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Renée Graham

The Chernobyl president

Photo illustration by LEsley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo

The point isn’t that President Trump called Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, “nasty.” He says vile things about people, especially women of color, all the time. It’s that the president is literally telling us we didn’t hear what we clearly heard.

Yes, 2019 has fully descended into “1984.”

“I never called Meghan Markle ‘nasty,’ ” he tweeted Sunday. “Made up by the Fake News Media, and they got caught cold! Will @CNN, @nytimes and others apologize? Doubt it!”

Neither outlet has any reason to apologize, since it’s the president who got caught cold. After a reporter for The Sun, a British tabloid, mentioned that Markle called Trump “misogynistic” and “divisive” during the 2016 campaign, the president said, “I didn’t know that she was nasty.” The interview was recorded prior to his United Kingdom trip.


To recap: Even though he’s not disputing the tape’s veracity, he now claims he never said any such thing.

As George Orwell wrote in the dystopian classic, which now reads more like prophecy than fiction: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” And the abiding horror is we’re at risk of growing numb to this tiresome tyrant’s flood of lies.

So as I watched HBO’s excellent miniseries “Chernobyl,” about the deadly 1986 nuclear catastrophe, I was struck by how often my mind drifted from what was then the Soviet Union to the 45th man to occupy our presidency. To be sure, it’s not just Trump’s ability to explode and contaminate everything in his vicinity that was evoked. It’s the mendacity that fills his lungs.

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then?” These are the opening lines of the series, spoken by Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris), a scientist who dissects not just how the disaster happened, but the labyrinthine government lies to cover it up. As people get sick and die in excruciating ways, truth becomes another casualty.


Just as it is in the Trump administration.

During his London visit, Trump tweeted that he only saw “tremendous crowds of well-wishers” in London’s streets and that the “Fake News would be working hard to find” protesters. No one had to work hard. The city’s streets teemed with thousands of chanting, anti-Trump placard-waving protesters, complete with an orange 20-foot inflatable baby, in a diaper and clutching an iPhone, designed to look like Trump.

As he has done his entire life, Trump lies with impunity because there are no real consequences. Like competency and good governance, subpoenas are just another thing he ignores. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still against launching an impeachment inquiry into the president. His supporters are willfully immune to facts, so pointing out another Trump falsehood just reinforces perceptions that their dear leader is under attack.

This presidency is focused on amassing unprecedented power, ignoring accountability, undermining the rule of law, and taking cues from dictators. Trump, and those in his service, delude, deceive, and attempt to discredit those who dare shed light on the truth.


I’ve said it before — this administration will leave scars. And like the worst nuclear accident in history, its ill effects will harm generations to come.

Speaking of his nation’s “secrets and lies,” Legasov, in “Chernobyl,” says, “They’re practically what define us. When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it’s there, but it is there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth; sooner or later, that debt is paid.”

Whether Trump lies about insulting a duchess, the exoneration that wasn’t in the Mueller report, or President Obama’s native-born American citizenship, those lies will tally an impossible debt that will eventually come due.

“The people that suffer ultimately are not the people telling the lie,” Craig Mazin, creator and writer of “Chernobyl,” said in an accompanying HBO podcast. “It’s everyone else.”

Months after the disaster, Chernobyl’s failed and still-dangerous reactor was encased in a sarcophagus of concrete and steel. Left to his corrupt druthers, and he has been for more than two years, Trump is doing the same thing to any semblance of truth.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham