Lies, Damned Lies, and Ambiguity

The Dangerous Depths of Donald's Depravity

Two recent statements from Trump:

On the surface, this kind of thing is nothing new from Donald Trump, but each of these statements represents a special kind of danger that is not present in most of his (dangerous enough) prevarication. They each represent an escalation of rhetoric on a topic of immediate life-and-death concern. They are also both linked by the feature of intentional ambiguity.

He didn’t say that the FDA is part of the deep state or controlled by it. He said “the deep state or whoever”. He didn’t say that QAnon is right, either about the satanicannibaphiles or about his involvement in stopping them. He asked if it would be a bad thing if he was, and then asserted he is saving the world from other things, in a manner that suggested without stating that they were connected.

This ambiguity, the fact that he doesn’t go so far as to make the actual accusations and explicitly make the connections, does not make his actions here less dishonest or less dangerous. They offer him a measure of plausible deniability, allowing his followers to portray anyone who talks about it as the liar (“He never actually said that!”) and basically relegating any serious coverage of the rhetoric to the opinion pages, while still allowing his followers to take what they will from it.

During his campaign and earlier in his presidency, we saw Donald embrace the ambiguous and the hypothetical again and again. He and his minion Rudy Giuliani are both fond of a construction I call the Mafia Maybe, where you don’t say a thing but you use the possibility of thing you’re not saying as an argument. When asked about his habit of stiffing contractors, Donald would say things like, “Maybe I don’t think a guy did a good job. Should I pay full price for a bad job?”

He never accused a particular contractor of shorting him on work or product. He never took anyone to court. If they all delivered inferior results then this says something about him as a businessman. But he didn’t claim that they all did; he just asked, what if? Maybe one did. Can’t say he should pay normal price for subpar service. And without direct knowledge, you can’t say that any one worker or outfit actually delivered as promised.

The point of his dodge there isn’t to prove to anyone’s satisfaction that he was entitled to a discount in any specific case; it’s to create an environment in which no one can say for certain whether or not he was justified. He doesn’t need you to say he was right (though he likes it when that happens); he just needs it be a difference of opinion at best.

Taking credit for the heroics that QAnon ascribe to him on the basis of other, unrelated heroics he’s taking credit for? It’s the same logic as when he said that stock market gains should be counted against his deficit increases as though they’re profits and loss on the same spread sheet.

While he’s credited with playing 5th or higher dimensional chess by the followers trying to make sense of his flailing cupidity and perpetual failure to deliver, the fact is he has a very one-dimensional view of the world: things are either good, or bad. All good things are good in the same way; all bad things are bad in the same way, and it’s all relative to his point of view, where he stands on the one dimensional line. The deficit is up? That’s bad. The stock market is up? That’s good. And they’re both money, right? Good money + bad money = neutral money, so you can’t say the deficit is up.

And if you can’t say the deficit is up, then there’s no deficit to erase the stock market gains, so the stock market is still up…

These games he plays, this ongoing one-dimensional chess match, is always dangerous insofar as it helps him hide the damage he’s doing behind layers of misdirection and obfuscation and it’s corrosive to the very meaning of truth, but when he’s talking about the FDA’s oversight of lifesaving treatments and vaccinations or about the dangerous QAnon cult, it’s even more so.

Sowing mistrust of the FDA as a prelude to overriding them in hopes of manufacturing the impression of a covid-19 miracle before the election is dangerous in all the usual ways that undermining public trust in science and public service is dangerous, but it’s uniquely dangerous in that it directly physically endangers our health through untested treatments and bogus cures.

Signaling to the QAnon crowd at a moment when they are becoming more and more emboldened to take steps in the public sphere is dangerous in the same ways that pushing any conspiracy theory is dangerous, but it’s uniquely dangerous in that QAnon includes elements who are ready and eager to go to war if they think they have his go-ahead, and in that QAnon’s methods and messages give cover to actual child sexual abusers and traffickers.

It’s not that Donald Trump has never attacked the FDA and it’s not that he’s never nodded to QAnon before, but I see in these recent statements part of a pattern that shows a willingness to go further, more often, and I expect this escalation to continue as we get closer to the election. His depraved indifference to the truth, his need to subvert and pervert the very concept of it, will become sharper and stronger as November 3rd approaches.

The lies will become bigger, bolder, and badder, and the people who have been making a career out of swallowing and spreading them might feel some misgivings but they’ll swallow those, too, because if he loses then they lose and that means it was all for nothing. So they’ll go along with the kinds of lies they would have sworn were too big, too far from the truth, too outré for anyone to spread, much less fall for, and having become complicit in these lies, they’ll be that much more ready for the next round.

In the end, the only promise Donald Trump can sincerely make is that whatever you go along with today, tomorrow you’ll be expected to do something even worse. Anyone in his administration or close to it, any former associates who are thinking about their futures, should be looking at what he’s been willing to do this past week and then count the weeks left till the election as they weigh their own options.

How low do you think he’ll go? How low are you willing to go along with him? How low are you willing to be dragged?

There is no bottom with Donald Trump, and yet he’ll never stop racing downward in search of it.