Trump can tell the most absurd lies without suffering in the polls. When he declared that “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it,” it was obvious that he is a totally dishonest person. No one who had followed the news or Trump’s campaign at all could believe it.
Or could they? It depends on what you mean by “believe.” To a rational or mostly rational person, belief means regarding a claim as conforming to reality. If a friend says, “I went shopping yesterday,” I believe her if I think she went shopping yesterday. My only evidence may be that she’s honest and has no motive to lie, but it’s still the reality that counts.
But there’s another kind of belief, where it’s not reality but the authority making the statement that governs. If there’s a disagreement between the authority and reality, it’s reality that’s wrong. This is the belief of the “true believer.”
Demagoguery is the art of inducing this kind of belief. The demagogue constructs an alternate reality, just as a novelist does. When we’re reading a powerful novel, we sympathize with the protagonists and hate the villains, even though they’re just figments of the author’s imagination. We might even sympathize with ideas we’d consider absurd in real life, such as that strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is a good basis for a system of government.
With a novel, this reaction doesn’t extend beyond our enjoyment of the book. We don’t go campaigning for possession of magical artifacts as a replacement for the electoral system (even if we think it couldn’t give worse results). But some people surrender their judgment to another mind and substitute authority for reality.
Regarding an authority as a trustworthy source is a different matter. People who do that treat the authority’s statements as true in reality, and evidence can change their minds. With people who surrender their minds, reality isn’t the issue. If they’re told that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia, it doesn’t matter that Big Brother said the opposite yesterday. It’s not that he’s telling the truth; it’s that what he says is the truth.
Trump is a master at getting people to surrender their judgment. His lies probably help if anything. To be worth believing, a fantasy world has to be fantastic. Anything less is just a disagreement about the facts, and facts can be verified. As the Phantom of the Opera sang:
Close your eyes, for your eyes will only tell the truth,
And the truth isn’t what you want to see.
In the dark it is easy to pretend
That the truth is what it ought to be.
To those of us who aren’t true believers, Trump is simultaneously absurd and very dangerous. To those who do believe, he’s a messiah. Pointing out his many falsehoods doesn’t bother them, because he defines reality.
How has he done it? That’s where I’m puzzled. Tapping into anger is clearly part of it. The anger can be at the Democrats, at immigrants, at protesters, at lack of jobs, at political correctness. Racial anger is a piece, but only a piece. The center is the strong-man leader who will be the hero of his fantasy world against any and all enemies.
Opposing Trumpism requires not just fact checking, but somehow countering his psychological techniques.