Richard Nixon claimed he wasn’t a crook. Which was a lie.
Bill Clinton claimed he didn’t have sexual relations with an intern. Which was a lie.
Donald Trump claims that people have to flush environmentally friendly toilets 10 or 15 times. Which is … weird.
It may be a lie as well; it certainly isn’t true. But beyond that, it’s just a bonkers thing for a sitting president to even talk about, isn’t it?
As weird as Trump’s recent toilet talk was, it follows a familiar pattern in which this president makes bizarre, transparently false claims about what vast numbers of unspecified “people” are doing. Some of these fantasies are in service to some policy or political goal; others have no apparent motive.
As we ponder what to believe in the dueling realities being offered in the impeachment hearings, it’s worth examining what passes for reality for the president — and, lately, for his defenders.
Here’s Trump recently speaking to a roundtable with small-business leaders regarding low-flow faucets and toilets:
“You turn on the faucet and you don’t get any water. They take a shower and water comes dripping out. Just dripping out, very quietly dripping out. People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once.”
Have they tried jiggling the handle?
To be clear: There’s no indication that any of this is true, plumbing-wise. Yes, environmentally friendly toilets use less water. That’s the whole point. But you don’t have to flush them “10 times” (unless, of course, you’re trying to dispose of reams of subpoenaed documents before Congress can get them).
But the falsity isn’t the point. Trump saying things that aren’t true is the political equivalent of the sun setting in the west: If something other than that happens, call us.
No, the point is, why is he spinning alternate facts about toilets in the first place? What’s the purpose here?
Yes, Trump delights in undermining environmental protection efforts, but why wrap it in such a daffy fabrication? He could have just said low-flow systems annoy some people, which is true — and which wouldn’t have garnered a flurry of toilet-themed editorial cartoons. By embellishing it with this complex, silly tale of frenzied toilet-flushing, he actually detracts from his own goal.
We’ve seen this before. Trump once claimed that he saw nonexistent television coverage of “thousands and thousands” of Muslims celebrating the fall of the towers during 9/11. He has claimed his loss of the 2016 popular vote was caused by Democrats who would “put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in and vote again.” He has repeatedly spread a baseless, dystopian story of duct-tape-bound women being trafficked over the southern border.
It’s not adequate to just say these assertions aren’t true. Like Trump’s toilet-flushing delusion, none of them are even things that any reasonable person could believe. But the putative leader of the free world does, or claims to.
Trump’s critics frequently call him a liar, but that’s an inadequate description. Bill “I didn’t have sexual relations with that woman” Clinton was a liar. Trump is a fabulist. There’s a difference.
A liar uses targeted, specific lies for personal gain, or to get out of trouble, and he knows he’s lying. A fabulist builds an entire fictional reality, deploying complex, universal falsehoods, often with no discernible purpose, and is immersed in them.
This is how a grown man declares that windmills cause cancer, that stealth planes are literally invisible, and that exercise permanently depletes the finite amount of energy your body was born with. These are all things that have come out of Donald Trump’s mouth. (Have we mentioned that he has the authority to launch nuclear weapons at any target, any time?)
So the president is a fabulist. So what? It’s not like it’s contagious.
Or is it?
Let’s review some other recent Trumpian assertions that, like the 10-flush toilets, are simply, inarguably untrue:
• Ukraine didn’t attempt to interfere in our elections and frame Russia for it. U.S. intelligence, across the board, is clear on that. Yet congressional Republicans have repeated this utterly baseless, senseless claim throughout the impeachment proceedings.
• The FBI investigation into Russian contact with the Trump campaign wasn’t driven by political bias, but was fully justified by the facts, as the Justice Department’s own inspector general has just concluded. Yet Attorney General William Barr — the head of that Justice Department — continues to publicly tout the discredited conspiracy trope that it was all an attempted coup.
• When a president withholds promised military aid from an ally, then tries to get that ally to investigate his political rival as a “favor,” this isn’t a normal use of presidential authority. We can debate whether it’s impeachable, but it undebatably merits investigation.