President Trump told an extraordinary tale in a meeting with Republican senators this week, alleging that the 2016 election in New Hampshire had been stolen from him by Democrats who had bused thousands of illegal voters into the state from neighboring Massachusetts.
Let’s get the easy part out of the way first: That did not happen.
More importantly, it could not happen. It is literally and logistically impossible. Thousands of voters would require hundreds of buses and hundreds of buses would require hundreds of bus drivers; there would be a paper trail of those buses and bus drivers, and someone would talk. If there were thousands of voters, each of whom was provided fraudulent New Hampshire voter registration and fraudulent New Hampshire state ID, the ring of conspiracy and illegality would be so vast that it could not possibly have been kept secret. On a scale of plausibility, the story told by Trump has the exact same chance of being true as a claim that the moon is made of green cheese.
So why would he say it?
To me, that’s the interesting part, the part that might be worth exploring. What is happening inside the mind of an adult person who walks into a room and says such an implausible, ridiculous thing with a straight face, expecting if not demanding to be believed?
What does it tell us about that person’s connection to reality and how that person’s mind and emotions function?
You could of course just call that person a liar and be done with it, but there’s something richer happening here. In the first place, it’s not entirely accurate to call the New Hampshire story a lie. A lie, after all, has to be at least somewhat plausible. A lie is something that could be true but isn’t. A story about thousands of illegal voters being bused across state lines in total secrecy is more aptly described as a fantasy.
As Webster helpfully defines the term:
• fantasy (n): the power or process of creating
especially unrealistic or improbable mental images
in response to psychological need.
Now we’re getting somewhere. When Trump tells these stories, he’s not telling a lie that he expects to be acted upon. He does so in response to psychological need. It is a coping mechanism for the weak-minded. When he feels threatened, when he feels his lofty yet fragile self-image under attack, he seeks safety in fantasy, inventing whatever story is needed to keep the cruel, harsh world at bay.
Thus, when Trump loses the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, he invents 3 million illegal voters to make him the winner after all. When he walked into that meeting and saw Kelly Ayotte, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire, it was a trigger reminding him that he lost the Granite State by some 3,000 votes, and clearly he’s still not over it.
Thus, the buses.
We have, as our 45th president, a man who lives in a fantasy world in which the things that he wishes were true somehow do become true. Up to this point, the world has been malleable to him. And as we’ve seen, when that fantasy world is challenged he responds to the challenge angrily, like a child told there is no Easter Bunny. When his fantasy of a record-setting inaugural crowd was challenged, he sent poor Sean Spicer out to rant and rave on his behalf. When his claim of 3 million illegal voters was ridiculed, he promised a huge investigation to prove himself right:
Which brings us to another interesting aspect of Trump’s fantasy life. On one level he believes deeply in this world, takes enormous emotional comfort from it. On another level, though, he maintains at least a tenuous connection to reality. If Trump really believed that New Hampshire story, for example, he would attempt to prove it. If he honestly believed that 3 million people voted illegally nationwide, he has the full investigative and prosecutorial resources of the U.S. government at his disposal to prove that as well.
Yet he doesn’t try. Despite his tweet above, and despite a promise that he would sign an executive order on Jan. 26 launching his promised vote-fraud investigation, he still has not done so and shows no sign of doing so. Apparently, his mind is compartmentalized enough to both thoroughly believe what he needs to believe emotionally, but somehow also not believe it.
I suspect that distinction may prove difficult to sustain under the stress of a four-year term in the White House, where reality intrudes constantly, incessantly, and where failures loom that are far more consequential than losing New Hampshire’s four electoral votes. Fantasy excuses just aren’t going to last in that world, not under assault from “so-called judges,” foreign leaders, SNL comedians and Congress. They will strip you bare, down to your essence. We may already be seeing the effects of that strain on Trump, after just three weeks.
“Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are,” as Michelle Obama put it. For a man as insecure as Trump, that thought has to be terrifying.