Members Only | October 17, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Calling Out Trump’s Lies Isn’t Enough
The press corps must raise awareness of what's happening.
“President Trump has made 13,435 false or misleading claims over 993 days” was a Monday headline in the Post. That raises the questions: Will Donald Trump ever face any kind of consequence for lying at virtually the same rate as he breathes?
You could say he has. His approval rating has been underwater since the beginning. Lately, public support for his impeachment has reached majority status. But the approval rating is the more important of the two public opinion measures, and it’s been rock steady despite countless scandals and outrages. And if bad polling is punishment, and punishment is a deterrent, well, it ain’t working like it should.
This president has a boundless appetite for mendacity.
Indeed, this president appears to have a boundless appetite for mendacity. In fairness, though, why would there be limits? With a tweet, Trump can dominate the news cycle thanks to the press corps’ habit of repeating and amplifying whatever he says, however many times he says it, without due consideration of its truthfulness. It’s hard to put sole blame on the alcoholic when everyone around him is pressing a drink in his hand.
When the press does call out Trump’s mendacity, as when reporters make explicit that a statement is misleading, false or a lie, they repeat it anyway. American journalists have not figured out that civil society needs a moral press responsible for monitoring the legitimacy of viewpoints engaged in the discourse of a liberal democracy. Worse, the press corps is not saying what needs saying most, because it doesn’t know what needs saying. And it doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to know, because it’s anti-moral.
Here’s what I mean.
Yesterday, the president gave voice to a conspiracy theory regarding the Democratic National Committee’s server, the one the Kremlin hacked in 2016 and whose files Russian agents laundered through Wikileaks in a cyberwar against Hillary Clinton.
Trump doesn’t believe that. He believes the security firm that discovered the hack, Crowdstrike, is owned by Ukrainians, that the server is somewhere in that country, and that the Obama administration knew all along. Trump believes the Ukrainians were digging up dirt on him in order to help Clinton win the election. He believes all the credible criminal allegations that have amassed over three years are not tied to him but instead his enemies. He’s the original victim. He will be the ultimate hero. And if all of this sounds rather familiar, that’s because it’s the same conspiracy theory Trump alluded to in his July 25 phone call to the Ukrainian president, the same phone call now at the center of the House Democrats’ inquiry into Trump’s impeachable offenses.
The truth is this conspiracy theory is bunk. The truth is Trump couldn’t care less about the truth. What he cares about is your seeing the world the way he wants you to see it, which is always to his advantage. If he has to say again and again—and again!—that corrupt Democrats colluded with Ukrainian spies to sabotage his candidacy, and that this conspiracy resulted in losing the popular vote and in fewer people showing up to celebrate his inauguration than for the black guy’s—if the president must repeat himself ad nauseum until his lies become reality, well, that’s what he’s gonna do.
Repetition of lies is fascism’s calling card.
Repetition of lies, by the way, is fascism’s calling card. The truth is the enemy. What matters are perceptions that can be transformed with enough effort into the preferred “truth.” No one outside of Germany, for instance, believed Nazi propaganda about German Jews being poor, dirty, and diseased until Jewish refugees fled Nazi policies that had successfully cheated, sickened and impoverished them. Hannah Arendt called this a “little noted hallmark of fascist propaganda” in which vicious lies end up being vicious policy, thus validating the vicious lies and transforming them into “truth.”
Put this in today’s US in which the administration explicitly characterizes all immigrants as poor, dirty and diseased before enacting immigration policies that deliberately create conditions in which immigrants get sick, can’t find work or even bathe themselves. The lies become policy become evidence the president was right all along to build a border wall to stop alien vermin from befouling our nation’s purity.
The administration can’t turn the president’s conspiracy theory about the DNC’s computer server into policy, but Trump can trust the press corps to amplify his lies. And he can trust the press won’t say what he’s really doing. Instead of saying that Trump is trying to turn lies into reality, thus heightening awareness of this “little noted hallmark,” reporters will call it a “debunked” conspiracy theory, or an “unsupported claim,” or some such. They will scratch their heads, but repeat and amplify the lie anyway. They will make themselves complicit in Trump’s aim.
The press corps must do better.
It can raise awareness of what’s really happening.
Today’s edition is about repetition. So please bear with me while I repeat myself: if everyone who reads the Editorial Board supported it financially, I wouldn’t ask anyone to be a supporter. Actually, the same would be true if only half of my readers staked a claim in this daily newsletter in plain English for normal people. So please do your part. Subscribe for the year, and get 20% off the monthly price! Many thanks! —JS
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.