In March, a young whale beached itself in Davao City, in the Philippines. When scientists from the local museum—it is, delightfully, called D’Bone Collector Natural History Museum—did a necropsy on the whale after its death, they discovered that it had starved to death because its stomach contained an astonishing 88 pounds of plastic trash. Food that might have given the whale actual nourishment simply could not fit around the sea garbage that the poor creature had consumed during its brief life, which National Geographic described as “two dense basketballs of trash,” each of which was hard as a baseball. “By the time we hit 16 rice sacks,” the museum’s curator Darrell Blatchley told National Geographic, “on top of the plastic bags, and the snack bags, and big tangles of nylon ropes, you’re like—seriously?”
Anyway, it is not difficult to figure out how a particular thought gets into the head of the President of the United States. There is a whole branch of political media in which he is the omnipresent hero and for which he is the most important viewer, and as that vinegary flow sluices thickly over his mind it powers and re-powers his grievance—he sees something, says something about it in response, sees what he said about it again on television, and then responds to that. This repeats itself every day. Periodically some bright bit of waste snags on one of the rusty old Pathmark carts at the bottom of this occluded waterway and once some lucky such chunk of garbage finds that purchase, it just stays flapping away there forever. Nothing is ever dislodged, but also nothing is ever really lodged, either. Trump does not so much learn things as he happens upon them and then gobbles them up, having either mistaken them for food or developed a taste for old shopping bags and discarded Mr. Potato Head hats. The question whenever Trump burps up some new and hideous chunk of crud resolves to how did that get in there?
Given how recklessly and rampantly the man consumes all the garbage, this can be a difficult question to answer. It is clear, when Trump gets up in front of an audience of hooting loyalists and says something like “there is no drought, they’re just making all the water go into the ocean” that he believes what he’s saying. Because he only learns things when they are told to him by a man on television or a fellow rich person on a golf course, it is also usually clear where it came from. Usually. Sometimes it is mysterious—the idea that you’re supposed to Rake The Forests to prevent forest fires is the sort of thing Trump would like, because it’s fundamentally blaming a landscaper for a disaster that’s the result of larger and more complicated problems, but also no one has ever had that thought before.
How Donald Trump came to believe that he had been named Michigan Man Of The Year is, by contrast, a little easier to suss out. That Trump has made the claim at least six times over the past three years is not really that confusing, either, if only because everything that Trump says once is something that he will eventually say repeatedly. But this particular claim, which people have been puzzling over since he first made it on the campaign trail in 2016, is not quite a mystery on the order of the “why didn’t they rake the forests better” assertion, say, or even Trump’s abiding belief that one of the shortcomings of wind power is that you can’t watch television if the wind isn’t blowing:
Donald Trump believes that everything he says is made true by virtue of him having said it, and once he begins believing something he is incapable of not believing it. This is why he says things more than once. The challenge is figuring out how he says things for the first time.
So: Trump got it into his head that he had received a Michigan Man Of The Year Award, and despite some complicating factors—he didn’t, for one, and also such an award does not appear to exist—he has continued to bring it up whenever the mood strikes him. There’s a whole story around it, and as is his custom he tends to retell it with more additions of the words “very” and “sir” as the years go by. “I’ve been fighting for the car industry for years,” Trump said the first time he told the story, in Michigan and two days before the 2016 Presidential election. “I was honored five years ago. Man of the Year in Michigan. That was a great honor for me.” As Trump told and has since re-told the story, he was criticized for giving a speech in which he talked about “what Mexico and these other countries are doing to us. And especially what they’re doing to Michigan.”
The breathtaking bleakness of fact-checking the man is clearest in moments like this. In running down the claim, CNN’s fact-checkers were able to ascertain that no such thing has ever happened, but were finally forced to throw up their hands, writing that “it is hard to definitively prove that something vague has not happened.” The tireless Trump annotator and fact-checker Daniel Dale did find something that might well be at the root of Trump’s belief—Trump believed that he received an award at a Republican party dinner in 2013, although no such award was given there because, again, no such award exists—but that is not quite the same thing as figuring it out. This is a mystery that is unlikely ever to be solved, in the same way that law enforcement will probably never catch the person or persons who kidnapped Papa Smurf back in 1991, because that didn’t happen, either.
What is useful about this, and what would be beautiful about it if everything around it was not so luridly toxic, is how plain it all is. Trump is a being of pure reaction and grievance and avarice, and as such is never really very difficult to parse. When he lies about money it’s because he wants people to think he has more of it than he does; when he lies about golf it’s because he wants people to think he’s a better golfer than he is. Those lies tell you something about how Trump wants to be seen, but they’re incidental to the bigger questions of who and what he is. Stranger lies like the Michigan Man one reveal more about how he sees the world and understands his relationship to the other people in it, which is fundamentally as someone cleaning up at an endless televised awards show.
Most of the idiocies at the core of Trump’s being were created in the same way that pearls are—an irritant lodges itself in the spongy matter of his mind years ago, actively or passively, and then is worried into something bright and very hard. In this case, though, we can watch this accretive work happening in real time—some dumb speech, long forgotten, grows into a great honor bestowed by strangers who admired him, and then into a controversial stand for which he was criticized but for which he boldly refused to apologize. And now it is something he can bring up, whenever he is feeling under-appreciated or anxious or when nothing else will come. He stalls and sputters and his pale eyelids flutter and suddenly then there it is, glistening on the dais in front of him—that time that Charles Woodson called to concede victory in the Michigan Man Of The Year Award, a few years ago or whenever it was. “Sir,” the Heisman Trophy winner said through his tears to Donald Trump, “you deserve this more than anyone.” What a beautiful memory.