August 28, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Believing Trump’s lies is a choice
Forty percent of Americans aren't just being duped.
Daniel Dale is a reporter for CNN. His beat is unique, but it shouldn’t be. Every reporter and editor following the president’s reelection campaign should do what Dale does: report Donald Trump’s lies as lies, not as part of some opaque political strategy or part of another story of interest to the public. This is different categorically from fact checking. Anyone can do that. Dale, however, makes the lies the story. Moreover, he permits his methodical reporting to culminate into a moral conclusion, one vital to the healthy functioning of a free and open republic. Trump “is a serial liar,” Dale said.
Before I go on, I should say Dan Dale is special. Not just anyone can give frequent, news-making, magisterial and awe-inspiring performances on live television without notes or visual cues, as Dale did last night after Trump’s acceptance speech, knocking down one falsehood after another, informing Anderson Cooper’s viewership of the whole truth, all from his prodigious memory alone. But reporters need not be virtuosos to understand that their job—their American duty—is informing the citizenry. What’s more important than telling your fellow citizens that our president can’t be trusted?
Why aren’t we holding people responsible for their choices?
There is something more important, actually, and it makes the press burden all the heavier. While every other word coming out of this president’s mouth is a lie, about 40 percent of the country, the same percentage approving unwaveringly of Trump, despite everything, isn’t just being duped. They desire being lied to. They fear the responsibility of freedom while taking immense pleasure in surrendering themselves to the authoritarian hivemind. And based on this dense thicket of desire, they decide to believe the president’s lies. After all, believing lies—however harmful, poisonous, or even treasonous—is easier, and therefore better, than accepting and reckoning with the whole truth. More vexing, it’s a choice. Believing Trump’s lies is, therefore, rational.
This might sound surprising, but it shouldn’t. White Americans choose to believe the biggest lie of them all when they deny the existence of racism in our society and in ourselves. This lie is so omnipresent as to be blindingly invisible—unless you’re not white. In that case, you, my friend, see the truth plainly, and don’t need me explaining it. (You also don’t need me to say that you don’t need me explaining it, but I trust you appreciate the gesture.) Every white person understands how our society treats Black people. That’s why few white people would opt for walking a mile in a Black person’s shoes (even if he’s rich, as Chris Rock once said; “That’s how good it is to be white!”) While some white people fight racism, most don’t. Why should we? The system works for us, even if we struggle as individuals. Inaction by white people is action in tacit form, which is a choice made in keeping with our self-interests. The lie is rational.
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Racism does not need proving as a precondition to reporting, because it’s always already the condition to our society. Journalists are therefore justified in thinking anyone denying racism is acting rationally in their self-interest. Journalists are therefore justified in thinking anyone denying racism is acting in bad faith. Such people are, as University of Connecticut philosopher Lewis Gordon put it, trying to “escape personal anguish” by deciding to ignore evidence counter to “cherished beliefs.” If you’re escaping something, the reporter’s job is easy. Why is truth painful? What is there to lose? Are you prepared to be held responsible for your choices? Daniel Dale’s beat is holding Trump accountable for his lies. But the press corps is justified in doing the same for 40 percent of Americans choosing to believe them.
I’ve said the reason a handful of Black people vouched for Trump at the Republican National Convention wasn’t to expand his appeal among Black voters, but to make white voters, especially Trump’s supporters, feel good about supporting a racist, and feel all right about the sadist outcomes of systemic racism. Indeed, you could say the entire point of this week’s convention was advancing, deepening and expanding the biggest lie of them all—that white Americans aren’t racists, that white Americans deserve their power and privilege, that Black Americans deserve their fate. When journalists cover lies as part of another story, instead of the story itself, they not only spread the lie but, in the case of systemic racism, fuel America’s self-destruction. The point of a free press is enabling a free people. Instead, it’s enabling our captivity.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.