In the run-up to President Donald Trump’s Tuesday night prime-time address, the White House argued that the president had to make a public case for federal funding to be allocated for the purpose of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
As of this writing, there’s no prepared text of his remarks. But if his past behavior serves as a credible predictor of future acts, Trump will likely sit behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office and in front of Old Glory, showcasing the ceremonial pomp and circumstance of his office, and then lie through his teeth to the American public.
As The Washington Post has rigorously documented, the president and his White House minions have a peculiar habit of saying a multitude of things that are verifiably untrue — either in public speeches or via Trump’s Twitter account. “As of the end of 2018,Trump had made 7,645 false or misleading claims since assuming office,” according to The Post’s Fact Checker. Among those falsehoods: “Members of his administration keep repeating a false claim about the number of terrorists apprehended at the southern border.”
No less than Vice President Mike Pence took to Tuesday’s early-morning news shows, offering a preview of Trump’s message with an argument that had already been discredited by an attentive press –that “4,000 known or suspected terrorists” had been stopped along the Mexican border as they tried to illegally enter the U.S. last year.
This is not true. In fact, the administration’s own State Department has reported “no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico to gain access to the United States.” Moreover, State Department figures show the vast majority of those 4,000 persons attempted to enter the country by air.
So why, if the facts are out there, does the Trump administration engage in such willful deceit? It’s all about crafting “the big lie.”
Popularized by Adolph Hitler in his autobiographical work Mein Kampf, the concept of “the big lie” involves the endless repetition of a known falsehood with the intent of convincing the public to overlook the plain truth and embrace a well-spun deception under the sheer force and grandiosity of official statements. As Hitler wrote, “The great masses of the people … will more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one.” Famously, his “big lie” blamed European Jews for being the root cause of all of Germany’s woes, beginning with the nation ending up on the losing side of World War One.
To advance such slander and promote genocidal anti-semitism, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, demanded that Nazi statements “must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands.”
Sound familiar? It should, as Trump and his administration’s propagandists are stealing from this playbook in their own authoritarian sloganeering.
Lock her up! Make America Great Again! Build the wall!
To be fair, comparisons between the Trump White House’s ham-handed efforts and those of the Third Reich diverge at this point, if only because Trump’s message only resonates with a small, though politically powerful, audience that already marches in lockstep with whatever he says.
Moreover, whether any voters — even those within his rump of die-hard supporters — actually believe what the president says is of secondary importance. The mere fact that he gives voice to these outrageous, anti-establishment and undemocratic ideas is thrilling enough to his base to maintain their devotion and keep the president in the limelight.
So, who is this televised address for, exactly? Clearly, Trump is using the power of his office to gin up the affections of his followers in order to encourage them to put pressure on Republican leaders in Congress and some members of the conservative media to stand fast with the president. Some have begun to waver.
Indeed, in recent days, the White House has observed a fraying at the edges of its support, as Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has grown skeptical of the government shutdown and Fox News’ Chris Wallace subjected White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to a Sunday morning debunking. As even these marginal figures break ranks, the pressure mounts on Trump to escalate the volume and intensity of the big lie to hold on to his base and remain in control of the media’s attention.
Unfortunately, the national broadcast television news editors have proven willing to play along, granting Trump access to the airwaves for a prime-time address that nearly everyone understands will contain more big lies.
This hasn’t always been the case. Rather, there was a time when television news challenged White House deceit, according to David Beard, a longtime journalist and writer at Mother Jones and the Poynter Institute.
Beard pointed to the tension between the Nixon administration and network TV news. Nixon viewed television news as a mirror, one that should only reflected what he said or did, but not offer any comment or fact-checking, he said in a phone interview with Think Progress.
“Nixon disliked it when television news criticized him, thinking that was out of bounds,” Beard said. “But that was a different time, when television news wasn’t as developed as it is now. There wasn’t the many outlets [as we have now] and there wasn’t the 24-hour cycle of feeding the beast.”
How presidents strong-arm TV networks, and the day @DanRather faced down Nixon’s right-hand men. Nixon saw TV as a conduit for his message; he criticized analysis of his message. From @TheAtlantic (in 1973!!!) pic.twitter.com/s4iok0vZuR
— David Beard (@dabeard) January 8, 2019
At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later and with minimal damage to the Republic, Trump and his big lies will be revealed and understood by every American. In today’s media environment, Trump’s love-hate relationship with television news presents both the cause and the cure to his mendacity — dependent as he is on constant attention, he must constantly make use of the media’s infrastructure, which in turn continually exposes his machinations to their skepticism.
The big lie shouldn’t be able to live forever. While the president and his people know that they can say whatever they wish for a time, they should take care to remember that persisting in that vein will only invite further challenges and corrections — provided, of course, that the media performs its job with some zealous integrity.
That someone like Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace was willing to offer the White House such a stern test suggests that a tenacious defense of the truth is possible; the fact that every network knuckled under to Trump’s request for their airtime raises some considerable doubt. As Trump takes to the airwaves to lie once again, this dilemma haunts our democracy without definitive resolution.