Washington (CNN)There's a line about Donald Trump in Bret Stephens' New York Times book review of the new Steve Bannon biography that, for me, perfectly sums up both the President's appeal and his fatal flaw.
This is the greatest trick Donald Trump ever pulled
"He sold his shamelessness as fearlessness and his charlatanism as charisma, and people believed," writes Stephens of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Consider that quote in the context of Trump's words and action over the six days since white supremacists and neo-Nazis provoked violent conflicts in Charlottesville, Virginia. And, in particular, what Trump said at that press availability on Tuesday where he reverted back to his both-sides-do-it argument from last Saturday.
Here's the key passage (bolding is mine):
"I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it. And you have -- you had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I'll say it right now. You had a group -- you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent."
In those 11 bolded words, you have Trumpism as described by Stephens. Trump sees himself as a truth-teller -- even when those truths are hard to hear. Politicians won't be honest with you because they are afraid of the media, the politically correct police, the establishment, he tells his base. Since they don't tell you the truth, we can never solve the big problems plaguing the country.
That message is at the heart of not only Trump's self image but also his appeal to lots and lots of his voters. Trump's brashness, his courting of controversy, his casual relationship with the truth -- it all reinforced for lots and lots of people that he was something truly different. That he wasn't afraid to stand up and say, loudly, what has gone wrong in this country.
But, what if -- as Stephens proposes -- Trump's fearlessness isn't fearlessness at all? What if it's impulsivity run wild? What if Trump just says whatever the hell occurs to him in the moment and casts it as speaking truth to power?
Another example from this week is powerful evidence that that's exactly what Trump is doing.
In the wake of the terror attack in Barcelona that has left at least 14 people dead and more than 100 injured, Trump tweeted this: "Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!"
The reference is to a debunked story of Pershing, during the Phillipine-American war in the early 20th century, coating bullets with pig's blood and then using them to murder 49 of the 50 POWs he had captured. Historians insist the episode never happened. (Of course, if it did happen, it would amount to a war crime.)
For Trump, of course, whether it happened the way he told it or not is totally besides the point. Pershing was tough. He didn't care about political correctness. And look at how his actions stopped terrorism for 35 -- or 25 -- years.
Trump wants you to believe that no one tells you that story because they are afraid of being scorned by the establishment and media elites. The real reason you don't hear about the Pershing story is, well, because it's not true.
No politician this side of Trump is willing to repeat so many falsehoods because their sense of shame about doing so would be overwhelming. Trump's great gift -- and also the root of his problems in relation to the comments he has made about Charlottesville -- is that he will gleefully repeat half truths and even lies as long as they reinforce the point he wants to make.
Shamelessness as fearlessness.