It’s said that many men can get along just fine without truth, but that none is so strong as to do without illusions. Our inclination toward that which is illusory, if we are to take seriously the French sociologist Gustave le Bon’s acute insight into the nature of man, is heavy and pre-ordained. As such, we’re chained to those things that conveniently deceive us. We’re shackled and subdued to thinking wishful thoughts. We’re made to be, as another Frenchman Rousseau might’ve said, happy slaves, fettered not by material society in this instance, but by our imaginations within. Even in knowing this, we aren’t strong enough to break free. Knowledge in all other cases is power, but on this occasion, it isn’t potent enough. We haven’t the muscle for verity, nor the tolerance for sobriety. And as our strength isn’t sufficiently strong to do away with this illusory yoke, our trunks bend under its weight. Our brows sweat, our knees quiver, our ankles collapse, and we give in.
That’s not to say, though, that we shouldn’t at the very least put up a fight. Reality is too precious—it’s something for which we must always strive. But the task isn’t easy, especially when you recognize that illusions are not only within you, but around you in every place. Wherever there is a person, there is an illusion, and the grander the person, the larger the illusion.
President Trump is, at the very least in his own calculation, the grandest person. On that point, many will quibble, but what is demonstrably true is that his illusions are indeed the largest amongst mankind. They simply exist in a category of their own. Their size is incommensurate and their scope unparalleled. And as they are the largest, they are—by nature of his position as the world’s most powerful man—the most consequential and possibly the most dangerous.
One could, with agility and with ease, jump to the claim that the president is a liar. As many have, one could charge him with mendacity and deceit. And you might not be wrong to do so, but I think he’s really something different from a willing and habituated liar. He does get along just fine without truth, this much is sure, but he’s absolutely submerged in illusion. It’s on this point we can distinguish Trump from other politicians, who have an equal propensity to tergiversate and to veil their terms, but as a means to an end and not and end in and of itself. One gets the sense that when other politicians mislead the public audience, they do so knowing full well their maneuvers and their ultimate deceit. For them, it becomes a matter of bad faith.
President Trump’s illusions, on the contrary, are the ends. He knows not where reality finishes and where hyperbole begins. His speech in Arizona on Tuesday night exemplified this odd and disquieting idiosyncrasy of his. It was another rambunctious campaign-style event that brought together in the Phoenix Convention Center his most ardent and devoted fans. The president began his speech with prepared remarks from the teleprompter. He spoke of love and of unity and of camaraderie. It was supposed to be a mollifying message, an olive branch to heal wounds, but it wasn’t authentically Trump. You can always tell immediately when it isn’t, for it’s an unnatural oratorical skill for him to stay faithful to the prompter.
After these scripted, prefatory remarks, the illusions welled up and burst from his seams. He proceeded to re-litigate his response to the Charlottesville attack and at that moment. In order to show the audience just “how damned dishonest” the media had been in its coverage of his response to the event, Trump read aloud his remarks that he’d made from New Jersey immediately after the Charlottesville tragedy on August 12. Wanting not to “bore” everyone with his unprompted divagation back to Charlottesville and to his ugly response, Trump recited his statement, but not in its entirety. Carefully, he omitted the final few words that were the most invidious.
He omitted the three words “on many sides”, which were the precise three words that have in the subsequent weeks caused such controversy—and rightly so. He told the crowd that what he was saying there before them was verbatim and the historical truth, but this is only to be believed if one is just as equally imbued with illusions as he. It appears, though, that they were. They rejoiced and cheered upon hearing Trump set the record straight. Actually, though, he simply set it anew and rigged it to fit his illusory specifications. Pundits were quick to point out the manipulation of the truth. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell interrupted the live event in medias res to accuse the president of lying. CNN’s Don Lemon was a bit more patient, waiting as he did until Trump’s peroration to go live and inveigh against the president’s perfidy.
While both Lemon and O’Donnell were completely justified in assailing the president for his dishonesty, it’s not that which is my main concern. As you can guess, what concerns me more at this point is not the president’s lying, but inextricable existence in an illusory world. We know that illusions are strong, resilient, and obdurate. They’re not easily overcome, if they are to be overcome at all. I’m worried about them become contagious. I fear that these illusions might infect like a virus does its host millions of gullible Americans, who will soon be living credulously in a world of illusion. They might become communicable, spreading from one person to the next. They’ve found receptive and vulnerable crowds eager to breathe in their disease.