An entertaining sideshow to the main event known as the vainglorious Donald Trump is the media’s coverage of him. Though his journalistic enemies chide President Trump’s first two months, they part ways on the extent to which his actions and their effects have been deliberate. One camp favors the incompetence theme, while the other interprets Trump as an evil mastermind. The former claims his lack of experience has clearly hurt him, whereas the latter camp might quote from the Book of Marco: “Let’s dispel with this fiction that he doesn’t know what he’s going. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”
The mastermind version contains its fair share of support. The Republican-controlled Congress, health care drama aside, shows no signs of desertion. His low-to-mid 40s approval rating hasn’t dipped nearly as much as liberal social media feeds, which incessantly criticize his lack of style and substance, would have you believe. Meanwhile, his support among Republican voters continues to hover between 86 and 89 percent, numbers propped up by those who love him because he doesn’t resemble more refined politicians. He’s poised for a momentum swing once he has his first good week (an inevitability). And perhaps most importantly, he’s about to put a very conservative and relatively young judge on the Supreme Court while Democratic opponents and an antagonistic media pursue transient Russia theories, Wiretap(p)gate, and tweets. Trump the Mastermind makes it so liberals and their friends in the media cannot stay focused on, or enraged at, any one particular grievance. He uses his Twitter account to change the subject as often as the rest of us change underwear. A Pavlovian media obeys by playing with its new treat until a fresh one comes along. I’d be surprised if Wolf Blitzer doesn’t salivate every time the President rings a bell.
If we grant the mastermind motif, we must ask if Trump’s strategy sufficiently defends his controversial behavior. Since his comportment demands so much unpacking, I’ll use today to examine just one piece of luggage: the habitual lying of our chief executive.
First — yes, politicians lie. You know that. PPFA knows that. Everyone knows that. Trump’s lying, however, is almost uniquely peculiar. For the moment, we’ll leave aside the fact that he claimed to be different — that he was an authentic non-politician coming to tell it like it is, drain the swamp, and work on behalf of the common man. If one voted for him for that reason, then “every other politician lies too” is an insufficient defense. Today, however, that’s neither here nor there.
A politician’s typical “lie” is usually one of the following:
- Ideologically based: “the minimum wage is good/bad,” “protectionist trade policies are good/bad,” “government should/shouldn’t play a role in health care,” “gay people should/shouldn’t be allowed to get married,” etc.. The ideological “lie” is rarely an outright lie but instead a matter of opinion. Moreover, in an ideological “lie,” one points to examples that supports one’s position and is ignorant of or explains away ones that don’t, often because the information cited to support the position has come from an ideological source. OR, the lie is…
- Forward-looking and therefore not falsifiable: “the Iran nuclear deal is a good/bad,” “vote for me and I will create 25 million new jobs,” or “vote for me and everyone will get a pony.” Importantly, the forward-looking lie can always be adjusted at a later point to explain why it didn’t happen, like “Sorry, but Democrats hate jobs” or “Sorry, but Republicans hate ponies.”
Presidents Obama, Bush, and their predecessors faced endless accusations of lying from their opponents in Congress and the media, but those lies could usually be placed in the above two categories. Even when fact-checking sites disproved the presidents’ claims, it usually came down to nuanced interpretations, or that the presidents were guilty of exaggerated spin, or something else more gray than black and white. When we later learn that a president or politician had massaged the truth so much that it was mangled beyond recognition, at least it took a while for history to uncover those lies. (Nixon was in fact “a crook,” Reagan did indeed trade arms for hostages, Bush I’s lips couldn’t convince a Democratic Congress, Clinton did have sexual relations with that woman, Bush II oversold evidence on Iraqi WMDs, Obama promised you could keep your doctor, and many more.)
Trump’s lies are different. I don’t mean the sheer frequency of them. Instead, I mean that unlike his predecessors, many of Trump’s lies are objectively wrong. Factually wrong. Encyclopedially wrong. Look it up wrong. Wrong on their bald face.
It started on day one with the unfounded claim that Trump had record-breaking attendance at his inauguration. “That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period,” insisted frazzled Press Secretary Sean Spicer. But in so many ways, it wasn’t.
And who can forget this highly entertaining back and forth during Trump’s first press conference as President?
After Trump was clearly wrong about one of his most consistent boasts, he tried backtracking (specifying he was “talking about Republican”), but was wrong again. He then tried to BS his way through it — a specialty of his — ultimately admitting he was wrong, but only kind of, since he blamed whomever told him this information. One might argue it’s not a lie if he’s ignorant, but he kept up the charade long enough where it should qualify. It’s a lie to pretend to know.
More recently, he had no support of the Obama wiretapping charge, despite this week’s counter-narrative catalyzed by Congressman Devin Nunes, other than to say he saw it on Fox News. (Fox has since suspended the man who reported it.) These last two examples speak to another constant in Trump’s lies: when he can’t squirm out of them, he blames it on the bad source. Instead of using the powers of his presidency (or, previously, his potent candidacy) to carefully investigate conspiratorial claims from very dubious sources, he gallops to his Twitter account to propagate them. He gives more credence to one discredited voice that puffs him up than he does to a body of evidence that does not.
And these are just three examples. This site has enumerated 129 lies in just the first two months of his presidency. The frequency of his lies borders on the pathological.
Note that the lies usually support one of two narratives:
- Trump is a record-breaking, extremely popular man.
- Opponents of Trump are terrible people and enemies of American success.
Both angles aim to galvanize Trump’s supporters while marginalizing those who don’t. The aforementioned inauguration and electoral assertions clearly speak to the first, as do his claims that three to five million people voted for Hillary Clinton illegally (giving her the popular vote win) and CPAC had a line six blocks long to get in when he was about to speak. (There was barely a line.)
As for the second narrative, when he says “Obama wiretapped me,” it might not technically be true, but since it’s anti-Obama, it’s either lapped up by his strongest supporters or deemed acceptable to his more tepid ones. When he calls the New York Times “failing” despite surging subscriptions (though revenue fell one percent due to a continued subscription shift from print to online), anti-NYT Republicans are fine with it. When he says Walmart will hire 10,000 people “because of our various plans and initiatives,” despite Walmart announcing its plan before the election (a theme for many of his job claims), it just gives conservative media and his supporters more talking points to share with each other. I could go on and on. (Again, there’s a list.)
There’s one example, though, that I think both epitomizes his irrational lying and exemplifies Trump’s strategy to convince us of his own greatness and his detractors’ ignominy. Throughout his campaign, he criticized the government’s job numbers, claiming that they were “phony” or “fake.” As late as December, he called the jobs report “totally fiction.” When the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported low unemployment toward the end of Obama’s presidency, Trump said “Don’t believe these phony numbers. The number is probably 28, 29, as high as 35 [percent]. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent.” Okay, got it — we shouldn’t trust the government’s jobs report.
Or should we? Earlier this month, when the February jobs report came out and found just 4.7 unemployment and 235,000 jobs added, he embraced them. Trump touted the success of his vision for America and how it revitalized the American economy. The jobs numbers, in other words, now meant something. When asked about it by the briefing room gaggle, Press Secretary Spicer couldn’t keep a straight face when he relayed, “I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly. ‘They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.'” The room of reporters laughed, presumably because, “Can you believe this guy is president?” is a hilarious rhetorical question these days.
This approach to the job’s report encapsulates the problem. Not only did Trump “hear” that the true unemployment number was as high as 42 percent, and not only was he proven wrong by the evidence regarding his claims, and not only did he never correct himself or apologize for being wrong, but he brazenly tried to gaslight us into thinking we’re the crazy ones. And here’s the pièce de résistance: Trump’s first month added a number of jobs that Obama’s America matched or exceeded 30 times:
Jobs in Trump’s first month followed the same trajectory laid out by the Obama economy, but according to Trump, when Obama had these job numbers, it was government fabrication. When the same agency shows the pace of the improving U.S. economy continuing into Trump’s first month, then the numbers are suddenly legitimate. Think about it — for the unemployment figures to be well into double digits under Obama but now under 5 percent for Trump, that would mean millions and millions of jobs were added. In one month.
It’s hard to take.
But people are taking it. Underlying the frustration of his lies is that he seems to pay no political price for his many debunked claims. It’s as if they were all written in erasable ink. This is a point for Trump the Mastermind. If he can just move on unscathed after each lie, and if each lie further emboldens his supporters who will hold the feet of dissenting Republican Congressmen to the fire, he has little incentive to correct his behavior.
In fairness, Trump’s supporters think these lies don’t matter all that much. In fact, the President’s most ardent advocates revel in our obsession, like jocks who think nerds try too hard in math class. It’s been said that Trump’s supporters take him seriously but not literally, whereas his detractors take him literally, just not seriously. His voters love that their mastermind is pushing our buttons and that the mainstream media can’t take him down like they could other candidates for much smaller missteps. Since he rose to the top without promising anyone anything (other than all voters everything), he’s not beholden to anyone, including the establishment and media. To these supporters, his blunders are superficial at worst. What actually matters is that he’s out there working to fulfill his campaign promises and fighting against the establishment to do so.
True enough, the prevarication of, let’s say, his Electoral College claim, in and of itself, is not terribly important. If it were a blip on the radar, it would indeed matter little. However, the enormous body of lies manifests as a glaring problem, one that can have collateral damages on his presidency.
For example, even his supporters should acknowledge that the truth would often do less damage to his mission; it’d allow him to focus on the administration of American government and pursue those campaign promises and draining of the swamp. Unfortunately, these self-inflicted wounds bleed onto his agenda.
The larger problem is the improbability that his lying streak is limited to easily falsifiable information. We have to wonder whether his dishonesty about obvious facts means he’s also dishonest in areas that aren’t as provable. For instance, even if there is no direct evidence supporting Trump-Russia collusion, we are going to be skeptical of the Trump Administration’s denials on this complicated issue if we can’t trust them on the simple stuff. The Obama wiretap charge might not technically be a black and white position (we can’t prove he wasn’t wiretapping, right?), but Trump’s unreliability made most people dismiss it out of hand.
By extension, his penchant for lying has put the country’s credibility at stake. There may arrive a time when President Trump must convince the American people or international community to do something important and pressing, perhaps in regards to ISIS, North Korea, or an evil less foreseeable. Can we trust him? Can we trust his administration? His unwavering supporters say absolutely, but 40 percent of American voters does not a coalition make.
It President Trump is truly masterminding these actions, he should reform the way he operates. If he doesn’t, we have to assume the incompetence narrative is more likely. Frankly, I don’t know which is worse.
Politifact asserts that 70 percent(!) of the President’s claims range from “mostly false to pants on fire” compared to 4 percent as “true.” Of course, keep in mind the rebuttal to that: the fact-checkers lie.
The rapidity with which some on the right have converted Congressman Nunes’s declaration that there was “incidental” monitoring of Trump’s transition team after the election into “See, Obama might have been spying on Trump during the election after all!” has been a sight to see. Some might even call it CNNesque.
Again, he “hears it” then relays it. (Remember “Many people are saying…”?)