What ‘Chernobyl’ teaches About Trump

Jabin Botsford/Washington PostSenior adviser Jared Kushner speaks with President Trump during a signing ceremony for a criminal justice reform bill.

I binge-watched HBO’s “Chernobyl” this week. It made me think of Donald Trump.

No, my Trump Derangement Syndrome has not spiked to 12,000 Roentgen on the ideological dosimeter. And no, I don’t think of the Trump administration as an open-air nuclear-reactor fire. To watch “Chernobyl” (and read nonfictionalized accounts of the tragedy) is to be reminded that such similes should be used sparingly.

But there’s one striking parallel. “Chernobyl” isn’t just a story about an environmental catastrophe, or the personal heroics that prevented it from becoming even worse. It illustrates what happens to societies corrupted by the institutionalization of lies and the concomitant destruction of trust.

That’s the real story of the real Chernobyl, where for once the ineradicable truths of the natural world — of chemistry and particle physics — literally overwhelmed the enforced truths of Soviet orthodoxy and propaganda.

In scene after scene, party officials decree that the seriousness of the accident isn’t so bad. Or that the extent of the fallout isn’t so wide. Or that the reach of the blame isn’t so deep. They lie to the West. They lie to their people. They lie up the chain of command and down it. Why? Because they can.

“Do you think the right question will get you the truth?” Anatoly Dyatlov (played by Paul Ritter), the engineer who oversaw the safety test that led to the disaster and later became the regime’s designated fall guy, says to a scientist trying to find out what happened the night of the accident. “There is no truth. Ask the bosses whatever you want and you will get the lie. And I will get the bullet.”

In fact, Dyatlov got 10 years (and served three). But the line captures the essence of a system in which every official lie is a noble one and truth is whatever happens to serve the party at a particular moment in time. And it works — until it doesn’t.

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,” Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), the hero of the drama, says just before committing suicide. “Sooner or later that debt is paid.”

At last count — June 7 — The Washington Post had listed 10,796 false or misleading claims by Trump over 869 days. Sometimes The Post can be too fastidious, citing differences of opinion as evidence of falsehood, so let’s cut the tally by half. That still comes to 5,398 false or misleading claims, which comes to 6.2 a day, or about once every three waking hours.

I asked Middlebury’s Allison Stanger, author of the exceptionally sharp forthcoming book, “Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump,” about the cumulative effect of this blizzard. She quoted Hannah Arendt’s famous observation: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

The result is that people lose the capacity to think for themselves, to make judgments, to find a rational basis for taking any sort of stand on principle. They become sheep.

On Tuesday, The Times’ Jeremy Peters published a profile of the conservative radio host Michael Savage, an early and fervent Trump supporter who occasionally voices his disappointment with the president, always from a right-wing perspective. Many of his 7.5 million listeners don’t take it too well. As Savage puts it, to “too many people” Trump is more than a human being, “he’s a demigod.”

Those people — the ones who brook no criticism of Trump, ever, on any subject — are the sheep.

That’s not anything like a majority of the country. But it is further poisoning a society in which the idea of truth was already being Balkanized (our truth), personalized (my truth), problematized (whose truth), and trivialized (your truth) — all before Trump came along and defined truth as whatever he can get away with.

The most telling thing about The Post’s count of Trump’s untruths is how un-shocking it becomes as the number grows larger. Like money, lies are subject to an inflationary rule: The more there are in official circulation, the less each one matters.

All this is unfolding without the assistance of the KGB or some other instrument of a repressive state to enforce a line and dissolve the distinction between fact and fiction. But the effect is no less damaging. A president who will say anything speaks to a base that will believe anything. Meanwhile, the rest of the country doesn’t believe a word.

What happens when we have our own Chernobyl, or another 9/11, or something worse, and the credibility of government becomes essential to the survival of the state? What happens when the word of the president actually matters?

Watching “Chernobyl,” I was left with this disquieting thought: At least the Soviet Union had Mikhail Gorbachev, with his instinctive decency and honesty, at the top during that crisis.

Bret Stephens writes for the New York Times.

New York Times

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