of lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian officials during a November meeting. After a weekend of turmoil, Flynn was fired. Trump eventually replaced him with a more respected national security figure, General H. R. McMaster (ret.). Trump’s cabinet pick for labor secretary, Andrew Pudzer, was forced to withdraw after allegations of abuse of his ex-wife emerged. Thousands of open government jobs went unfilled because, Trump explained, the administration wasn’t even trying to fill them.
Tension between the White House and the press intensified. Trump attempted to control his message to the public by regularly asserting the Alt-America version of reality, making himself the final authority of what was “factual” in that universe. The concept of “fake news” had entered the mainstream lexicon in 2015, growing out of real news accounts describing business enterprises built on fabricating news stories out of whole cloth, often pertaining to celebrities, and publishing them on websites that rely on heavy traffic counts for their ad revenues; some of these sites, in fact, were later credited with spreading a number of false smears about Clinton that were widely believed, and thus contributing to her election defeat. Trump turned the idea on its head by labeling the mainstream press “fake.” While the press scrambled to make sense of his seemingly open dissembling, his real audience—his red-capped Alt-America followers—received the message clearly: Don’t believe the lying press. The only person you can believe is Trump.
Thus, Trump’s response to the increasing blizzard of stories detailing his incompetence was to blame the institutions recording it. At his contentious February 16 press conference, he went to open war with the media.
“The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people,” he said. “We have to talk about it, to find out what’s going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.” The next morning, he tweeted: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
Trump’s Twitter account ended up being an agent of chaos as his tweets whipped up storms of media and diplomatic controversies that became the focus of much of the daily news reportage on the new president. On March 4, he launched what became his most notorious tweet storm:
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
Is it legal for a sitting President to be “wire tapping” a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW! I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!
How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!
It later emerged that Trump was inspired to send out these tweets after reading a story on Breitbart News, based on anonymous sources, alleging that Obama had tapped Trump’s phones during the campaign. Fact-checkers found the story to be groundless.
Obama adamantly denied the allegation, as did everyone in the intelligence community. James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence under Obama, told NBC’s Meet the Press on March 5 that in the national intelligence activity he oversaw, “There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president, the president-elect at the time, as a candidate or against his campaign.” FBI director James Comey asked the Justice Department to issue a statement refuting Trump’s claim.
In reality, Trump’s tweets had put his incompetence on public display: anyone acquainted with contemporary surveillance technology knows that wiretapping is an extremely limited practice, legal only after evidence is presented to a federal surveillance court panel that then approves or rejects the wiretapping warrant. If Trump really had been surveilled by the Obama administration, as he claimed, that meant there was enough evidence for a court to approve it.
Nonetheless, the White House continued to insist that other evidence was going to emerge demonstrating that Trump had been right. Sean Spicer spun Trump’s tweets for reporters, using “air quotes” to claim that he hadn’t been referring to wiretapping specifically: “The President used the word ‘wiretaps’ in quotes to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities.”
Spicer then berated reporters for not picking up on news reports that vindicated Trump, notably a report the night before by the Fox News pundit Andrew Napolitano, who claimed that the surveillance had actually been conducted by Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a British signals intelligence agency: “Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement, quote, ‘Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command (to spy on Trump). He didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA ... He used GCHQ.’”
Intelligence officials in the UK were outraged, dismissing the allegation as “utterly ridiculous.” Fox News backed away from Napolitano’s claims, and shortly afterward suspended him from appearing on the network. But Trump adamantly refused to apologize, claiming that Spicer had only read the news story to reporters.
As the media tried to make sense of it all, Kellyanne Conway’s phrase “alternative facts” was heard often. Pundits and late-night comics had enjoyed a field day with the term, using it to scornfully refer to the administration’s growing record of spinning a spurious version of reality.
Conway herself had grown weary of being the butt of their jokes. “Excuse me, I’ve spoken 1.2 million words on TV, okay?” she told Olivia Nuzzi of New York magazine. “You wanna focus on two here and two there, it’s on you, you’re a f—ing miserable person.”
What Conway’s critics missed was that, despite their derision— and to some extent, because of it—the gambit was working, despite the fact that overall, Trump’s travails seemed to hurt him badly in the polls. By mid-March, according to Gallup, only 37 percent of Americans approved of his performance, while 58 percent disapproved. Those were shockingly low numbers, especially compared to other first-term presidents at similar junctures in their tenures, who were generally in high-approval zones: 62 percent for Obama, 58 percent for George W. Bush, 60 percent for Ronald Reagan.
And yet in the places where it really mattered—in the congressional districts of Republican, Trump-backing lawmakers—Trump’s ratings remained well over 50 percent. Conservative-oriented polls by Rasmussen put Trump’s approval rating at 55 percent. Among Republicans, 81 percent found Trump “honest and trustworthy.”
“I think he’s doing good,” Gary Pelletier, a Buffalo, New York, retiree told a local reporter. “People are complaining that he’s not doing enough, but I’m all for whatever he ’s doing.”
“He’s doing everything he said he was going to do,” said Phil Pantano, sixty, also of Buffalo.
Alt-America has always functioned as a refuge for people who reject factual reality, a place where they can convene and reassure one another of their fabricated version of how the world works. From its beginnings in the 1990s as an alternative universe with its own set of “facts” to its growth during the early part of the new century through the spread of antigovernment conspiracism, through its evolution into the mainstream of conservatism through the Tea Party, and finally its ultimate realization as a political force through the ascension of Donald Trump, Alt-America’s primary usefulness has been as a ready tool for right-wing authoritarianism. The army of followers was already fully prepared by 2015, when Trump picked up their waiting scepter.
It was also the real-life manifestation of Robert Altemeyer’s “lethal union” of right-wing authoritarian followers with a “social-dominance-oriented” authoritarian leader: that moment, Altemeyer says, when “the two can then become locked in a cyclonic death spiral that can take a whole nation down with them.”
Other experts on authoritarianism fear the outcome of Trump’s authoritarianism. “You submit to tyranny,” writes the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, “when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.” Snyder warns that “accepting untruth is a precondition of tyranny. Post-truth is pre-fascism [and] to abandon facts is to abandon freedom.”
Snyder sees Trump’s insistence on setting the terms of reality as a classic ploy: “This whole idea we’re dealing with now about the alternative facts and post-factuality is pretty familiar to the 1920s,” he told Sean Illing, the owner of the website Vox, in May. “It’s a vision that’s very similar to the central premise of the fascist vision. It’s important because if you don’t have the facts, you don’t have the rule of law. If you don’t have the rule of law, you can’t have democracy.
“And people who want to get rid of democracy and the rule of law understand this because they actively propose an alternative vision. The everyday is boring, they say. Forget about the facts. Experts are boring. Let’s instead attach ourselves to a much more attractive and basically fictional world.”
The political reality on the ground, however, will depend on how Trump responds to challenges to his authority. A longtime Democratic presidential adviser, Ron Klain, told Ezra Klein of Vox: “If Trump became a full-fledged autocrat, it will not be because he succeeds in running the state. It’ll be that he fails, and he has to find a narrative for that failure. And it will not be a narrative of self-criticism. It will not be that he let you down. He will figure out who the villains are, and he will focus the public’s anger at them.”[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]