Donald Trump has been recognized for his mastery of the media, his fascination with gilt and his bold advocacy for baffling hair.
But I think his greatest distinction is as a surrealist. Not since Salvador Dalí has someone so ambitiously jumbled reality and hallucination.
I’m thinking of his South Carolina news conference on Monday and of one particular assertion.
In an appeal to African-Americans, he charged that Barack Obama had done nothing for them, and drew a contrast between himself and the president by saying: “I’m a unifier. Obama is not a unifier.”
The second of those sentences is debatable. The first is just a joke. Trump sneeringly divides the world into winners and losers, savagely mocks those who challenge him, dabbles in sexism, marinates in racism, and on and on.
To call that unification is laughable under any circumstances. To make that claim to blacks is perverse. Not long ago, he insistently questioned the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency by latching onto the popular right-wing conspiracy theory that Obama had been born in Kenya and couldn’t produce a proper U.S. birth certificate.
Has he forgotten that? Or is he simply betting that Americans have?
Every campaign is a painstaking manipulation of memory, an attempt to get voters to focus on only certain parts of the past and disregard the rest.
But Trump is in a different category altogether. He doesn’t so much recast his yesterdays as utterly reinvent them.
Lately he’s been trumpeting his prescience in having urged the Bush administration not to invade Iraq back in 2003, but there’s no such urging on record.
The website PolitiFact searched for it, combing through newspapers and television transcripts, and came up empty-handed.
His greatest trick, though, isn’t to toy with memory but to overwhelm it, rendering insults and provocations at such a hectic pace that the new ones eclipse and then expunge the old ones.
His flamboyant present overwrites his distressing past. It’s the eternal sunshine of the spotless Trump.
His proposed ban on Muslims coming into the country exited the discussion much more quickly than it should have. So did his false claims that Muslims in Jersey City celebrated by the thousands on 9/11.
We seldom read much anymore about Trump the birther (unless it’s in relation to Ted Cruz and Canada). And while that’s partly because his Republican rivals see no profit in an attack on him that could be taken as a defense of Obama, it’s also because there’s been so much other, fresher fodder since.
The sheer volume of his offenses minimizes each affront, and as his shock tactics become predictable, they inevitably grow less menacing, too.
I hear it in the conversations around me; I see it in media coverage that increasingly treats him as a normal candidate. Familiarity breeds surrender, even rationalizations: He doesn’t actually mean what he says. He doesn’t ultimately believe in anything. It’s all strategy, all spectacle. Sit back and enjoy the show.
“It’s so fun to watch,” Ezra Klein of Vox recently wrote, “it’s easy to lose sight of how terrifying it really is.”
I might quibble with “fun,” but not with the notion that Trump has used a kind of sensory overload to numb us to the fictions he spins, the indecency he indulges.
We can’t lose track. We must keep score. The sum of them is the essence of him, a picture worth a thousand slurs.
Frank Bruni writes for the New York Times.