President Trump does not make “mistakes” in the sense that the rest of us do.
We make mistakes, get corrected, make amends, apologize and move on. The president does not.
The president may not even tell “lies” in the sense that the rest of us might.
If we lie and are exposed, we face consequences that affect us personally. It is different for this president.
Why is it different? Because the very idea of error or deception requires a shared sense of what is actually correct or truthful. The key word here is shared, and that is what seems to be lacking.
Our current president makes a practice of describing things not as they are but as he wants them to be — or at least as he wants them to be perceived. He puts his idealized version forward constantly, not as a vision for the future but as a view of the present.
“Change your thoughts, and you change the world,” said a man who has shaped the president’s own thinking. But more of that in a moment.
We have all become accustomed to this behavior in our president — inured to it — by its constant repetition from the first announcement of his candidacy in June 2015 to the wild claims about the crowd at his inauguration to the latest jujitsu interpretations of the Helsinki summit and Russian interference in our elections. (“They don’t want Trump!”)
Throughout the past two months, the president has insisted on exceedingly roseate descriptions of his summit meetings with the G-7 and NATO leaders and his tête-à-têtes with Kim Jong-un, Teresa May and Vladimir Putin.
What the rest of the world witnessed was a series of meetings that have produced divisions and misunderstandings, continued defiance from North Korea, hurt feelings in Great Britain, a global trade war and an ill-defined new partnership with Russia that has much of the president’s own party in open revolt.
Remember that, to Trump, each and every one of these forays abroad has been a “great success.”
But the moment in which the president has articulated his attitude with pithy perfection came Tuesday in Kansas City, where the president told the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars that “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
That has prompted comparisons to George Orwell’s famous description of Big Brother in his novel 1984, where the demand made on all party members was absolute loyalty to the party line — regardless of all evidence to the contrary and regardless of what the party may have said the previous day.
One is also reminded of the old joke about the philandering husband who, when caught in the act by his spouse, shouts: “Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?”
Every president is the product of many conflicting influences. But there are two figures from Trump’s earlier life whom he has cited as having a major impact on him. One was the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, a phenomenally popular preacher and author who died in 1993 at the age of 95. Peale was best known for his book The Power of Positive Thinking and for axioms such as the one cited above: “Change your thoughts, and you change your world.”
Peale also stressed that constant action was more important than consistency: “Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all.”
It is hard to imagine a better guide to the peripatetic machinations of our current president.
Trump attended Peale’s church as a youth, and the minister officiated at Trump’s first wedding. Trump was a co-host for Peale’s 90th birthday party. Trump once told The Washington Post that Peale “thought I was his greatest student of all time.”
Many of Peale’s other students, including his own son, have disputed this. But what matters right now is that Trump believes it.
The other great influence whom Trump has often acknowledged is Roy Cohn, who could not be more different from Peale in his life and work. Cohn was the son of a judge, and as a young lawyer prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (who went to the electric chair for espionage) and staffed Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican notorious for his pursuit of Communists in government in the 1950s.
Cohn was largely responsible for the style that spawned the term “McCarthyism,” making scabrous charges that, despite the lack of evidence, often derailed or even destroyed careers. In the end, Cohn and McCarthy uncovered no actual Communists in the government, and the senator’s overreaching (and overbearing manner in televised hearings) led to his censure by the full Senate.
Cohn, however, went on to a highly lucrative career as the go-to lawyer for an array of powerful figures in New York. His clients included politicians, mob bosses, wealthy individuals and celebrities – culminating in the 1970s with a young real-estate operator named Donald Trump. The two were said to speak on the phone several times a day and Cohn reportedly did not even bill his protégé for his legal advice.
“Roy was an era,” Trump once said of his mentor. “They either loved him or couldn’t stand him, which was fine.” Prompted, Trump allowed as how that reminded him of himself.
Cohn was the epitome of the “never explain, never apologize” school of public discourse. He believed in full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. When young Trump and his father were sued by the federal government for civil rights violations in their housing units, Cohn’s advice was: “Tell them to go to hell.”
In his early months in office, beset by a variety of new issues and vexing personnel problems, President Trump would be heard asking his staff members: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
Having found no one entirely satisfactory by that standard, the president now seems to have assumed the role himself.
Cohn and Peale both worked and lived in New York. Apart from that, the main thing they may have had in common was the student they shared in common.
And in these two men and their influence we may find some understanding of the man who is now our president.