I was standing on the front lawn of Roosevelt Elementary School with my best friend from high school on a Saturday. We had just graduated. I was heading off to college in the fall and Blaine wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Travel maybe.
Out of the blue he challenged me to a race across the lawn to the other side—as fast as we could run. My first reaction was to question his judgment. We had both been on the high school track team together—he threw the discus and shotput while I was a sprinter. “What is he thinking?” I thought, “I’ll beat him by a mile.” His challenge was so outrageous that I thought he had to be kidding. Maybe it was some kind of prank. So, I simply scoffed out loud. Which told him that I wasn’t taking him seriously. “No really,” he protested. “I was reading about this Olympic champion who said that he could do anything once he believed that he could really do it.”
I frowned. I was full of skepticism and wondered where this was going. He kept insisting that he could beat me and that he might even go on to the Olympics and become one of the fastest sprinters in the world. “Something is seriously wrong with his thinking,” I thought. So, I decided the best way to resolve this issue was to accept his challenge and race.
Sadly, it wasn’t even close.
It was a strange incident with my best friend. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, so I just brushed it off as “one of Blaine’s weird ideas” that he came up with every once in a while. What I remember though is that he was deadly serious. His challenge was not just a prank. He was intentional in his belief that he could beat me.
It was so shockingly absurd at the time however that I just brushed it off. I didn’t want to take him seriously. That would have raised a whole lot of other potentially troubling issues about his mental state, his judgment, his intelligence, our friendship, our past experiences together, our friendship circles… the list was endless. I saw only what I wanted to see—a friend of mine had an off day. But—I should have taken him seriously. Because HE was serious, even if I didn’t think he was.
Donald Trump was also serious, beginning with his campaign for president—deadly serious.
When Trump began to say absurdly outrageous things on his campaign trail in 2016, many people dismissed his words by saying things like, “he’s just playing with the media,” “he doesn’t really mean those things,” “that’s just Trump being Trump.”
Actually, he did mean those things. And actually he was playing with the media--in an intentional and sinister way. He was being exactly who he was. But many did not want to believe it. He continued this type of talk and behavior throughout his presidency, from his shameful imitation of a handicapped man at one of his rallies, to his denigration of all Mexicans as criminals, to his “locker-room” bragging about being able to grab any woman by the crotch whenever he wanted, to his seemingly innocuous lie that there was no rain on his Inauguration Day, and finally to his “big lie” about winning the 2020 election.
When people close to us say absurdly outrageous things—if it’s not just a prank—our first reaction may be to gloss over it because we don’t want to seriously consider the implications, and/or the potential dangers, if what they’re saying is true. I knew in my gut that something was off that day with my best friend, but I was not yet experienced enough to detect that that was a sign of something worse to come later.
Trump’s words and actions were so outrageously out of the norm that many Americans were caught off-guard as to how to respond. Or--whether we should even take him seriously! Which, if true, would prompt us to have to consider that we might have a more sinister and malevolent elected leader on our hands. Our beliefs and expectations of how a president should talk and act completely contradicted what we were seeing. So, many of us did what we normally do when faced with information that does not correspond to what we expect or believe to be true—we discounted what we actually saw and fell back on what we BELIEVED to be true. And many were fooled.
The truth is that what Donald Trump said and tweeted and the way he behaved was intentional, just as Blaine was intentional about his challenge to race me. Even if it sounded absurd to me, Blaine believed it. He was such a great friend that I ignored what I was seeing and instead began to make excuses, to make reality conform to what I wanted to believe about my friend, and what made me comfortable.
Even if the American people didn’t take Trump seriously, he was serious. And while many citizens (plumbers, congressional leaders, teachers, Wall Street analysts, and county sheriffs) were on their heels trying to figure out how to respond to this new trashing of civic decorum Trump was moving ahead, building his base, establishing a “brand,” and intentionally pursuing a goal of keeping everyone off-guard and off-balance with a mixture of disinformation, misinformation, half-truth, and outright lies, all while wearing a cynical smile, and scoffing at any criticism that seemed to indicate that he was not serious.
After four years, of course, we know that Trump was deadly serious in his wanton disregard for protecting and upholding the institutions of our nation in order to refashion them in his own image in order to serve his own interests.
Jonathan Rauch writes in his recent book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of the Truth,
In 2018 CBS News’s Lesley Stahl recounted asking [former president Donald] Trump, during his presidential campaign, whether he planned to stop attacking the press. “He said, ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.’” The White House did not deny Stahl’s account. Why would it? Trump and his troll army had, by their lights, every reason to be proud of what they were doing.
The president’s behavior may have been compulsive, delusional, or pathological, to one extent or another. But it could not have been anything other than intentional. In 2013 someone using the handle @backupwraith tweeted: “I firmly believe that @realDonaldTrump is the most superior troll on the whole of twitter.” Trump quoted the tweet with the comment: “A great compliment!”
Turns out that when one of former president Trump’s closest aids and chief strategist, Steve Bannon, once told the journalist Michael Lewis, “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit,” Bannon was ALSO serious when he said this. And still is. And so is Trump. And the rest of us are still in the process of wading through it.
We should have taken him seriously. But even now it’s not too late to accept the truth of what we’ve actually seen and experienced the last four years. We could start our own recalibration of "truth" by taking a wrecking ball to the fictitious beliefs and expectations that we might have held of Trump as "President of the United States." And we should start listening seriously to the real intentions and motivations behind the words and behavior of everyone running for office (especially to what they're not saying).
As the old saying goes, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time.”