Setting: Many years ago, Douglas Hofstadter wrote “A Coffeehouse Conversation” to work out the complicated ideas behind the Turing Test. Today, four liberal friends gather at that same fictional coffeehouse. It had been shuttered by the pandemic, and now reopened under new rules: socially distant tables outdoors; servers wear masks and face shields; sanitizer is available at every table. The sanitizer is in decorative mint green jars, but for the friends who gather around the knotty-wood-paned tables, the pandemic is never far from their minds.
- David is a graphic artist. He thinks Trump is delusional.
- Nancy is a librarian at a middle school. Her job brings her in contact with Trump supporters every day.
- Fred is retired after a varied life of being a long-distance trucker and a software engineer, among other jobs.
- Amy works for an undisclosed employer at an undisclosed location.
A Coffeehouse Conversation
David (flings down phone with Twitter open): Man, I can’t believe this guy. If you do more tests, you’ll have more cases? He’s delusional. An idiot. No wonder we have the worst Covid response in the developed world.
Nancy: “Idiot”? I wouldn’t call a guy who won the presidency against all odds an idiot. The problem with us liberals is that we underestimate him. He won when no one thought he could; took over the entire Republican Party out of nowhere. He may talk like a fool, but he knows his way around.
David: That’s just the “I’m president, you’re not” idea. Sure, he became president. He has no shame and he’s racist. Half the country will follow any racist clown without shame. That doesn’t make him a genius. What was that phrase Hillary used? A bucket? A basket? He found a bucket of marks. Now he’s ruining them with Covid and unemployment.
Nancy (pulling up the Real Clear Politics webpage on her phone): And yet, they are solidly behind him. Look—37% are still in his corner. Perhaps you should broaden your mind. He is giving them something that your analysis doesn’t account for.
David (mutters under his breath): Cult.
Amy: I see your point, Nancy. He is more strategic than we give him credit for. But let me ask you this. How does it help him or his supporters to politicize masks? How does it help him to make his own base suffer by mismanaging the pandemic? That’s not strategic, that’s dumb. If all he had done is worn a mask from the start of the pandemic, the country would be doing better, and he would have been sailing to re-election.
Nancy (quietly): He can still win. I think he will win. People will come out of the woodwork to vote for him.
Amy: Of course, of course, he may win. But that doesn’t change the fact that it would have been easier for him to win if he handled the testing properly. That’s not strategic. He seems to have been delusional about Covid. He thought it would just go away.
David: No kidding! It’s going to just disappear. Only fifteen cases. That’s a great job we’ve done. Him and his advisers—all walking off the cliff, with the rest of us tied to them.
Fred (impatiently): I can’t believe this. After four years of Trump, none of you get what he is doing. Everyone misreads him. How are we going to handle this threat if no one even gets his playbook?
The other three look at him. A pause while they watch Fred stir his coffee, agitated.
Amy: Please say more. What do you mean?
Fred: Look. Let’s say you watch someone play a board game. If you don’t know how it works, their moves are confusing and bewildering. But if you know the rules of the game, you can tell exactly what they’re doing and what their next three, four, five, moves will be. Trump isn’t playing “win the election” the normal way. He’s playing fascism. And his moves fit exactly, exactly, that playbook. Create a false reality. Turn reality on its head. Create chaos. Tell people their enemy is China. Or liberals. Or doctors. Then, you will win.
An uncomfortable silence. The other three speak up simultaneously.
David: What do you mean, he will win? How does that equal winning?
Nancy: Oh, please. We call every Republican president a fascist.
Amy: Do you think he will delay the election like he said on Twitter?
Fred (turning to Nancy): Do you still doubt it? He has unmarked paramilitary tear-gassing moms in Portland. They gassed the mayor, and instead of apologizing he bragged about it! Fascism is like Covid—it doesn’t care if you believe in it or not. It’s coming for you.
Amy (rubbing her chin): I’m not one of those that thinks it can’t happen here. I’ve seen the seeds of fascism being sown here, and the GOP has been useless at controlling him. But here’s my issue—how does he pull it off? He doesn’t have the power to delay or cancel the elections, and he still has to leave on January 20th. Sure, he can stop testing so the numbers don’t go up, but people are getting sick and dying of Covid. People are losing their jobs. They’re going to blame him. He’s the president.
Fred: Not if he can get them to blame China instead. Or Democrats. Or both! Have you noticed how he is trying to pin Biden as soft on China? Look, fascists aren’t competent. Not even Hitler made the trains run on time. They create chaos, and keep people in a state of misery, on purpose. That is their engine-fuel.
David: Look, guys, you’re taking the ravings of a madman too seriously. He’s panicking and he has dementia on top of it. This is why he’s speaking of delaying the election. Not only can he not do it, none of the Republicans went along with it. Just vote! Vote in large numbers.
Amy (holding up her hands): Wait wait. I think we actually have the germ of a theory here that can be proven or disproven. David, I think your position is clear. You believe that—
David: I think he is delusional. He is a narcissist, and people around him praise him and never tell him the truth. They tell him he is popular; they tell him the virus will be gone. Of course he wants to delay the election. Narcissists don’t like to be shown up. We should ignore him, and get to work registering voters.
Nancy: Can I participate? I think logic is the wrong yardstick with which to judge Trump. He is all emotion and make-believe. He portrays reality the way he wills it: the virus will be gone. The boaters love him. This sort of thing is what makes him a good salesman. And the resentment he feels against the elite—that’s real. When he portrays himself and his followers as the real Americans—willing the elites out of the picture—that’s how he wins the devotion of his supporters. He channels their distress, their disappointment.
Amy: OK, so we’ve got David’s theory: narcissist, delusional old fool surrounded by yesmen. Nancy’s theory: that it is all about emotion and make-believe, a bit like Santa Claus or Willie Wonka I suppose? And that he channels the disappointment of his supporters. And Fred?
Fred: What is this nonsense about make-believe and emotion? The man is a liar. He’s not Willie Wonka or Santa Claus, he’s a liar! And he doesn’t channel “disappointment”—I can’t tell you how much I detest this soft-pedaling—he channels his supporters’ rage! Their rage and envy at having lost their dominance in the American narrative. And the idea that he’s panicking—sure, he’s panicking! That’s basically the recipe for making a fascist: weak, panicking, narcissistic, desperate men.
Amy (rapping on the table): OK, OK, theory, Fred! What’s your theory of the case?
Fred: OK, here’s my theory. You don’t like plain language? Fine, I won’t call him a liar. He is mendacious. He is deceptive. When we think to ourselves, “what an idiot,” invariably behind the scenes there’s some evildoing, some machinations involved. He’s not delusional. He’s fascist! There’s a difference. His lies have a purpose: it is to get people to repeat them, unthinkingly. It is to get media to treat them seriously. Pretty soon you have chaos, confusion, disorder: the engine-fuel of fascism. You want my theory? Here’s my theory. He’s a cold-blooded, deliberate, fascist.
Amy: OK. So how are we going to decide? Let’s take some examples…remember the time he sent Sean Spicer out to lie about his inauguration crowds? How do these theories interpret that?
Nancy: Look, his identity and his supporters’ identity is tied up in being the “real” Americans. How deeply disappointed they must have been to see that his crowds were smaller than their most hated president, Obama? It hurt them deeply. It would have hurt them deeply—except once again, Trump gave them a life-raft to cling to, a world of make-believe and lights-and-sounds magic, where his crowds were larger. Santa Claus. People love Santa.
David: Hmph, slightly tough one. I don’t think he was directly delusional, as in, he thought his crowds were actually larger than Obama’s; but he was meta-delusional. In other words, he was delusional that his lies would suffice to make people think his crowds were larger. He sent Spicer out to lie with great emphasis [David brings his fist down on the table] as though the stronger he lied the more he could convince people.
Fred: Straightforward for me. His crowds were smaller, he wanted them to be bigger, so he lied. He has done this all his life.
Amy: But wait, wait. This is where the simple “cold-blooded liar” theory has a few problems for me. Isn’t it a bit delusional, as David suggests, to think that a mere lie would pull the wool over people’s eyes? I mean we have photographs from the event.
Fred (confidently): Fake news.
Amy: I mean, there were reporters at the event. People saw it.
Fred: Your point is that his lie was found out, correct? Did you notice that he didn’t weep and rend his garments and apologize for lying? No. The bullshit train keeps on going. Photographs? Fake news. Reporters at the event? Fake news. His inauguration was larger. Period! His minions will all repeat it, his supporters will sit back confident that he is more popular, and the rest of us are flailing holding on to our precious “truth”.
A long pensive silence.
Amy (carefully): You know, I do think you’re all saying the same thing. Hear me out. It’s like the Necker cube. You’re focusing on different aspects but it’s really the same thing. Nancy’s world of make-believe is the same as Fred’s bullshit train. Fred is calling it lies and Nancy is seeing it as soft-focused escapism for his masses. And David—I really do believe you’re saying the same thing too, David. You’re not saying he’s straight up delusional in the sense he thinks his crowds were larger, correct? You’re saying he’s delusional in that he thinks his lies actually have power over people.
Fred: And there’s the rub. Do his lies work? Do you guys remember what Bill Barr said in one of his interviews? That history is written by the victors. And if they win—as they are trying their darndest to do—it won’t be a simple change of government. It will take over our narratives; our mental models; our history textbooks. People of the future will remember Trump as a hero whose inauguration crowds were the largest in history.
Amy: Ah…Schrodinger’s Trump. If we open the box in November 2020 and he has lost, David will have been retroactively proven correct: he was delusional about his ability to deceive. And if he has won, Fred will retroactively be proven correct: far from being delusional, he will have created a new fascist reality where Trump is the hero with the largest crowds.
Nancy: I confess I’m sort of fascinated by this topic. Let’s work through a few more examples.
Fred: I have a good one. Remember the Access Hollywood tape? I’ll always think of Trump as the guy who apologized for it on national TV and a couple years later denied it was his voice. Straight up denied it! He had already apologized for it. What was that? Delusion?
David: Meta-delusion. He was delusional in that he thought simply lying would wipe the slate clean and people would forget that they had actually heard his voice. Not a single person believes his bullshit.
Nancy: His followers have created a myth of infallibility around him. He was restoring that myth; once he says “it’s not me,” his supporters can keep their myth alive. They get a lot of emotional benefit from that myth.
Fred: No. Guys, it was lies. Repeat after me: l-i-e-s. And David, is it really delusional for him to think his lies will work? As Nancy says, his followers will cling to the myth that the voice on the Access Hollywood tape isn’t his once he says it isn’t. There: problem solved, his followers remain faithful—his deluded troops, armed to the teeth, who will go to war to preserve his power if needed.
Amy: Schrodinger’s Trump once again: delusional if his ploy to stay in power doesn’t work, a coldly rational fascist if it does. OK. But I’ve got other examples. Remember when he fired Comey? His advisers came up with elaborate lies to tell about the rationale for the firing. But then he went and blurted it out on cable TV. He blurted out that it was because of Russia, and he got the Mueller investigation out of it. If he was so strategic, why would he do that?
David: Great example. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut about a lie they all workshopped together—he has no filter.
Fred: No. Once again, you’re misreading him. Was he going to go with the small, solitary lie about why Comey was fired? No, Trump doesn’t do small. He went big. Yes, dammit, he ordered the Code Red! He fired Comey because of the Russia investigation—because the entire investigation was illegitimate. Now because of the full court press on that lie, you have almost half the country thinking that the Russia investigation was some kind of hoax and that Comey is a criminal. If Comey is indicted on bogus charges they will cheer. You tell me—would he have been smarter to cover up the real reason, creating a sort of Watergate-tapes type of hunt for the secret reason, and scandal if it is found—or was he smarter to blurt it out, as you say, and discredit the entire thing?
Nancy: I honestly don’t know what to think. What was Comey up to? Some say nothing good. I’m going to take a pass on that one.
Fred: Aha! See? It worked. I rest my case.
David: OK. I’ll grant you, Fred, that he has fascist intentions. I see that now. But I think he’s too dumb to pull it off. He tries, yes, but he doesn’t think things through. Take this for instance: for weeks he’s been casting doubt on mail-in balloting. I think we all understand why—a low turnout because of Covid is his only shot at winning. But Democrats don’t listen to him, Republicans do! So Republican activists are freaking out—their voters aren’t asking for ballots, while Democrats are. This does not help him. It’s dumb.
Amy: I don’t think Schrodinger’s Trump is out of the box yet. Is he too dumb, or are we headed to a fascist state? What say you, Fred? Is he shooting himself in the foot with yelling about mail-in ballots because he’s an incompetent fascist?
Fred: Funny that you should bring up mail ballots. I just read yesterday that mail ballots represent a particular threat to anyone trying to rig the election because they leave a paper trail.
Nancy: So wait what are you saying…are you saying…are you saying he would rig the election?
Fred: He talks to Putin every couple weeks and no one knows what they talk about. Putin tried to rig voter rolls in 2016. Mail ballots are tough to rig!
Another uncomfortable silence ensues.
Amy: OK, I see the rationale, but wasn’t that still dumb, though? Rick Wilson said that mail ballots are the Republicans’ secret sauce. They bank them early. Ultimately, we will all decide at the ballot box and he’s hurting himself there. I’m starting to come down on the sided of “too delusional to be fascist”.
Fred (shaking his head): Wow…your faith amazes me, truly. Decide at the ballot box? Guys, there is a purpose to delegitimizing mail ballots. Consider this scenario: most polling stations shut down because of the pandemic. Paramilitary forces have been sent out to intimidate voters at the rest. The crony he appointed as head of USPS has slowed mail down to a crawl. Many mail ballots will be invalidated for absurd reasons. Others will take weeks to arrive. Meanwhile, he has already promoted the idea that mail equals fraud. On election night, he declares himself the winner because there’s no point counting the fraudulent mail ballots. What happens then? Here’s what happens. His propaganda media declares victory for Trump. Our “normal” media both-sides it: Trump says this, Democrats say that. This is how fascism wins. Propaganda on one side, cowardice on the other.
Amy (turning to Nancy): Nancy, you deal with Trump supporters at your job. What do you think happens if state election officials are waiting for all the mail ballots to come in, but Trump declares victory?
Nancy (uncomfortably): I think most will follow him.
Fred (turning to David): Well, David? Still think he’s too dumb to be fascist?
Amy: OK, let’s work through another one. This one is a doozy. Covid. Look at us. 150k dead. I mean, it’s been a disaster. Americans are not allowed into any other country for travel. It’s humiliating! He wanted to build a wall to keep others out; the world has built a wall to keep us out. People are suffering, and they are blaming him. The polls show it. And for what? He could have done just the bare minimum and he would have been a hero. Just model wearing a mask for god’s sake.
David (interjecting): He can’t, there’s all that orange make-up to protect.
Amy (continuing): Handle the testing nationally. I mean he doesn’t have to do it personally, he has smart people around him—just let them do it. Give people some money, they are hurting. I just don’t understand. These aren’t difficult steps and it could help him win! [Amy rubs her temples.]
Nancy: It’s true. I know a lot of people who have been disappointed. They are scared. Everyone knows someone who…. They thought he was strong. They thought he was on their side.
David: I think he’s too incompetent to handle something like a pandemic. I really do.
Amy: Even when it would help him win! Even if he’s a selfish, cynical bastard, he could have done this.
The three others turn to Fred expectantly. Fred stares moodily at a distant potted tree.
Fred: I think there’s a misunderstanding afoot. The word “fascist” doesn’t mean some kind of hyper-competent, cynical, selfish type. I mean, most—all—politicians are cynical and occasionally competent. This is different. Trump is like a predator. Things like helping others don’t occur to him. Solving national problems—he doesn’t do solving national problems, OK? He doesn’t do competence. Think of a tiger, OK? Think of a tiger in front of an ant colony. Is the tiger thinking of how to help the ant colony, live together in peace? No! That’s not his nature. The tiger is thinking, how to hunt them, use them, crush them. How to create discord, division, how to grab power, how to blame. That’s where his mind goes. His method of winning the Covid challenge is not about defeating the virus. It is about controlling information. That’s what fascists do.
David: I don’t know. The Trump I know, and we see everyday, talks like an idiot, is an idiot. He can barely get a sentence out of mouth without rambling. These concepts seem so…complicated. Controlling information…slowing down mail…it’s strategic. I still don’t see him as a strategic master-mind, sorry.
Fred: There’s your mistake. When you have the sort of feral cunning that Trump has, these moves are obvious. They don’t require “strategery” [Fred makes air quotes]. At every point, attack the foundations of the very thing you feel threatened by. That’s it. Brick-by-brick, you unravel the structure, and attack people who try to stop you. It’s relentless, like a tank. A tank doesn’t take strategy.
Nancy: Sorry, guys. Got distracted while you were talking. A friend who voted for Trump sent me this article from Vanity Fair…she is so angry! The article says that he and Jared deliberately scuttled the national testing plan because they thought it was a blue state problem…they thought they could blame Democratic governors.
Fred: See what I mean? A fascist looks at a problem like Covid and thinks, how can I use this for my personal gain?
Nancy: She’s done with Trump. I’m so amazed! She’s stuck with Trump through thick and thin, we’ve had multiple debates…she stopped talking to me during impeachment. But she lost her older cousin to Covid. She lives in California.
David: People forget that California has more Republican voters than any other state.
Nancy: But she is done with Trump. Look at her text! [Nancy holds up her phone so the others can read it.]
Amy (slowly): Something you said, Fred…you said that fascists attempt to control information. Imagine if he had succeeded at that…if people like Nancy’s friend’s relative died and they thought he died of pneumonia. And she still thought Covid was a hoax. Without the press….
Fred: Without the press, we are dead in the water, no question. With the press, we have a shot. It’s very dicey. Look, since before he became president he has had one clear message: if you break the law for me I will protect you. He is expecting his off-the-books soldiers to go to war for him and save the presidency for him. If we don’t understand this, we are living in fantasy and we will lose. It’s not only about the ballot-box.
Amy: It seems to me that if leaders choose fascism, they foreclose other avenues. The more he looks at us like a predator would—driven by fear and weakness and panic, perhaps, but still, as a tiger looks at an ant colony—the less likely a normal victory becomes. Then a fascist takeover is his only chance, and…clearly, he wants this very much.
Fred: Agreed. You tell me: is a panicked tiger more dangerous or less? Winning through fascism becomes his only hope and he has a certain feral cunning at that. Defeating his propaganda war is our only hope, and we…well, it remains to be seen.
Late in the afternoon when the sun is casting long shadows, a server comes in and clears the table, leaving a pensive group sitting around it in silence.