OPINION — Absolute truth has always been an endangered species, rarely glimpsed in the wild, during the closing days of an election campaign. But up until now, there have been bipartisan norms governing the taffy-pull stretching of the truth.
Congressional votes can be distorted (an innocuous procedural motion portrayed as a dangerously extreme position), but the vote has to exist. Statements can be wildly ripped out of context, but the actual words had to be spoken.
But this nodding acquaintance with tangible reality (actual votes and statements) is another namby-pamby political tradition that Donald Trump disdains. In Trump’s smoke-and-mirrors presidency, words and actions — whether constitutional or not — are one and the same.
It’s like the Oval Office version of 3-D printing. All Trump has to do is fleetingly envision an idea that might motivate his hardcore supporters — and it springs to life before his very eyes.
When the real 2017 tax cuts and their accompanying trillion-dollar deficits were not enough politically, Trump creatively invented a 10-percent middle-class tax cut. The president even implied that it would take effect before the election, gliding over the pesky detail that Congress wasn’t even in session.
Watch: New Trump Ad Declares the Future ‘Isn’t Guaranteed’
Lacking an immediate menace, Trump (with the aid of a credulous news media) hysterically over-hyped a ragtag caravan of desperate asylum seekers from Central America currently in southern Mexico. Putting it in context, the foot-sore caravan is currently further from the U.S. border than the island of Bermuda.
Then, playing a comic-opera version of a decisive military leader, Trump dispatched 5,200 actual soldiers to the Mexican border. Their mission: to protect against the mostly women and children from the caravan who might in late November or December turn themselves in at the border to request asylum in compliance with U.S. law.
Any connoisseur of war movies will recall the foxhole scene in which the nervous private says, “It’s quiet out there, Sarge.” And the battle-hardened sergeant responds, “Too quiet. Too damn quiet.”
Imagine the eerie quiet that will await the 5,200 military personnel — caught up in a Trump publicity stunt — at the border waiting for the slow-moving and nonthreatening caravan.
But Trump, like any creative genius, felt compelled to top himself. So a week before Election Day, the president announced that he intends to give a Bronx cheer to the Constitution with a legally fallacious executive order that even Paul Ryan and the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page found the gumption to denounce.
The right of anyone born within the borders of the United States to citizenship has been guaranteed for a century and a half by the language of the Fourteenth Amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
But Trump claims that he can boldly overturn this birthright by presidential fiat. It is an impressive move by a president who piously claims to want Supreme Court justices who interpret the Constitution as written. It also represents standard Trumpian hypocrisy since he once decried Barack Obama’s overuse of executive orders.
Trump may not even bother to issue this vaporous executive order, which is virtually certain to be declared unconstitutional by the courts. In the president’s mind, it is enough that voters are talking about immigration, even though most Republicans would prefer to run on the booming economy.
With GOP prospects to hold the House and key governorships fast dwindling, Trump will probably be forced to resort to even more distracting tactics to pump up the adrenaline of his most credulous supporters.
Untethered from facts and contemptuous of reality, Trump can keep supplying pre-election bread and circuses with the supreme confidence that the bills will never come due. Who, for example, worries about the budget projections for Trump’s nonexistent middle-class tax cut?
It is easy to imagine that at his Friday rally in Huntington, West Virginia, Trump might announce that every child in America will get — courtesy of the government — a puppy at Christmas. Except for children whose parents are not citizens. They are slated to get a lump of coal.
Trump could portray this governmental puppy giveaway — enacted without ever consulting Congress — as his way of launching a new offensive against godless Democrats who have been waging the War Against Christmas. How could secular humanists saying “happy holidays” possibly compete with a Trump puppy under every Christmas tree?
Playing space invaders
Fear of the outsider is a major weapon in the Trump political arsenal.
So maybe the next step would be a Saturday Oval Office address in which Trump — in his most presidential reading-off-a-teleprompter tone — reveals that his gallant Space Force has just repelled an invasion of Earth from Alpha Centauri.
When reporters predictably complain that the Space Force is still on the drawing board and NASA has no telescopic record of any intergalactic battle, Trump will, of course, shout, “Fake News.”
Making political whoopee at his Sunday rally in Macon, Georgia, Trump will thunder that the Democrats refuse to defend the Earth’s borders against “bad people” from Alpha Centauri. The president will even charge that his political foes support sanctuary cities where illegal space aliens practice their version of Sharia law.
There are other vote-getting stratagems that Trump could hold in reserve for election eve. Taking inspiration from Ronald Reagan’s 1983 invasion of tiny Grenada, Trump might order the Marines to seize the Adriatic Sea beaches of Montenegro (population: 622,000).
The legal pretext for war with a NATO ally?
When you are Donald Trump — military school graduate and commander in chief of the most powerful nation on the planet — you don’t need an excuse. Especially when a Trump hotel would look divine on the coastline.
If puppies and space aliens don’t do the trick on Election Day, the president can always pretend that the Republicans still control the House. Trump could airbrush Speaker Nancy Pelosi out of the State of Union pictures and reside happily in his magic realm as the president who could do no wrong.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.