Donald Trump's Surreal Alternate Reality

Election '16

If you've been around politics and campaigns for even a little while, you probably have a pretty clear sense of what happens behind closed doors with Hillary Clinton and her close advisers. They plan which battleground states she'll visit in the few remaining weeks, go over polling data to see where she's strong and where she's weak, consider how to react to each day's developments in the news, practice for the final debate on Wednesday, talk about the key messages she should emphasize—those kind of things. There's not much mystery there.

But when you consider Donald Trump's campaign, one question dominates all others: What the hell are they thinking?

If we're lucky, when the 2016 presidential campaign is over someone within the Trump campaign will pen a tell-all memoir to show the rest of us what this most bizarre presidential candidacy looked like from the inside. But I have to admit, even though I consider myself a reasonably knowledgeable observer—if we go all the way back to when I volunteered for Michael Dukakis as a college student, this is the eighth presidential campaign I've either worked on, studied as an academic, or reported on—I absolutely cannot fathom what goes on when Donald Trump and his inner circle sit down to talk about how things are going.

Consider that faced with the most profound crisis of his campaign—the release of a videotape in which he brags about sexually assaulting women, which was then followed by a dozen women (so far) coming forward to say, "Yes, he did that to me"—Trump's response has been to argue that the women are liars because they're too ugly for him to sexually assault. Other than proclaiming, "Yes, I'm guilty of it all, and I plan to keep on doing it," could there possibly be a worse way to handle those charges?

In an ordinary campaign, Trump would return from one of his increasingly surreal rallies, at which point his advisers would say, "Donald, you can't do that. It's pushing away moderate women voters, and we need them if we're going to win. We're hovering at around 40 percent in the polls, which as you might or might not know, is less than 50 percent. We can't win unless we persuade people who aren't already voting for you."

One of two things must be true. Either they tell him that and he doesn't listen, or they don't tell him that. Could it actually be that within Trump's inner circle, everyone is saying that things are going great, and they just have to keep it up and they're on their way to victory?

In interviews, Trump often mentions the size of his rallies as evidence that he has overwhelming support, and perhaps it's somewhat understandable that this particular datum would play a large role in his thinking. It must be intoxicating to go before 10,000 adoring fans and have them pour rapturous cheers down on you at every word that comes out of your mouth. But after the high wears off, a rational person would understand that big crowds don't necessarily mean that you're ahead in an election in which votes will be cast by at least 130 million people, the vast majority of whom won't be attending any rallies no matter which candidate they support.

At the moment we have no way of knowing whether Trump truly appreciates that reality. What we can say is that he seems to be living in an epistemological universe of his own making. And it isn't just because he thinks that the way to show women you're not the kind of guy who would sexually assault people is to call some women too ugly to grope.

Indeed, throughout this campaign, Trump has shown that he completely rejects the ways the rest of us learn about and understand the world, how we think about knowledge and information, and what we accept as true and false. The idea that someone else knows more than him about any topic is something Trump utterly rejects. When neutral fact-checkers tell him he's gotten something wrong, he just keeps saying it. When asked whose counsel he seeks on foreign policy, he said, "I'm speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I've said a lot of things." He also said, "I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me." This is nothing new for Trump. In 1984, he told The Washington Post that he ought to be conducting negotiations with the Soviet Union over nuclear weapons. And what about the fact that he knew nothing about the topic? "It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles," he said. "I think I know most of it anyway."

More recently, when intelligence officials told him during classified briefings that the Russian government is behind the hacking into emails from the DNC and now the account of John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton's campaign, he seems to have decided that they just don't know what they're talking about. "She doesn't know it's the Russians doing the hacking," he said at his second debate with Clinton. "Maybe there is no hacking." I don't even know what he means by that—does he think Podesta give Wikileaks his own emails so they could release them publicly?

You can look at this kind of shameless rejection of reality as politically effective brazenness. But what if he actually believes what he says?

It's clear that when Trump looks out into the world and sees a situation he finds less than satisfactory, his conclusion is that the people who claim to have knowledge must be stupid and uninformed, and simply by virtue of his "very good brain" he knows all he needs to know and could do a far superior job to them. Most of us are prey to that impulse on occasion, but we also are willing to acknowledge that some situations are complex, maybe even more complex than we realize.

George W. Bush famously said "I'm the decider," and that is indeed a good part of what the job of being president demands: the ability to take in information and make judgments, often quickly. Sometimes that means listening to people who know more than you, and acknowledging that your prior suspicions might have been wrong or that you've misunderstood or ignored important facts. Does anyone think that's something Donald Trump is capable of?

Right now, Trump has settled on a campaign strategy that involves belittling women in sexist terms, squabbling with his own party's leadership, not bothering to mount much of a ground campaign to get voters to the polls, whining about media conspiracies against him, and generally acting as though he doesn't need to persuade any more voters as long as he hangs on to the ones he's got. Only from an alternate reality could he or anyone who works for him think that's going to work. Trump's failure to appreciate his actual reality is part of what would make him such a dangerous president—but it's also what may keep him from ever getting the chance.

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