Last night’s debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was less a war of words than a long disagreement over whether they mean anything. “It’s all words,” Trump said early on. “It’s all sound bites.” He interrupted often, but it was usually just to say “wrong” or “no.” One of Clinton’s claims he so denied was that he had called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to hurt American manufacturing—which of course he had:
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
That’s not a screenshot; it’s embedded. The tweet is still up, despite the false and increasingly popular rumor that his campaign deleted it during the debate. Even Chris Hayes of MSNBC bought into it last night, although he apologized this morning. Like all the best hoaxes, this is one we want to believe.
I think we like this hoax for two reasons: it’s grounded in a truth that is itself fucking nanners, and it captures essential elements of Trump’s character. The first part is easy to overlook. Trump really did say the Chinese made up global warming—on Election Day, no less. It was the kind of conspiracy mongering that has defined his foray into national politics, from birtherism1 to his claim that someone sabotaged his microphone. Trump’s willingness to believe, spread, and originate these patently dumb ideas is one of the most striking elements of his character.
Another striking element is his willingness to lie—implausibly, unconvincingly, and relentlessly. Trump engages in TFD more than any candidate I can think of. Ten days from now, he will say he never debated Hillary Clinton. He flatly denied saying that thing about China and climate change, even though it’s there on Twitter literally for the world to see. This is what makes the tweet-deletion hoax so appealing. It’s funny to imagine his campaign deleting tweets in a frantic attempt to make reality conform to what he says. If we accept the adage “it’s funny because it’s true,” it follows that this hoax is true because it’s funny.
Isn’t it the kind of thing we want from Trump, at this point? The main thing we want is for him not to be president. But as November approaches, we also want him to become an exaggerated version of himself—a Terminator2 of lying who, realizing he will be defeated, sends himself back in time to fix history. His willingness to contradict what most people know to be true is funny, but it’s also frightening, because it kind of works. It would be better if he contradicted what we all know to be true, and if we could catch him with a simple screenshot.
I think that’s the most poignant element of this hoax. It is rooted in the fear that Trump really could delete the things he used to say—either literally or figuratively, by lying long enough—and get away with it. That possibility is real. Last night, he repeatedly insisted that he was against the invasion of Iraq, simply talking over moderator Lester Holt when he tried to correct him. That‘s a lie. But this morning, Sean Hannity leapt to Trump’s defense, saying the billionaire had been against it the whole time. It’s less funny when it starts to work.