by Greg Olear
TODAY is the last day of the worst presidency this country has endured. Sure, we’ve had some clunkers in our history: George W. Bush presided over the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil, wasted $1 trillion on a needless war against the wrong enemy, and came this close to cratering the entire global economy. Herbert Hoover did bupkis to stem the Great Depression. Warren G. Harding wrote billets-doux to his paramour while his corrupt subordinates plundered and looted. Andrew Johnson got himself impeached. Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan did fuck-all to redress slavery or heal the North/South rift. And those dudes are a six-headed Mount Rushmore compared to Donald John Trump.
Trump’s term in office began with an assault on the truth. The first time that Sean Spicer, the newly-minted press secretary, addressed the White House press corps, he lied about the size of the crowd at the Inauguration—and he did so at the new president’s behest. Spicer may as well have been standing next to Shaquille O’Neal, indignantly insisting he was taller. We knew he was lying, he knew he was lying, the press corps knew he was lying, Saturday Night Live certainly knew he was lying. Even Chuck Todd, no journalistic paragon, took exception to it, in what turned out to be a historic episode of Meet the Press. There was uneasiness, certainly, and plenty of jokes made at Spicer’s expense. But few imagined that this pathetic spectacle was merely the opening salvo in a four-year onslaught against reality.
Trump’s war on the truth did not begin when he took office, of course. Maybe it started when Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg allowed his social media team to weaponize Facebook. Maybe it started when Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, gave him all that free airtime and presented him, falsely, as a serious presidential candidate. Maybe it started when The Apprentice showrunner Mark Burnett played Professor Higgins to Trump’s Eliza Doolittle, packaging him, falsely, as a successful, self-made billionaire, and trust-washing him for the American public. Maybe it started when Trump joined Twitter, and opted to insert the word “real” in his handle, before his actual name. Or maybe it started on his first visit to Moscow in 1987, when the KGB identified him as a promising asset for future use. Whatever the case, the annihilation of truth is Trump’s greatest achievement as president—his lone success. During the last four years, reality was not the winner.
So many lies! So much gaslighting! So much bullshit! We were told that Trump’s campaign was self-funded; it wasn’t. We were told that he would drain the swamp; he didn’t even try. We were told that he would bring his successful businessman’s experience to Washington; few bothered to report that Trump’s actual business involves laundering money for the Russian mob. We were told Jared and Ivanka would be a moderating influence; they are more ghoulish and evil than Donald. We were told Trump would release his taxes; the alleged audit has outlasted his presidency. We were told he would release Melania’s immigration paperwork; we’re still waiting. We were told that the caravan of immigrant gangs approaching the border was a threat to our safety; crickets. We were promised a better healthcare plan than Obamacare; the promised-in-two-weeks details are yet to be revealed.
We were told Trump was the healthiest president of all time ever; he isn’t. We were told he was 6’ 3” / 239; he’s well shorter than that, and far heftier. We were told the midnight run to Walter Reed last November was the first part of a physical, which cover story even the press seemed to realize was bunk; we still don’t know why he was rushed there (panic attack? stents? exorcism?). Even when white powder flew out of his nose, even when he appeared impaired, his eyes dilated, not a single member of the media told us about his drug use—despite Noel Casler, a talent handler on Celebrity Apprentice and an eyewitness, repeatedly insisting Trump was an addict.
We were told there was no communication between anyone associated with Trump or his campaign and Russia; turns out, Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Cohen, Jeff Sessions, Mike Flynn, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, and Erik Prince, at a minimum, all communicated with Putin’s representatives. We were told there was no foreign money coming into the Trump coffers; Egypt gave $10 million. We were told the Mueller investigation was a witch hunt; it was actually a hunt for traitors, and it found plenty. We were told Trump would be tough on Putin; he capitulated to him like a BDSM bottom in the world’s least sexy bondage club.
We were told the novel coronavirus was like the flu. We were told it was a hoax. We were told it was under control. We were told it would be gone by last Easter. We were told that one day, it would just go away, like a miracle. We were told the Democratic governors were to blame. We were told Fauci was not to be trusted. We were told the CDC was not to be trusted; instead, we should put our faith in Michael Caputo, a GOP dirty trickster who once worked for Vladimir Putin, and whom Trump installed as a spokesman at Health & Human Services. We were told Mike Pence, who as governor of Indiana presided over the worst HIV outbreak in the last 20 years, would be the best man to manage the pandemic response. We were told that he did a fantastic job. We were told masks didn’t work, that wearing them was government overreach, an assault on our freedoms. We were told it was safe to reopen. We were told herd immunity was a smart strategy. We were told that certain already-available drugs treated covid-19 just fine. We were told the infection rate would be lower if we did less testing. We were told the virus wasn’t especially contagious, even as it spread like wildfire through the West Wing. (When Trump announced that he had tested positive for covid-19, the universal first response was to call bullshit.) We were told the effects were not that bad, even as Chris Christie spent a week in the ICU, even as Herman Cain died. We were told the Trump Administration’s handling of the pandemic was top rate, even as Acting President Jared Kushner authorized a Blue State Genocide. We were told that the pandemic was over, even as the death toll hit 400,000—that Biden will shut down the country on January 21 because he’s a pawn of China who will use the virus as an excuse to establish a communist government in Washington.
We were told there would be a pivot.
Trump wasn’t the only one who misled us, nor his gaslighting gaggle of press secretaries, nor the GOP members of Congress he owned, professional turncoats like Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson, Rand Paul, Matt Gaetz, and Jim Jordan. The lies—or, rather, the omissions—came even from the good guys. Barack Obama didn’t come out and say that he knew Russia had interfered; he allowed Mitch McConnell to stymie him; and when Trump took office, and the nation was freaking out, he went windsurfing on the other side of the planet. James Comey didn’t come out and explicitly say that Trump was under investigation, even as he announced that Hillary Clinton was. Robert Mueller didn’t come out and explicitly say that Trump was guilty and should be impeached based on the findings of his investigation; he expected the American people to infer this conclusion after reading a 700-page book. Chief Justice John Roberts did not assert his authority during the first impeachment trial; he allowed it to turn into a sham. Mitt Romney was the only GOP Senator to vote to convict Trump—the only one!—on a charge of abuse of power obvious to anyone who’d caught more than two episodes of The Sopranos.
The news media, print and especially broadcast, could not resist the urge to “both sides” every horrible thing Trump did, every obvious lie he told. Indeed, I submit that going forward, both-sidesing obvious bad behavior should be called “Danabashing” (although, to be fair, Dana Bash was far from the only media personality guilty of this). “Today is the day Donald Trump became president,” Van Jones told us, with a straight face, after Trump gave a speech exploiting the widow of a serviceman who died in a botched raid he authorized.
We were told Trump was strong. We were told Trump was a fighter. We were told, on those rare occasions when he read from the teleprompter without going off script, that he was “presidential.” We were told he cares about people. We were told he cared about the victims of the hurricane in Puerto Rico. We were told he isn’t a sexist, isn’t a racist. We were told the First Lady was a caring person, even as she wore her true feelings on her designer jacket—her lack of heart on her sleeve, if you will.
“Who are you gonna believe,” Chico Marx quipped, “me, or your lyin’ eyes?”
And now? Cleft by four years of psychological battering ram, reality is broken. Alternative facts prevail. There is no universal, agreed-upon truth. And this is exactly what KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov warned us back in 1984 that the Russians were trying to do to us, via psychological warfare: “Change the perception of reality of every American to such an extent that, despite the abundance of information, no one is able to come to sensible conclusions.” Mission accomplished, comrades.
This assault on reality is the greatest challenge Joe Biden and Kamala Harris face. Tens of millions of Americans believe the election was stolen from Trump—that this hateful piece of shit, who drew the well-earned ire of every constituency save straight angry white men and the women who love them, got more votes than Joe Biden and Kamala Harris: that he not only won, but won in a landslide. Millions believe the ever-shifting QAnon narrative, which reads like a modern-day Book of Revelation, and claims, best as I can tell, that Hillary Clinton colluded with Russia to ensure than she would lose, and Joe Biden’s Antifa hordes were responsible for the January 6 insurrection because they wanted to stop the certification of their own candidate’s electoral victory, and this was all to hide the fact that they are pedophile sex traffickers, and George Soros is involved, and also JFK Jr. is alive and will reappear any day now to tell us the truth: that Jeffrey Epstein buddy and serial rapist Trump will #SaveTheChildren. Widespread belief in this sort of poppycock is the byproduct of a systematic four-year assault on truth.
As it stands, Trump leaves with over 400,000 dead, with the federal government in shambles, with our standing around the world at its lowest point since before the Great War, and with the U.S. an additional $8 trillion in debt ($27.68 trillion, to be exact, up from just under $20 trillion when he took office). By any metric, he has been a catastrophic failure: corrupt, sociopathic, cruel, venal, disruptive, evil. We have never had a monster like this in the White House. No one comes close.
The last two weeks have shown, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that four more years of Trump would have brought about the end of the American experiment. As hopeful as I’ve been, looking back, I am amazed that we did it, that we didn’t re-elect this petty tyrant and seal our doom. I feel like I’ve been furiously climbing up a ladder for four years, desperate to get out the word of warning, and only now that I look down do I see how perilous it would have been had I fallen.
The good news is, horrible presidents can give way to great ones. Franklin Roosevelt took over for the hapless Hoover. Before Donald John Trump came along, James Buchanan was widely considered the worst president in U.S. history. Who succeeded Buchanan in the White House? Abraham Lincoln! Because he is taking control of a nation in crisis, like FDR and Honest Abe before him, Joe Biden is primed to be a historically great president. But at this point, I’ll settle for “decent.”
Twenty-nine more hours until the forty-sixth president. It can’t get here fast enough.
Photo credit: Mash up of historical photo of James Buchanan and Gage Skidmore’s 2018 image of Donald John Trump.