The politician true to his lies

The politician true to his lies

We are a week into the Donald Trump presidency, and there isn’t much I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall of the Oval Office. The Washington Post’s account of how Trump pressured the acting National Park Service director to back up the size of his inaugural crowd, for example, is riveting. It starts like this, “On the morning after Donald Trump’s inauguration, acting National Park Service Director Michael J. Reynolds received an extraordinary summons: The new president would like to talk to him.” Why? Because the president needed new pictures to support his claim that more people participated in his inauguration ceremony than that of his predecessor, Barack Obama. That’s awkward, to say the least. 

It’s not that the issue is so personal – that is to be expected. 

In the Jean d’Ormesson play “La Conversation,” the famous lawyer and statesman Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès asks Napoleon a simple question: “Why on earth do you want to become an emperor as all power in France already rests with you?” The general’s answer will sound familiar to those living in Turkey today. “For you and for me,” says Napoleon, “the real glory consists of putting oneself above one’s state. In peace and in war, I was always above my state. By becoming emperor, I would once more put myself above my state.” Politics for these people is personal advancement on a grand scale.

That is why even the new so-called leader of the free world can make a big issue out of petty things like the size of his inauguration crowd. It is understandable to some degree – the guy is a politician, after all, and has to take his image seriously. You might even entertain the idea that he sees coverage of the inaugural crowd as part of a larger, orchestrated public relations campaign against him. More outlandish things happened in 2016.

But talking to the acting National Park Service director personally on the phone? Asking him for specific images? The manner of his involvement is troubling because it suggests an ignorance of the caliber of the state he is now leading. While nominally advancing his own state, his presidency will pull down the real state of the United States.

And that too, in a new and terrible way, makes sense. Trump has built a moderately successful business by the force of his name. The quality of his buildings and hotels have to meet a certain standard, sure, but what really matters is the feel of his brand. “TRUMP” sells. That is why he sees a full national mall as vital to his presidency. He can’t just have huge public support somewhere out there, it has to be as tangible as a photograph. That is why the fact that Obama’s crowd was more than twice as big as his is a problem. It’s hurting Trump’s brand. So what does he do? He tries to change the facts. That’s where things get really interesting. The economist Ricardo Hausmann put it rather nicely when he said “all governments lie. A few believe their own lies. But things get dangerous when they act in order to be true to their lies.” 

The truth is not relative. Even if a mistaken engineer thinks otherwise, the car he builds will not work. If a mistaken cook thinks otherwise, his food will stink. If a mistaken carpenter thinks otherwise, his cabin will collapse. But even if politicians think that they are entitled to their own truth, they can still win elections. If they are savvy, they can stay in power, and even govern with the same notion. Over time, this does incredible damage to a country’s institutions. And a state is nothing without its institutions. 

In the end, it all comes down to how much society values the truth. Humanity doesn’t have a very good record in this regard, but the West has in recent centuries been the most ambitious. That makes its slip all the more shocking.