from A Political Obituary for Donald Trump, by George Packer: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/01/the-legacy-of-donald-trump/617255/
Trump’s lies were different. They belonged to the postmodern era. They were assaults against not this or that fact, but reality itself. They spread beyond public policy to invade private life, clouding the mental faculties of everyone who had to breathe his air, dissolving the very distinction between truth and falsehood. Their purpose was never the conventional desire to conceal something shameful from the public. He was stunningly forthright about things that other presidents would have gone to great lengths to keep secret: his true feelings about Senator John McCain and other war heroes; his eagerness to get rid of disloyal underlings; his desire for law enforcement to protect his friends and hurt his enemies; his effort to extort a foreign leader for dirt on a political adversary; his affection for Kim Jong Un and admiration for Vladimir Putin; his positive view of white nationalists; his hostility toward racial and religious minorities; and his contempt for women.
The most mendacious of Trump’s predecessors would have been careful to limit these thoughts to private recording systems. Trump spoke them openly, not because he couldn’t control his impulses, but intentionally, even systematically, in order to demolish the norms that would otherwise have constrained his power. To his supporters, his shamelessness became a badge of honesty and strength. They grasped the message that they, too, could say whatever they wanted without apology. To his opponents, fighting by the rules—even in as small a way as calling him “President Trump”—seemed like a sucker’s game. So the level of American political language was everywhere dragged down, leaving a gaping shame deficit. …
So a stab-in-the-back narrative was buried in the minds of millions of Americans, where it burns away, as imperishable as a carbon isotope, consuming whatever is left of their trust in democratic institutions and values. This narrative will widen the gap between Trump believers and their compatriots who might live in the same town, but a different universe. And that was Trump’s purpose—to keep us locked in a mental prison where reality was unknowable so that he could go on wielding power, whether in or out of office, including the power to destroy.
For his opponents, the lies were intended to be profoundly demoralizing. Neither counting them nor checking facts nor debunking conspiracies made any difference. Trump demonstrated again and again that the truth doesn’t matter. In rational people this provoked incredulity, outrage, exhaustion, and finally an impulse to crawl away and abandon the field of politics to the fantasists.
For believers, the consequences were worse. They surrendered the ability to make basic judgments about facts, exiling themselves from the common framework of self-government. They became litter swirling in the wind of any preposterous claim that blew from @realDonaldTrump. Truth was whatever made the world whole again by hurting their enemies—the more far-fetched, the more potent and thrilling. After the election, as charges of voter fraud began to pile up, Matthew Sheffield, a reformed right-wing media activist, tweeted: “Truth for conservative journalists is anything that harms ‘the left.’ It doesn’t even have to be a fact. Trump’s numerous lies about any subject under the sun are thus justified because his deceptions point to a larger truth: that liberals are evil.” …
Trump’s legacy includes an extremist Republican Party that tries to hold on to power by flagrantly undemocratic means, and an opposition pushed toward its own version of extremism. He leaves behind a society in which the bonds of trust are degraded, in which his example licenses everyone to cheat on taxes and mock affliction. Many of his policies can be reversed or mitigated. It will be much harder to clear our minds of his lies and restore the shared understanding of reality—the agreement, however inconvenient, that A is A and not B—on which a democracy depends.