At a recent White House press briefing, a reporter asked Press Secretary Sean Spicer whether Donald Trump could be relied on to tell the truth. Spicer, in a response that sounds directly out of “Alice in Wonderland” said “yes, unless he’s joking.”
Trump may be many things, but no one has ever accused him of being a stand-up comedian. Claims that he was just joking have come only well after the fact when he and his minions try to excuse away a particularly indefensible statement.
Instead, Spicer’s deflection is but one example of the multi-layered facade of lies and deception that this Administration uses to pursue an agenda that could never stand up to the light of scrutiny and analysis.
The tone and much of the deception comes from the very top, from Trump himself. As has been well-documented, first in the campaign and now continuing since his Inauguration, Trump lies as easily as he breathes. What’s puzzling is that so many of the statements are so easily disproven or, at least, cannot be verified and that others have no apparent political objective.
Even a partial list would consume volumes. Trump has maintained his pathetic claim that so many more people attended his inauguration than that of Barack Obama despite unequivocal pictorial evidence to the contrary. His repeated rant that he would have won the popular vote but for millions of illegal votes is delusional.
These two examples, which could easily be supplemented by many others, seem primarily a product of his fragile ego. He can’t admit to ever being less than the best or not having the most of whatever, even when repeating the claims makes him seem unhinged from reality. And then he sends out Spicer and Kellyanne Conway and others to look even more ridiculous by backing him up.
Other lies have more serious consequences. His recent assertion that Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped during the campaign is a reckless claim that may have real political consequences for Trump. Yet he continues to repeat the lie, refuses to back down in the face of denials even among other Republicans and looks to have backed himself into a dead-end alley.
Then, to make matters worse, he alleged that Britain assisted Obama in spying on him. This outlandish accusation further enhances his reputation for mendacity even as it damages the relationship with a key ally.
Trump’s biggest lies, however, are those he tells to supporters. He has promised the return of coal and manufacturing jobs, a boom in the economy, the repeal of Obamacare, the defeat of ISIS, and generally lots of “winning.” His nearly three months in office have achieved none of those promises.
To understand the significance of this administration’s lies, however, you have to move beyond the specifics. Trump’s falsehoods, and those of Spicer and Conway as well as of many of his cabinet heads, are in fact much more insidious than mere misstatements. Trump’s goal is to discredit the very notion of reality and to replace it with a set of beliefs and prejudices that appeal to that portion of the electorate that is angry and frustrated with conventional politics.
Take the President’s proposed budget as an example and the justifications that have been offered for the draconian cuts in domestic programs. There are two main strands to the arguments and they both appeal to emotions rather than to reason.
OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, without a hint of embarrassment, asserted that school lunch programs, Meals on Wheels for Senior Citizens and a long list of others had not demonstrated any benefits to either the individuals or to society. In fact, multiple studies have fully documented the value, both economic and social, of these programs, which render Mulvaney’s statements nothing less than a blatant appeal to prejudice, greed and ignorance.
A second piece of the attack was the pious sounding claim that the administration doesn’t want to force miners in West Virginia to pay taxes to support Big Bird on PBS or the National Endowment for the Arts. At its root, this argument is an attack on almost all government spending other than defense. It’s an approach that says that if I personally don’t benefit, then no one else should either. It undermines the very idea of the “United” States.
By n0w, you’ve also heard about various officials describing the budget as “compassionate.” That remark may be the biggest lie of all. Nothing about Trump or the Republican leadership in Congress suggests even a slender reed of compassion for the poor or disadvantaged. For a timely discussion of this point, see Nick Kristof in the March 16, 2017 New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/opinion/and-jesus-said-unto-paul-of-ryan.html?_r=0
If you can’t succeed on your own–which apparently includes tax breaks for the wealthy and parents who provide millions of dollars to underwrite your business career–you really need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and overcome those minor obstacles like generations of poverty, institutional bias and inadequate schools.
The attacks on the mainstream media are a significant piece of the strategy of lies. If all media are equally suspect, then you are free to rely on sources that reinforce your prejudices even if their reporting can’t be verified. If Breitbart and Fox are good enough as sources for Donald Trump’s tweets, they should be good enough for you.
Attacks on press credibility have another objective. The Trump Administration has been incredibly sloppy in its vetting of senior officials. Lies and omissions about connections to Russia during the campaign and after were revealed only through extensive digging by reporters. Mike Flynn, who was being paid by Turkey and Russia even while advising Trump, was finally forced from office, but what about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who lied during his Senate confirmation hearings? There’s a lot more smoke circling around this issue, and it appears as if the principal Trump response is to attack the messengers.
Some viewers were disturbed by the very dark image of politics presented in the Netflix series “House of Cards.” At this point in the Trump presidency, that rendering may turn out to have been too rosy. Donald Trump lies constantly, sometimes with a clear purpose and other times because he can’t seem to help himself.
He regularly requires staff to repeat and defend his lies even though they are indefensible. Sean Spicer looks more of a buffoon with each press briefing. Kellyanne Conway has lost all credibility, a commodity that once lost is unlikely ever to be regained.
Trump’s cabinet of transplants from Goldman Sachs, ideologues and B-listers from the political fringe embarrass themselves every time they open their mouths. While it’s hard to judge whether they are just incompetent and uninformed or if they are deliberately lying, the distinction may not matter much.
Bottom line: the Trump Presidency is built on a foundation of lies and deception. It truly is a house of cards that will come tumbling down if reporters keep doing their jobs, activist citizens stay engaged and insist on accountability, Courts continue to enforce the constraints of the Constitution, and Congress, which has been incredibly passive and compliant, decides that it is an independent branch and not a lap dog for Trump.
The outcome is not assured. Falling back on the notion that “it can’t happen here” is not enough. While the Trump presidency at times shows signs of self-imploding, it ultimately won’t collapse without the vigorous efforts of the rest of the political system. Ben Franklin wondered whether we could “keep the Republic” that had been created by the Constitutional Convention. We are facing a test that probably even Franklin couldn’t have imagined, but he certainly understood the stakes. Do we?