Quinta Jurecic, an associate editor for the Lawfare blog, is currently serving as a member of the Post editorial board.
What does President Trump believe? New reporting from The Post and the New York Times tells us that he has made a habit of suggesting privately that the "Access Hollywood" tape of his vulgar comments about women was faked. This is even though Trump acknowledged himself its authenticity — and apologized for his "locker room talk" — when the tape surfaced more than a year ago.
This astonishing reversal has raised concerns over Trump's connection to reality. Once again, we return to the unresolvable puzzle of whether the president's attacks on the truth are a sign of a deteriorating mental state or a plan to distract, confuse and sow distrust. But whether or not there's method behind Trump's untruths, one thing is certain: They are antidemocratic in effect and instinct.
A year after Trump's election, it's become almost cliche to fret over "alternative facts" and "fake news." The president's "Access Hollywood" turnabout is only the most recent example of the truth's irrelevance in the age of Trump. What's interesting about his denial of the tape's veracity isn't his familiar disregard for the truth, but that this disregard coincides with a cultural moment in which women are speaking up and being believed about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment. Each charge of assault raises in miniature the same questions that Trump has forced us to grapple with on the national stage. Did that really happen? Is someone lying? Whom should we believe?
In the words of the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, Trump is not a liar but a "bullsh---er" — a person who acts not to obscure the truth but rather speaks without regard for the distinction between truth and falsehood. The liar must operate with respect for the truth in order to reject it. A person such as Trump goes through the world glibly rejecting the existence of knowable facts. He knows (or should know) that the "Access Hollywood" tape is real; he was there, after all. It's just that the reality of the tape is irrelevant. Truth is beside the point.
Every media critic worth their salt has spent the past few months quoting the mid-20th-century German thinker Hannah Arendt, who made the case that this unmooring from the truth is a foundational tactic of totalitarian regimes. In Arendt's view, a dictator's flood of untruths is harmful partly because it makes us lonely. It erodes our trust in our own experiences of the world we share (was it really Trump's voice on that tape?) and eventually destroys that "common world" altogether. We end up cloistered in our own cynicism and doubt.
Likewise, people — usually women — who experience harassment or assault are often isolated by their trauma. If they report the harassment, they're told that they must be misremembering or lying. If they don't report, they live in a separate world with a secret knowledge that can't be shared. The mantras of the moment — "me too," "believe women" — insist on forcing public acknowledgment of private realities that have long been disregarded.
Beverly Young Nelson, who alleges that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore tried to assault her when she was 16, says Moore told her afterward: "You're just a child and I am the district attorney of Etowah County, and if you tell anyone about this, no one will believe you." This delight in power sounds a lot like Arendt's dictator, who rejects the experiences of others in order to reshape the world as he wishes, through pure force of will. In Moore's case, the effort to rewrite history through brute force extends to his insistence that his signature in Nelson's yearbook — like Trump's voice on the "Access Hollywood" tape — must have been faked.
Our national reckoning with sexual harassment has the feeling of a mass uprising. In bringing their experiences forward, victims and survivors are making a profoundly democratic request: that we recognize what happened to them as part of our "common world," rather than allowing men in power to decide what's real.
For this reason, Trump is a paradox. While allegations mount against others, the most powerful man in the world — whom at least 13 women have credibly accused of harassment — somehow remains untouchable. The position of congressional Republican leadership that Moore should exit the race depends on a nonsensical willingness to trust in the credibility of the women accusing Moore but not the women accusing the president. Likewise, Trump crows over the accusations against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) while simultaneously insisting that the "Access Hollywood" tape is a fake.
So what does the president believe? Whatever his intention, it's worth remembering that his muddling of the truth — the very fact that we can't answer so basic a question about him — is in his advantage. It's strangely appropriate that Trump's immunity from the post-Harvey Weinstein moment depends on an inconsistent and selective approach to the truth. His watchword is not "believe women" or "don't believe women." It's "believe the women whose stories happen to be convenient for me."