I know this is now a trillion news cycles ago but remember when Donald Trump asked Vladimir Putin if the Russians had meddled in the 2016 election and Putin said something like “don’t be ridiculous” (you’re supposed to hear that in your head with Bronson Pinchot’s Perfect Strangers accent) and Trump said something like “I believe him” (that’s actually exactly what he said).
And remember when Donald Trump asked the Saudis about the involvement of Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and MBS said something like “don’t be ridiculous” and Trump said “The world is a very dangerous place!” (That’s also exactly what he said.)
And then remember when Donald Trump asked Kim Jong-un about the murder of Otto Warmbier and of course the response was that he knew nothing about it and Trump said . . . well . . . you know what he said.
Everyone was told that these denials were in direct contradiction to what American intelligence agencies and the intelligence agencies of our allies’ were sure of. And Trump went on record contradicting his and his allies’ findings and instead took the evidence-free word(s) of various authoritarian leaders who were talking in their own self interest.
President Trump may be many things but he’s not a moron.
We have to assume that he understands that when he takes the word of a despot over the evidence furnished to him by his own intelligence agencies that it will be received by many as some combination of lunacy, stupidity, naivete, corruption, or possibly even evil. Why, then, would Trump traffic in defending the assertions of strong men?
The credibility cost for him is massive.
But there’s a method to this madness.
Have you ever heard of Darwinian Truth? It’s a nifty concept that Jordan Peterson is fond of.
The idea is that “empirical” truth (e.g. the Earth is a sphere) is all well and good, but if that truth runs contrary to information that will allow you to spread your genes then it stops being useful. And at that same moment , it stops being true.
Imagine, for instance, that someone walks up to you with a gun and says, “If you don’t agree with me that the Earth is flat, I’ll shoot you.” At that moment, Darwinian truth makes the Earth flat for you so that you get to live to see another day.
You might protest and say that truth exists independently of viewpoint and that in this case, all you’re doing is lying to the armed lunatic. Well , yes. And no. I’m just reducing the example to its barest elements in order to demonstrate the concept.
Now imagine that you live in a society where you have to be very careful of what you say and whom you say it to, because some banal throw-away comment can get you put in prison. Or shot. I’m personally familiar with Soviet Russia, but historical examples abound.
Despotic dictators set up governments where everyone lives in terror of accidentally running afoul of The Truth because it will cost them dearly. So everyone practices saying (and eventually thinking) things that have very little to do with reality. Instead their worlds become little Galapagos islands of Darwinian truth.
If you live in a society where the government controls “truth”—and that government is answerable to one individual—then your everyday truth has to fall in line with what that emperor says. The price you pay for insisting that reality defies the assertions of a despot is that your life is made unpleasant. And so reality has to take a backseat to truth and the two get a divorce. It’s surreal and it’s a tragedy (as most divorces are) and ultimately everyone loses, including the despot—who usually winds up murdered, but even when they don’t, his legacy turns out not to be the one he was hoping for.
In Putin’s Russia, for example, truth filed for divorce from reality quite a long time ago. The initial separation didn’t go exactly as Putin wanted, but he has been getting more and more in the settlement as time goes on.
Most recently he added a law that makes “fake news” punishable by fines and imprisonment. This may strike some people as a positive step in curtailing the spread of false information. But the trick is that in Russia, fake news is whatever Putin says it is . This new law is effectively checkmate for the last few publications that were trying to keep the public in touch with reality.
From now on in Russia, all truth will be Darwinian truth.
Whether or not Putin has tutored Trump on how to shape a political system or Trump has learned simply by being a keen observer is anyone’s guess. But, to me, the signs are reasonably clear.
Despots are never wrong: Truth is whatever they say it is. And it’s not a coincidence that Trump injected the term “fake news” into the popular vernacular and immediately sought to weaponize it by pushing the notion that he alone is the source of truth. That’s the first step. The second step is to convince people that all other sources of truth are (for now) suspect. Someday they might become criminal enterprises bent on misinforming the public. They are, after all, “enemies of the people,” according to the American president.
Which brings us back to why Trump goes to the trouble of taking the word of foreign dictators even when he must know that it cuts across the grain of reality.
It’s because Trump has a loyal following who generally accept his truth as the truth. He needs these followers to learn from example how to relegate their trust solely to him and doubt every other source of information. For this to happen, he has to show how he himself is never going to doubt the word of other despots. The lesson he’s teaching the American public is that in every situation where a dictator publicly declares something, Trump will find a way to take the dictator’s word for it and cast doubt on all the disparate checks on reality.
It’s conditioning. We are all Pavlov’s dogs and he is going to keep ringing that dinner bell until we’re salivating for a meal that’s never going to arrive.
When you see Trump’s behavior through this lens, it all makes sense. He’s not trying to convince the people who are unconvinceable. He’s trying to condition his followers to such unblinking loyalty that they can eventually relegate the rest of the country to a frustrated nuisance that can be silenced.
When that happens he can finally file for divorce with the confidence that he’ll get the house and full custody of the kids.
And if you’re thinking “don’t be ridiculous,” then you’re either in on the job, or just not paying attention.