Donald Trump lies. He lies constantly, compulsively, brazenly. He does it even as he accuses others (usually the “disgusting and corrupt media”) of twisting the truth. One suspects he does it just to keep in practice, or because he’s simply forgotten how not to lie.
All that is old news, though not “fake news.” Trump has been at it so long that only the most naïve among us retain the capacity to be surprised by his mendacity. The question is not whether he lies, but why. And, most important, how he keeps on getting away with it.
Some clues to this mystery come from an unlikely source, a highly respected editor and columnist at the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper broadly sympathetic to Trump’s agenda as president.
Bret Stephens, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his commentary, is a staunch conservative who nonetheless has opposed Trump all along as a man morally unfit for high office and a stranger to long-standing conservative tenets like free trade. And unlike most conservative pundits, he has resisted the temptation to bend the knee to power and hop on board the Trump train.
He sees Trump for the charlatan he is, and as such is a man worth listening to about what makes the president do what he so shamelessly does.
Stephens gave a lecture recently in memory of Daniel Pearl, the Journal correspondent murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. It led him to reflect on journalism, the nature of truth and the method in the madness of Donald Trump.
When confronted by one of his blatant falsehoods, Stephens notes, Trump often doesn’t even attempt to back up what he said. He’ll simply reply that “many people say I’m right,” transforming the argument into a test of personal credibility and effectively denying the validity of what is usually known as “facts.”
“It’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb,” says Stephens. “We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant – if not in intention then certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument.
“He isn’t telling (his opponent) that he’s got his facts wrong. He’s saying that as far as he is concerned facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter. That they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion, and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them – or, in his case, both.”
The bottom line: “There you have the Trumpian view of the world. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence, it would be this: Truth is what you can get away with.”
This is the motto of both tyrants and showmen through the ages. Eventually, though, they get caught out, at least most of them. Why is Trump seemingly immune from the normal rules? How does he keep getting away with it?
Stephens offers a few reasons. First is the sheer volume of his lies: “If a public figure tells a whopping lie once in his life, it’ll haunt him into his grave. If he lies morning, noon and night, it will become almost impossible to remember any one particular lie. Outrage will fall victim to its own ubiquity.
“It’s the same truth contained in Stalin’s famous remark that the death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of a million is a statistic.”
Second is Trump’s sheer entertainment value. The fact that he’s liable to say anything at any moment turns us into gawking spectators: “We have been given tickets to a spectacle, in which all you want to do is watch.”
Then there are changing standards of judgment, in which politics becomes a matter of perception rather than actual performance. If people out in the heartland see Trump as successful, then that very fact makes him more successful.
Finally, there’s the powerful temptation among some people to rationalize the behaviour of the man in the White House, however bizarre. Conservatives rush to praise a man who disdains the globalist world-view they have preached for decades; moralists embrace a man who has turned his personal life into a tabloid saga.
Some of this is pure hypocrisy or simple power worship. But it’s also linked to a powerful desire to be on the right side of what seems to be a historical force, propelled by genuine (though misguided) sentiments among the people. It’s the impulse to make sense of Trump’s nonsense, to discover rationality amid the irrational.
The challenge is to resist these temptations, to insist on the integrity of facts in the face of a politics that simply denies their relevance. In Stephens’ words, “to believe in an epistemology that can distinguish between truth and falsity, facts and opinion, evidence and wishes.”
It’s appalling that such elementary principles must be re-stated in 2017. But in the age of Trump, it’s more important than ever.
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