How Trump Mastered the Art of Telling History His WayAugust 27, 2020
Donald Trump, according to the first three nights of the Republican National Convention, is a tireless worker, a peerless truth-teller, a champion of women, an open-arms anti-racist and a decisive leader who created the greatest economy in American history and marshalled the full force of the federal government to beat back the coronavirus. Under Trump’s orchestral baton, the program to this point has been defined by not just an unabashed busting of norms but a consistent and bald-faced recasting of reality.
On Monday, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley said Trump had “brought our economy back” when actually he inherited a solid economy from Barack Obama and monthly job growth slowed in his first year in office and then again last year. On Tuesday, White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow used the past tense to talk about the pandemic when actually the end is hard to see. And Wednesday, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said the president “stands by Americans with preexisting conditions” when actually his administration has sued to overturn the federal health care program that covers those people. Capping last night, Vice President Mike Pence proclaimed that Trump had stopped “all travel” from China at the outset of the outbreak, when it’s simply not true.
All of it has led to assessments that Trump and his surrogates are trying to “rewrite history.” And as commentators and fact-checkers have struggled to keep pace with the scores of speakers, people have puzzled over how he has managed to present a version of himself and his presidency that seems confoundingly at odds with the facts. How, they wonder, does he think he can get away with this?
But the rewriting (or even pre-writing) of his past is a lifelong Trump trademark. He is who he is, is where he is, is seen the way he’s seen by so many, because of it. He’s self-made! (He’s not.) He’s a businessman with a Midas touch! (He’s not.) He’s an outsider! (He was an insider—thanks to his father’s political connections—the day he was born.)
“He is not who he says he is,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell told me Wednesday.
“He is,” Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio said, “a walking lie.”
Everybody does some version of this, of shading and shaping their personal stories, to present to others more flattering pictures, and politicians, it’s fair to say, maybe do it even a little bit more—so some of this is to be expected in any campaign and at any convention. But nobody, in the estimation of political strategists and historians, has ever done it with the bravado of Trump. What he understands, they say, is that most people don’t have the bandwidth to keep track of the nonstop glut of stacked-up facts that form any messy backstory—and who, anyway, really likes a constant, correcting scold? Trump’s stamina selling these tales laced with falsehoods wins out, almost always, over the work of the diligent nags trying to check him.
And yet this week’s effort represents a championship game, of sorts, not only an intensification of his efforts since March to recast the narrative of the pandemic but the apex of his lifelong gambit. It is the stiffest test because Trump is not just trying to rewrite the past, or even the very, very recent past, but the actual present—the ongoing present—of this public health crisis and the attendant economic calamity. The convention itself is happening where it’s happening and how it’s happening—mostly D.C., of course, instead of Charlotte or Jacksonville, with videos, virtual fare and next to no crowds—literally because nearly 180,000 people have died of Covid-19 and another 50,000 or more are predicted to die before November. His re-election hangs on whom voters hold responsible for those numbers.
“He must rewrite history because the true past is something that’s bad for him,” said former GOP consultant Reed Galen, a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
“He takes his own failures, and he just rewrites what you see in front of your eyes,” Julian Zelizer, the Princeton political scientist, told me. “This is what he’s always done.”
It goes way, way back. In 1964, for instance, at New York Military Academy, he asked a classmate to recount a play in a baseball game.
“The bases were loaded,” the classmate said. “We were losing by three. You hit the ball just over the third baseman’s head. Neither the third baseman nor the left fielder could get to the ball in time. All four of our runs came in; we won the game.”
“No,” Trump said. “That’s not the way it happened. I want you to remember this: I hit the ball out of the ballpark! Remember that. I hit it out of the ballpark!”
The Art of the Deal in 1987 crafted an indelible portrait of a brash master deal-doer—a “nonfiction work of fiction,” in the words of Trump biographer Tim O’Brien, that the person who actually wrote it would come to greatly regret. “I drastically misused my skills as a writer and storyteller to make Trump sound like the best version of himself,” Tony Schwartz told me Wednesday evening.
It was, however, a truer account than the next two Trump books. Surviving at the Top came out in 1990, when he was barely surviving and nowhere near the top, and The Art of the Comeback came out in 1997, when he was no longer mired in the dire financial and reputational straits he was in the first half of that decade but nonetheless diminished and straining to reclaim a certain stratum of celebrity. The comeback wasn’t complete until the debut of “The Apprentice,” in 2004, which pitched him as an omnipotent titan of business, which a not small share of Americans believed, which opened evidently a path to the presidency. In his telling of his life, over and over, again and again, failures aren’t failures and losses are wins.
“Mr. Trump,” Chris Wallace of Fox News said in the first Republican debate in the summer of 2015. “You talk a lot about how you are the person on this stage to grow the economy.” He cited his litany of corporate bankruptcies. “Question, sir: With that record, why should we trust you to run the nation’s business?”
“I have never gone bankrupt,” Trump said. “I have never.”
Not personally bankrupt.
“But your companies have gone bankrupt,” Wallace said. “Is that the way you’d run our country?”
“You’re living in a world of the make believe, Chris, you want to know the truth. And I had the good sense to leave Atlantic City,” Trump said. “I’ve gotten a lot of credit in the financial pages—several years ago I left Atlantic City before it totally cratered, and I made a lot of money in Atlantic City. And I’m very proud of it. I want to tell you that. Very, very proud of it.”
The crowd that night laughed, clapped and cheered.
“And Chris Wallace throws his arms up in the air and moves on to the next thing,” former Trump publicist Alan Marcus told me Wednesday.
“We all do,” he said. “We all do.”
While scrutiny, obviously, is higher now than it was ever before, Trump’s platform, the implicit legitimacy, the importance and the audience and the attention—all that’s higher, of course, than it’s ever been, too. He’s no longer an avaricious up-and-comer. He’s no longer a reality-TV, catch-phrase superstar. He’s the president of the United States. “Everything he says, every post that he makes, is magnified a million times more than it ever was,” Zelizer said. “And it’s a collective act now,” said O’Brien, the biographer. “The Donald Trump con is now an operating principle for his White House, his family, and everybody around him in the GOP apparatus. They’ve all seen him do it and do it in a way in which any failures can just be denied and recast.”
On Monday, then, Patty McCloskey of the gun-waving St. Louis couple of right-wing cancel-culture quasi-fame said Joe Biden wanted to “abolish the suburbs,” an absurd assertion. Former football player Herschel Walker praised Trump as a team owner when his tenure was a disaster that ended with the destruction of the United States Football League. A doctor from Louisiana commended Trump for his “rapid and efficient response to the coronavirus pandemic,” and a nurse from West Virginia stated that he “recognized the threat this virus presented for all Americans early on,” when he dismissed it from the start and often still does.
On Tuesday, Trump staged in the White House a naturalization ceremony for a handful of non-white new American citizens, jarring considering his record of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric about “shithole countries.” Eric Trump said that Biden wants to “defund the police,” which isn’t true,” and that his father had “delivered the largest tax cuts in American history,” which isn’t true, and that promises were “made, and promises, for the first time, were kept,” which obviously isn’t true. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi echoed many others over the last few nights and blamed the devastation of the coronavirus on China and China alone. Then came Kudlow. “It was awful,” he said. “Health and economic impacts were tragic,” he said. “Hardship and heartbreak were everywhere,” he said.
“It’s not Hubert Humphrey in 1968 saying, ‘Well, we’re getting closer to the end of the Vietnam War, we’re almost there,’ which you could argue is spin, or Lyndon Johnson saying that,” Princeton’s Zelizer told me. “This is saying: The war is over. It’s not happening.”
It made a basic statement from Melania Trump at the end of the night sound almost shocking: “I want to acknowledge the fact,” she said, “that since March, our lives have changed …”
“If there is a ledger,” Galen told me Wednesday, “the 978 lies that everybody else told do not balance out the one truth she managed to sneak in.”
And Wednesday? More of the same. Lots more.
Biden’s campaign issued a statement characterizing the Republicans’ convention as “malarkey” in “overdrive,” adding: “In Trump’s version of reality, up is down, and down with the facts.”
“Donald Trump is an excellent storyteller. It’s like we’re all amazed by his ability to cast himself in the best light possible. And that’s kind of what campaigning is,” Amanda Carpenter, a former speechwriter for Ted Cruz and the author of Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us, told me. “He just does it with staggering audacity.”
The question at hand now is whether it can work still. “I’ve theorized for a while now that his strength in creating the reality that he wants could be punctured by actual reality,” Tim Miller, a former Jeb Bush aide and the political director of Republican Voters Against Trump, told me. “Most of his scandals and mismanagement of the first three years just didn’t really impact the daily life of a lot of folks. That changed with the virus. His management of the virus has in a very real and tangible way negatively impacted people’s lives, and so his skill at creating this fake reality—can it overwhelm the pain that they’ve experienced? We don’t know the answer to that. I think maybe not.”
Polls say he’ll lose. So do his approval ratings. Miller told me about a recent focus group RVAT did with 10 people in Florida who voted for Trump in 2016 but gave him “unfavorable” marks of late. “They all said something to the effect of: I thought he was this businessman, that he was going to knock heads in Washington, that he was going to shake things up—and like, now this virus is happening, and he’s not doing anything. He’s not fixing it,” Miller said. “It wasn’t like he had lost all these folks, but they had some real doubts about this bill of goods they’d been sold four years ago, about the problem-solving businessman.” The takeaway for Miller? “They bought it in 2016.” But now?
“I don’t think it works this time,” former John Boehner aide Michael Steel told me, “because Covid isn’t a distant or abstract issue. It’s a daily reality of masks and cold fear and hot Purell and people, especially older Americans, getting sick and dying alone.”
“Trump doesn’t get to do this stuff in a vacuum anymore,” said Galen, “because Covid has wrecked so much of traditional American life, from family life to schools to college football to pro football to the NBA.”
“The reality is too dramatic now,” Zelizer said, “to rewrite it.”
“I don’t think you can write away a pandemic and 16 million unemployed people who are struggling to survive, and if you can, this country is in long-term trouble that extends well beyond Donald Trump,” O’Brien told me. “If he gets away with not being held accountable for these things, then our institutions aren’t functioning well, and our voters aren’t getting the information and the education they need to hold their leaders accountable. And that’s what the election will be a referendum on.”
Not so much on Trump. Or even his coronavirus response.
This election is a referendum on … us.
“Because we’ve always had carnies, used car salesmen, con men, divide-and-conquer artists. Trump’s rolled them all up into his persona,” presidential historian Doug Brinkley told me Wednesday night. “And if he gets reelected with us knowing all of this,” he said, “then he is a reflection of what modern America has become.”