Donald Trump, alone of all people on earth, has the luxury of not caring at all what Donald Trump says. He dwells inside a pasteboard nightmare where everything is horrifying and 10 or 20 times larger than life — Hillary Clinton is an enormous spider presiding over untold conspiracies; a caravan full of "Middle Eastern terrorists" is making its way to the border; he is being hunted by witches, ceaselessly, for no reason — but nothing is real. He invents this world. He does not have to live there. He tells these stories, and his world does not change.
At the end of the rallies, having been more or less applauded, he gets back onto the plane. He is presented with the same steak and the same cable channels. The only enduring change in his existence since becoming president is now the television sometimes yells back. Why should he not tell these stories?
The scariest thing about Donald Trump is that he thinks none of this is real. Someone has punched a protester at his rally? It is some clever trick, fodder for a morning show. It is all done with wires and camera angles, something like the WWE. No one's indignation is real, least of all the press's. Those protesters are crying because they have been paid. This was all a sort of game, and the advantage was to the person treating it as such.
It is one thing not to believe in ghosts. It is another thing not to believe in climate change. To believe that nothing exists independent of what one hears said about it is a child's view of the world. But in Trump's mind, "Christmas Is Being Erased from Christmas" emerges from the TV with the same ring of truth and clarity as "A Child Is Being Kept in a Cage." He has been on the other side of the TV too many times to believe what it shows him. These are only stories.
To feel that nothing matters — Everyone lies! Say what you wish! Nothing is real! — may be enlightened in some cases. But not in the case of the president or his administration. The president's words have the power to alter lives, and to believe otherwise is not only naive but terrifying.
Donald Trump has been standing at a mirror summoning a demon for the past three years. But he can honestly say he had no idea his words would summon any demon at all. He is sufficiently cretinous to see no connection between reality and the world he has been working so hard to evoke. These are magic words he uses to get people to the polls, and if the way they get to the polls is on the back of a historical monster, it is no great matter.
Here is a terrifying story: There is an ominous caravan, filled with dog whistles and nightmares. Another: We will have a tax cut by the election. Never mind that these are lies. Never mind that these are impossibilities. They are only words. Words do not matter.
But if the past two years have taught us anything, it is that these words do matter. Donald Trump is building lies for people to live inside.
Yet these words, as he wields them, can only work in one direction. A sufficient explanation, a less embarrassing coverup, cannot revive a murdered journalist or put him back at his keyboard with his fiancee. But they can tear down and sow fear. They can make it seem reasonable to lock her up, build the wall, do whatever is necessary to ram the agenda through. Fake news! Witch hunt!
For the greater part of his career, Donald Trump was not in a position to create reality with his words. He could say what he wanted — You’re fired! Trump University will help you succeed! — and it did not matter. But now his words have a power to build worlds. He and his “nationalism” are strengthening something distinctly ugly. He and his “fake news” are undermining a bedrock democratic institution. His administration’s effort to redefine gender to strip trans people of protections will have real consequences for people’s safety and welfare.
The story Donald Trump is telling about America is getting scarier and scarier. It is all a conspiracy. There is nothing to be scared of in a bomb; it is only a picture on the television. It is only a clever trick.
But for some people, these are not only stories.
Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.