The oft-repeated idea that there exists two Americas — whether bifurcated into black and white, rich and poor, or Democrat and Republican — takes on a new meaning in the age of Trump. While the nation may indeed be divided by race, income, and politics, the current president is a serial liar, resulting in a new and more ominous national fault line: those who respect verifiable facts and those who, despite all evidence, embrace Trump’s deceit.
After a year in office, Trump exhibits no desire to become presidential by ceasing his propensity to exaggerate and refrain from endless lies. Worse, the people around him — the White House staff and Republicans in Congress — have become infected with the same malady, a willingness to lie to shield his racism.
Many Americans see through the deception and some even try to fact-check him; others have no interest and surrender reality to support the president. To put it another way, there are people who see things as they truly exist and are willing to speak truth to power and there are those who are content doing neither, no matter how dangerous their complicity may be.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), for example, excoriated Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen for claiming Tuesday during Senate testimony that she couldn’t remember what profanity Trump used to describe Haiti and African countries in a recent Oval Office meeting. In that meeting, Trump reportedly referred to those nations as “shithole countries” and suggested the U.S. should seek more immigrants from countries such as Norway, which has a predominately white population.
Booker’s emotion was on full display as he challenged Nielsen and, in the process, called out Trump’s racism and all those around him who conspire by lying to protect the president. “I sit here right now because when good white people in this country heard bigotry or hatred, they stood up,” Booker told Nielsen. “Your silence and amnesia are complicity.”
And, in an alternate universe, there are adherents of Trump World who have swallowed the blue pill that allows them, as Morpheus says in The Matrix, to “wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.”
Clearly this is the path Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) have chosen to take. How else do you explain their defense of Trump’s racist vulgarity?
Cotton and Purdue issued a joint Twitter statement on Friday that they didn’t remember whether the president called Haiti and African nations “shithole” countries. The two ultra-conservative senators, known for their sycophantic support of Trump, later doubled down on their deceit, appearing on Sunday talk shows to say their memory returned and that the president never used the vulgar phrase during the immigration meeting with lawmakers.
But the president did say it, as it was confirmed by others in attendance, including Sen. Dick Durban (D-IL), who told reporters on Friday at an event in Chicago what actually happened:
When the question was raised about Haitians, for example, we have a group that have temporary protected status in the United States because they were the victims of crises and disasters and political upheaval. The largest group is El Salvadoran. The second is Honduran and the third is Haitian, and when I mentioned that fact to him, he said ‘Haitians? Do we need more Haitians?’ And then he went on and started to describe the immigration from Africa that was being protected in this bipartisan measure. That’s where he used these vile and vulgar comments, calling the nations they come from “shitholes” — the exact word used by the president not just once, but repeatedly.
While people, notably politicians, may hold differing opinions or even disagree as to the substance of an issue, only a true reprobate will deny what is obvious to those living in rational world. In Trump’s World, lying is a governing principle.
As Maria Konnikova wrote earlier this year in Politico, lying comes easily and naturally to Trump. “The sheer frequency, spontaneity and seeming irrelevance of his lies have no precedent,” she wrote. “Trump seems to lie for the pure joy of it.”
According to PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning online fact-checking site, nearly three of every four statements uttered by Trump during his 2016 campaign were “pants-on-fire” lies. More recently, the Washington Post attempted to catalog Trump’s lies during the first 100 days of his administration, but were compelled by the sheer volume of audacious lying to continue tracking the president’s lies. Last week, the newspaper noted that after a year in office, Trump broke the 2,000-lie barrier.
This would be hilarious, if it weren’t deadly serious. After all, there’s something rakishly amusing about a person whom everyone knows is lying.
But Trump’s lies aren’t funny. As president of the most powerful nation on the planet, Trump’s ridiculous utterances carry global import. It matters what the president says, partly because truth is necessary for the proper function of a democracy, instilling confidence that the political system functions with transparent benefit of the governed.
Mendacity does just the opposite, rendering the public’s confidence in its institutions. For example, it’s a lie when Trump says:
- “Between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes caused me to lose the popular vote.“
- “The Russia story is a total fabrication.”
- “No, I don’t benefit [from the tax legislation]. I don’t benefit. In fact, very, very strongly, as you see, I think there’s very little benefit for people of wealth.”
- “Democrat Congresswoman [Frederica Wilson of Florida] totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof).”
Trump has weaponized lying to his political advantage. In effect, he’s put into practice what social scientists Lynn Hasher and David Goldstein at Temple University and Thomas Toppino at Villanova University described in their 1977 paper, “Frequency and the Conference of Referential Validity.”
Writing in the Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, the authors outlined their study of 40 college students, half of whom were given a list of statements and asked to discern whether some were true or false. The researchers stacked the deck by showing some of the statements repeatedly in various and random sequences. They found that students tended to believe those statements that reappeared often, regardless of whether they were actually true or false.
“[T]he present experiment appears to lend empirical support to the idea that ‘if people are told something often enough, they’ll begin to believe it,'” the authors concluded.
Sardonically, the real threat to society is that Trump has used his presidential platform to devalue truth and honesty. When Trump lies, many Americans recognize he’s speaking in hyperbole. But the danger is that by sheer repetition, the president devalues whatever he has to say — whether personally ridiculous or of global importance. It’s a dangerous situation when the nation — and the entire world — grows numb to whatever the most powerful person in the world has to say or tweet.
On the other side of the divide are those living in a fact-based America who must protest every lie as it appears from the White House, while waiting for Election Day and the opportunity to realign the nation with reality.
Until then, Trump is dividing the country in half and eviscerating public confidence in democratic self-governance, creating an Orwellian world where repression and lies are needed to maintain control over a compliant society. Perhaps that’s what Trump and those who live in his world want, a nation where rich white men make most of the meaningful decisions, where corporations are lightly taxed and law-abiding residents are deported as officials falsely say they’re not being targeted.
Doubts about Trump’s ability to tell the truth is a hallmark of his administration, according to a recent poll by Quinnipiac. “American voter opinions of most Trump qualities remain negative,” the poll found, noting that 56 percent of those surveyed didn’t believe he was honest.
Yet, that poll also found that 40 percent did find Trump honest. In fact, the truly sad and disturbing thing about Trump’s mendacity is that it apparently doesn’t seem to faze the core of his support, which is large enough to prop up those cowardly congressional leaders refusing to call out the president’s overt lies.
In an insightful essay, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie argues that Trump uses both racism and lying to bolster his political support among a segment of disaffected white Americans. Bouie writes:
Far from acting as a president for all Americans, he’s governed explicitly as a president for white Americans and the racial reactionaries among them. He’s spoken to their fear and fanned their anger, making his office a rallying point for those who see decline in multiracial democracy and his administration a tool for those who would turn the clock back on racial progress. If those Americans are the “forgotten men and women” of President Trump’s inaugural address, then he’s been a man of his word. That simmering pursuit of racial grievance has been its defining characteristic and threatens to be its most enduring achievement.
Prior to Trump’s distortions of fact, lying to the public was often the kiss of death for public servants. At some point in the future, it may be once again. Only when there are serious enough consequences for Trump’s lying and racism will his enablers feel the need to be honest with public it serves.