In a much-loved children’s story, “The Doughnuts” by Robert McCloskey, a boy, Homer Price, is left alone in his Uncle Ulysses’ luncheonette, where a newfangled doughnut machine has been installed. As he puts the final touches to it, Homer sets the machine in motion and finds he cannot stop doughnuts “comin’, an’ a comin’, an’ a comin’.”
Trump resembles that doughnut machine in the Centerburg, Ohio, luncheonette, unable to stop lies from coming out of his pursed mouth at giddying velocity. There is a hole in the middle of everything the president says.
In their new book, “Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth,” Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly of The Washington Post clock the number of false or misleading statements from Trump at 16,241 in his first three years in office, or 15 a day.
There were six such falsehoods a day in 2017, nearly 16 in 2018 and more than 22 in 2019. The mercury in the presidential mendacity meter is rising; so is the extent to which Americans are inured to Trump’s lying. Trump-speak, the fact checkers write, is a “constant stream of exaggerated, invented, boastful, purposely outrageous, spiteful, inconsistent, dubious and false claims.”
This leads us to the most critical question for American democracy: Will President Trump concede if he is defeated by Joe Biden in the November election? Or put another way, can a liar accept a truth incompatible with his devouring ego? The need to pose these questions reflects the depth of the national nightmare.
That Trump will spread disinformation over the coming months on an unprecedented scale is a given. But to some degree, that’s politics. The evidence that he will also encourage voter intimidation and suppression efforts is compelling. His attacks on the integrity of mail voting are relentless. That makes a lot of sense if he is planning to declare a state of emergency in battleground states and ban polling places from opening.
He has amplified baseless claims of voter fraud in the same states. That makes a lot of sense if he is planning to declare the election was rigged and he won’t leave the White House. Hell, he even declared the election he won in 2016 was rigged.
In a piece this week on doomsday-scenario planners mapping out responses to some form of Trump putsch, my colleague Reid J. Epstein suggested one possibility: “A week before the election, Attorney General William P. Barr announces a criminal investigation into the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr.”
Not implausible. Barr is Trump’s hired gun. He is to justice what a hit man is to due process.
Of late, Trump has turned to “horrifying lies.” That’s how the widower of Lori Klausutis, who died almost 20 years ago in the Florida office of Joe Scarborough, then a Republican congressman and now an MSNBC news host, has described Trump’s recent slandering of Scarborough. In tweets, Trump has called Scarborough a “psycho” and asks if he may have gotten “away with murder.”
The facts — that Scarborough was in Washington and that the police found no evidence of foul play — make no difference to the conspiracy theorist in chief.
Now, after his avalanche of lies, Trump has signed an executive order trying to curtail Twitter’s legal protections in retaliation for its appending fact-checking labels to two of his tweets about mail-in ballots. Oh, the audacity of Twitter in suggesting that Trump’s accuracy should be checked! Attempted interference, Trump claims, in the 2020 election! The president’s mantra owes much to Cosa Nostra: Threaten, threaten, threaten, and to heck with legality.
Tell me, are you inclined to trust a president who this week retweeted a video from an account called “Cowboys for Trump” in which the speaker starts by saying, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat”? The speaker then says he’s not speaking literally — affording Trump plausible deniability as, with an eye to November, he winks to his gunned-up Second Amendment cohort.
Or the president who, in response to growing protests over the death in police custody in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an African-American, tweets, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”? Trump’s tweet violated company rules on glorifying violence, Twitter said.
Trump is a coward. Perhaps if Biden wins, the president will skulk out of the White House like the little boy he is who never grew into a man. And the nightmare will be over. I don’t think so. The chances are growing that Trump will not concede in the event of a Biden victory, that he may encourage violence and use the fear and division spread by the virus to extend autocratic power.
Trump is a doughnut. There is a hole in the middle of him where honesty, humanity, decency, morality and dignity never formed. He has done incalculable damage. Kessler and his colleagues quote Jonathan Swift: “As the vilest writer hath his readers, so the greatest liar hath his believers: and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work.” Three and a half years of Trump lies have done their work.
In “The Doughnuts,” before the machine goes haywire, a wealthy woman loses the diamond bracelet she took off to mix the doughnut batter. Homer has a fine idea! To offer $100 to anyone who finds the bracelet. The excess doughnuts get bought and devoured; the bracelet is found inside one.
Behind this oversized, sticky, misshapen doughnut of a president the hard diamond of recoverable truth lurks. To seize it, and save the Republic, requires the certain knowledge that Trump will stop at nothing between now and Nov. 3.