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On Sunday, the president’s lawyer Rudy Guilani said on a nationally televised interview that “truth is not truth.” He was trying to explain the pitfalls he sees in the president sitting for an interview with Robert Mueller, but what came out of his mouth was so jarring that the interviewer, Chuck Todd, immediately realized its meme potential. Guilani has since walked back the comments, but as soon as I heard them they resonated as a kind of subconscious slogan for the Trump presidency and its supporters.
In the past I’ve written about how Trump harnessed the dangerous power of nostalgia politics in order to win the election. His “Make America Great Again” slogan hearkens to racist mid-twentieth century campaigns and even the KKK. More than anything, however, it asks Trump’s supporters to remember an imaginary time when the United States was great.
I say imaginary here not to get into a debate about whether or not the USA was or has ever been great, but to say that Trump’s version of America’s greatness is imaginary. At campaign rallies he often riled the crowd through a series of sentences that began, “In the good old days…”
It’s imaginary in a holistic sense because the times he references weren’t great for people of color, women, the LGBTQIA+ community, religious minorities, bi-racial people, and the list goes on.
What does this have to do with Rudy’s “truth isn’t truth” statement?
Trump’s nostalgia politics recalls a time that didn’t exist in order to create a space—a safe space—where his supporters can inhabit the world they want to exist. Trump gives authority and voice to those who do not want to admit that a majority of Americans are pro-choice; that same-sex couples have a right to marry; that trans people have a right to exist; that immigrants break the law much less than other Americans; that racism continues to pervade our institutions and public sphere; that Hillary received two million more votes than Trump; and that this is no longer a majority white Christian nation.
By repeating MAGA ad nauseam Trump makes it possible for the truth of the real world not to be the truth. He validates those who would close their eyes and plug their ears when the America they imagine isn’t reflected in their schools or towns or families.
After all, this is the president who claims with no evidence that millions of people voted illegally, that he saw Muslims in New Jersey cheering during 9/11, and that there were fine people on both side of a rally where one side was comprised of white nationalists. Members of his administration took part in the baseless “Pizzagate” conspiracy that led to an armed gunman attacking a neighborhood pizza place to stop an imaginary sex trafficking ring.
Trump’s whole presidency is based on truth not being truth. And it’s dangerous, because the authority of the presidency makes nostalgia—and all its delusions—a deadly weapon.