Last updated on December 15, 2020
In 1984, George Orwell used the line “two plus two equals 5 . . . or sometimes 3. . . .” as one of his ways to show the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda and at the same time its disconnect from reality. We are seeing the equivalent of that disconnect in the way Trump has gotten almost every GOP elected official to agree that his loss in November was really a win, or to at least keep silent when asked if two plus two is really four. By gaining their silence and their acquiescence, Trump is now the lord (as in Lord Voldermort) and master (as in Ol’ Massa) of the once-Grand Old Party.
President Trump’s push to overturn his election loss has been repeatedly defeated and rebuffed by the courts, culminating in a terse dismissal late Friday by the Supreme Court.But the campaign has also served another purpose — rallying Republicans across the country to back Trump’s assault on democratic principles and further cementing his control over the party even as he prepares to leave the White House.For the past six weeks, Trump has staged the ultimate loyalty test for the party faithful as he forced Republican officials to opt between siding with him and the nation’s democratic process. Through public displays of support and lengthy silences, the vast majority of elected Republicans chose to back Trump.
Trump ran the Trump Organization as his personal fiefdom, with loyalty oaths and non-disclosure agreements. It was a private business where he was the one and only boss, where no one could tell him No, where his word was unchallenged and instantly obeyed. Worse, in his real estate dealings, Trump could mostly sustain his fantasies by denying he had lost, by walking away from a bad deal and bad debts, by firing or suing anyone who challenged his insistence that 2 + 2 was 5.
When he became president, he tried to turn the federal government into a similar fiefdom, his personal property where everyone worked for him (at taxpayer expense), and where his word was law.
The federal executive is made up of civil servants who remember their arithmetic lessons, not to mention that their oath is given to the Constitution, not to a man, and kept trying to tell Trump that 2 + 2 is really 4. Trump’s response was to ignore them, to transfer them, to belittle and bully them, to fire them. Politicians, especially Republican politicians these days, are more malleable when it comes to things like basic political arithmetic, and Trump got way too many of them to agree that yes, when you look at it his way, 2 + 2 really does look like a 5.
From libertarians to moderates to far-right conservatives, Republican officials across the country are bending to Trump’s will and engaging in performative displays of loyalty in an unprecedented attack on the peaceful transfer of power.
Trump has done incalculable damage to the Republican party, the country, to our standing in the world and our honor as Americans, in his time in the public eye. (In the public face, I was going to say.) But this is one of his worst sins (yes, I’m using religious terms here; this is a disaster of Biblical dimensions): He has encouraged, and at times forced, the GOP and a large swath of the country to embrace the lie, to extol the fantasy that 2+2 = 5.
A simple — if tragic and extremely dangerous — example: Wearing a mask, or refusing to, is no longer a matter of accepting scientific reality. It is now a mark of loyalty to a fantasy. They spread the disease, they catch the disease, and then deny that the disease exists even as it kills them.
In much the same way, Trump supporters faced with 40, 50, 60 judges — some of whom Trump appointed — ruling that he has no evidence, no case, no legal ground to stand on, as they are faced with officials, some of whom Trump selected, telling them there is no fraud and that the election was an honest one, threaten violence against those who will not sustain their fantasy. If you don’t agree that 2 + 2 is really 5, they will come to your house with guns.
The GOP has lusted after power for generations, but they know that their positions are not that popular and the only way they can win is by hiding that reality. Trump made life difficult for them in 2016 by openly speaking the racism, sexism, and religious bigotry that most of the GOP had been whispering. In 2020 he made it worse: he forced the GOP to abandon all pretense of adherence to reality, and he made that abandonment into a virtue.
Trump isn’t doing this just for power, and certainly not for the job. He hates the job — among other reasons, because the presidency is the one office that is most confronted by reality. Trump likes the prestige, the attention, the adulation. But mostly he likes the immunity DOJ inappropriately confers on a sitting president. Once he loses that, he will be forced to deal with the reality that he may, for the first time in his adult life, be held accountable for his crimes. He will subject the country to any fantasy that might help him escape that.
America has always suffered fantasy on the fringes. Sometimes we find it amusing, clever, a distraction. Mostly we find it an annoyance. Now it’s an existential threat. Fantasy is staking a claim to rule.
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