President Trump’s outrageous, self-aggrandizing rhetoric is the butt of so many jokes precisely because it’s so transparently false, it should be funny. When he inflates the size of his inauguration crowd to soothe his ego, bruised after he lost the popular vote to his rival, it sounds like a kid lying about who came to his birthday party.
But it’s funny until the lies have deadly consequences — beyond just discouraging the American public’s trust in democracy and its own institutions.
“There is no such thing as Rohingya,” said a Myanmar official this week. “It is fake news.”
That’s the sound of a foreign government using the U.S. president’s own rhetoric to excuse ethnic cleansing by denying the very existence of an entire ethnic group. More than 600,000 Rohingya are stateless in Bangladesh; an unknown number have been killed; thousands more face permanent statelessness, famine, and disease; and state-sponsored rape of Rohingya women affects the entire population, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
“Soon we will all be dead or gone,” one man told the New York Times.
“Fake news” just stopped being funny.
In this case, Trump’s colorful rhetoric has eclipsed the State Department itself: Even U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has acknowledged the erasure of Rohingya constitutes ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar is not the only government using Trump’s rhetoric to brush aside concerns of major human rights violations. Libyan media is using the “fake news” claim to dismiss evidence of slavery and other human rights abuses, even though the UN has found the evidence credible enough to call for an investigation.
CNN reported two weeks ago on the existence of what appears to be slave auctions and slave markets in Libya — men, mostly refugees, being auctioned off to others for forced labor.
After CNN broke the story, which included disturbing video footage filmed with no small risk to the journalists who reported on the topic, Trump tweeted a dig specifically aimed at CNN International. “CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly,” the president wrote. “The outside world does not see the truth from them!”
Libyan media is now calling for an investigation into CNN for its role in “fake news,” rather than into the claims of enslaved people.
“How can they pretend we are nothing?” a Rohingya man asked rhetorically to the Times. When the facts no longer matter, a government can pretend almost anything.