Truth is Superman, but Donald Trump is pure Kryptonite

December 15, 2015
Donald Trump on the USS Iowa in San Pedro, Los Angeles, California, September 15, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks on the USS Iowa in San Pedro, Los Angeles, California, United States September 15, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RTS1ASG

Donald Trump has said things in this presidential campaign season — and before — that are truly, madly, deeply not true. His critics have shown that these statements attest to a) his cynical willingness to lie, even beyond the normal bounds of political lying; b) his reckless disregard of reality; or c) his shocking level of ignorance. It’s not clear which characterization is the worst. Any one of them casts grave doubt, to put it euphemistically, on his fitness to be president. But it hasn’t reflected in his poll numbers, at least not yet.

Here is another, separate mystery: Trump has said things in this presidential campaign season that are clearly and profoundly offensive to Americans’ core beliefs — severely undercutting religious tolerance, respect for fellow citizens and equality before the law. Any of these offenses should — you’d think — cause a scandal and read Trump out of decent political discourse. Yet it hasn’t mattered more than marginally to his rhetoric or his supporters’ loyalty, at least not yet.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the media after meeting with a group of black pastors at his office in the Manhattan borough of New York November 30, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson - RTX1WKPT

Donald Trump speaks to the media after meeting with a group of black pastors New York, November 30, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

To say that Trump is Teflon when it comes to this behavior of his and the impotence of his critics is to understate by orders of magnitude what’s happening here. We’re not talking Teflon, we’re talking Kryptonite.

You remember: Even though Superman can see through all other materials, he can’t see through Kryptonite. And when he comes within field-force distance of Kryptonite, he gets weak.

At the risk of overdoing the symbolism, the lesson is that the former is more important than the latter. It’s because Superman can’t see what’s behind the Kryptonite that he becomes weak in its presence.  If you can’t see it — if you don’t know what it is — then you can’t figure out how to fight it.  The failure to see causes the incapacity to act.

Anyway. So far, Trump’s critics have seemed too angry to be able to see what’s behind his seeming imperviousness to them. But there is no making sense of the Trump phenomenon, let alone figuring out a plausible strategy for addressing it, unless you stifle your outrage long enough to examine it with dispassion.

This is not just a question of who’s right and who’s wrong on particular political issues. The problem is that there is very little in the establishment — not just Democrats but corporate Republicans, let alone Wall Street Republicans — that pays respect to, or even reflects at all, the concerns and world view of voters who are more — choose your word — conservative, religious, parochial, Main Street, rural, fearful, economically insecure, salt-of-the-earth, local, Wal-Mart, above-ground pool, bridge-and-tunnel, non-calorie-counters, drinkers of sugary sodas . . . .

The gap is so wide that it is no longer enough to talk about different parties or ideologies. It’s almost as if there were two alternate universes of political discourse.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to supporters at the start of a Trump for President campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina December 4, 2015. Trump is making a campaign stop in the North Carolina capital. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake - RTX1X9KJ

Donald Trump reacts to supporters at the start of a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, December 4, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

When a critic from Universe A states that a lie was told by an avatar of Universe B, the population of Universe A says that a lie was told — and the population of Universe B says that the sound emitted by the critic from Universe A is just a bleat from an ox that’s just been gored.

Universe A says it’s a fact that a given massacre wouldn’t have taken place without the availability of guns. Universe B hears nothing except the fact that Universe A wants to take its guns away. Universe A says it’s a fact that immigrants contribute more to U.S. society than they take from it. All that Universe B hears is the establishment campaigning for continued access to cheap labor.

There is no interpenetration of truths.

There are different theories about how the gap in perceptions — not just of opinions but of facts themselves — got so wide. Some people say it’s all the fault of Fox News — highly unlikely, though Fox benefits from that gap handily. Others say the problem goes back to the Vietnam War, when antiwar protesters concluded that the received truth about the war — received from the government, that is — was a lie.  One man’s facts were another man’s propaganda.

Then again, it may be that the gap was never so narrow as it looks in retrospect.

Consider, there is this quote attributed to Senator Daniel P. Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions — but not to his own facts.” Say, for example, that the unemployment rate is 10 percent. You may think it’s too high or too low, but you can’t deny the 10 percent.

The quote seems to recall an era in which you could, indeed, win a political argument by appealing to facts on which everyone was forced to agree.

I remember, though, Moynihan’s first Democratic primary campaign for the Senate, in 1976. The country’s unemployment rate then hovered between 7 percent and 8 percent. The Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act, known as the Humphrey-Hawkins bill, was making its way through Congress, instructing President Gerald Ford that by 1983, the unemployment rate for individuals aged 20 or more had to be no more than 3 percent. Signing on to Humphrey-Hawkins seemed to be totally necessary if you wanted to get the Democratic Senate nomination.

Moynihan said he was going to support Humphrey-Hawkins. I was then his campaign’s issues director and grossly naïve. How, I asked him, can you honestly say that it’s possible for the government to get the unemployment rate down to 3 percent?

He looked at me, paused for a beat, then said, “Three percent is what we have.”

In other words, even if the Bureau of Labor Statistics declared a 7-to-8-percent unemployment rate, the “real” unemployment rate — made up of people who were capable of working, wanted to work, and couldn’t find work — was less than half that number.

You weren’t entitled to your own facts — but you could develop your own elegant and serpentine interpretation of the facts. In that sense, maybe the distance between then and now not so vast after all.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, December 11, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Morgan - RTX1YBQZ

Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, December 11, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Morgan

Still, there remains a qualitative difference between straining to make the facts fit your deeper realities and just plain not giving a damn about what the establishment’s facts appear to be. The latter situation is what we face now. Does the establishment say there were no crowds cheering 9/11 from the rooftops of Jersey City? Well, the establishment is just covering up those crowds. It might even have absconded with the videotapes.

If Watergate was a cancer on the presidency, this open chasm of disregard is a cancer — that is not too strong a word — on the American political organism.

In fact, it is not too much to say that the candidacy of Trump has — brace yourself — done an immense favor for people who care about the future of American democracy.

He has put us face-to-face with a foundational fact about representative democracy: Even if you hold groups of your fellow-citizens in contempt, it is dangerous to behave as if you do.

If you don’t preserve elements of a common language and a common frame of reference, you will lose the ability to persuade them that they are hearing a lie.

And, in the end, they may have the votes.

Trump may still destroy himself politically. The Republican Party may figure out how to keep him from getting the nomination.  He may run as a third party candidate, handing the presidency to Hillary Clinton.  Any of these events would keep us from having to face the worst consequences of the problem that his candidacy has exposed.

But the warning is clear enough.

21 comments

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An old saying: Dust raises behind a good racing horse.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

The American schizophrenic dream ticket would be Hillary-Trump for 2016 in a “Redemopublicratican” government catering to all!

Posted by RanaSahib | Report as abusive

Trump is a liar, and people here like his lies, plain and simple!

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

Look at the “choices” the American people have, i.e. among them are Clinton (a pathological liar); and Jeb Bush (whose brother lied us into the illegal Iraq war). We’re tired of PT politicians who tell us what they think we want to hear. Trump speaks his mind and that’s refreshing. And the fact that the mainstream media lapdogs of the power elite are afraid of him greatly adds to his appeal. So keep knocking him and watch his popularity soar.

Posted by Yvo_Kerwar | Report as abusive

“a) his cynical willingness to lie, even beyond the normal bounds of political lying; b) his reckless disregard of reality; or c) his shocking level of ignorance.” I don’t think Trump is beyond the normal bounds, has a greater disregard for reality than other politicians, or is more ignorant than other politicians. He simply does his act in a more reality TV manner. It is clear however that none of our political leaders are honest and intelligent. They are simply actors attempting to find the path to power. Their intent is to gain power and they care not whether they accomplish anything. The GOP says that global warming is a hoax, and the DFL says there is a rape epidemic on college campuses. How are Trumps statements anymore insane than those?

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Suzanne, the Trump phenomenon is also driven by a very large segment of the public who mistrust media and people like you. Many are “for” anyone who’s strongly against you and has the courage to name your own ideologically-driven lies / exaggerations publicly, in your face.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

Funny, the comments talking about “lies”! Look at your candidate, the QUEEN OF LIES: “I ran from snipers in Bosnia”, “It was a demonstration that just happened to be on 9/11.” The ultimate hypocrites!

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

” conservative, religious, parochial, Main Street, rural, fearful, economically insecure, salt-of-the-earth, local, Wal-Mart, above-ground pool, bridge-and-tunnel, non-calorie-counters, drinkers of sugary sodas . . . .”

As long as your AIDS spreading, sodomizing, sexually confused mentally ill poo pushers are represented, right?

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

Go Sanders!!

Posted by Radfo | Report as abusive

There is no problem speaking in bigoted terms – if you lead a flock of bigots. There is no problem displaying your ignorance – if you lead a flock of the ignorant. There is no problem lying to your flock if they consider the practice normal behavior. That is, after all, how they usually disguise their bigotry and ignorance.

Even to themselves.

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive

The liberal establishment pines for the days when three or four newspaper run by the liberal intelligenstia, and three tv networks run by the liberal intelligentsia, told everyone what to think. Those days are gone forever.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

“Make America White Again.”

Let’s see, a continent full of Indians, that we brought 6 million kidnapped slaves to, and then took part of Mexico to finish out the rest.

Get a clue, Trump-ets. Never was white.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

LEAD… Superman can’t see thorough LEAD…

Posted by Deety | Report as abusive

The Cultural Revolution and Gang of Four period in China looked similar. Mao incited a new wave of political opportunists and street thugs to tear down the Communist Party and government officials and social elite when he started to be sidelined. Mao made the whole nation follow his words under portraits everywhere in a personality cult. Operating in his shadows were sinister figures such as the GoF.
Trump is a Maoist!

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Perhaps the Press needs to do its job and put Trump’s polling numbers into perspective. Not only do the majority of Republicans not support him, but Republicans are a dying breed in general. Even adding in right leaning Independents, Trump’s numbers are not great. What he does have is name recognition, millions of dollars of free press coverage and a rabid fan base. In the meantime, there has been very little coverage of serious policy discussions, how candidates’ previous predictions have matched up to reality, records, etc.

Posted by Chippery | Report as abusive

Superman can’t see through lead. I don’t think Kryptonite poses a vision problem for him. I got your point though.

Posted by Stubbley | Report as abusive

“Here is another, separate mystery: Trump has said things in this presidential campaign season that are clearly and profoundly offensive to Americans’ core beliefs”

The real issue is this. That may be the core beliefs in an ideal America, but remove the veneer and look under the surface and true America appears – a country rife with racism, sexism and inequality. Trump is simply shining a spotlight into a large area of the American culture that Americans have tried to ignore for decades.

Posted by mjbk88 | Report as abusive

Suzanne, thanks for your propaganda article. Nice Job.

Posted by AndreCaetano | Report as abusive

We want our hero – he lies for our side. Period. You guys screw off..

Posted by Trump2u | Report as abusive

He does look like a Maoist in that picture. The red hat, the government guns, ranting about the return to “cultural purity.”

I agree. Maoist.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

“We need to shut down certain parts of the internet. I’ll pick which parts. Because I’m not a loser…”

Also Maoist.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive