Trump’s legacy: An enduring contempt for truth?
PolitiFact, the fact checking site, was in a quandary over its annual “lie of the year” award; there were so many choices.
Instead of the usual one example, the award was given to the package of lies about the novel Coronavirus, “a crisis exacerbated by the reckless spreads of falsehoods.” In a “symphony of counter narrative,” PolitiFact charged, President Trump “was the conductor.”
The other top fact checking site, directed by the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, gives annual “Pinocchios of the year,” and once again Trump dominated with lies about the pandemic, the election and that he’s always protected health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions. Kessler wrote that the site has “given up trying” to keep Trump’s misrepresentations to only half the list.
The contempt for truth may be the most enduring stain of this presidency.
Policies can be changed, people replaced, misdeeds uncovered. An ingrained culture of lying and getting away with it is harder to reverse.
To be sure, most people misrepresent on occasion. For modern presidents, Ronald Reagan distorted his lack of military service in World War II, Bill Clinton lied about sex, George W. Bush deceived about the rationale for the Iraq War and Barack Obama misrepresented the flexibility of his Affordable Care Act.
But the pervasive pattern of untruths from Trump is of a different order. It started from day one, lying about the size of his inaugural crowd and when White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway spoke of “alternative facts.”
There is debate in the media about the use of the term lie. Trump made it easier, as so many of his falsehoods were blatant.
He said COVID-19 was no big deal when he knew better; he said the only reason he pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden was his devotion to anti-corruption; he made up charges about left wing radicals fomenting violence in America and even today refuses to acknowledge he lost the election by a sizable 7 million votes.
That he apparently paid little or no price is likely to be a subsequent lesson for some politicians.
“When norms are violated it’s very hard to walk back, this can be insidious,” says Christine Whelan, a professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin. “My fear is it encourages further violations and a counter-reaction from the other side.”
“Truth is incontrovertible,” Winston Churchill wrote in his memoirs.
For Trump, truth always has been whatever he decides it to be: It’s transactional, and he expects the same from those around him. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany vowed in her first press conference that she would never lie — and then did 15 minutes later. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has specialized in misrepresentations, such as charging that the novel coronavirus originated in a Chinese military lab.
Pompeo has been truthful about the current massive cyberattack on the U.S. government directed by Russia. Trump points the finger at the more convenient political enemy, China.
There’s the case of Michael Flynn forced to resign as Trump’s national security adviser when he lied to the FBI about conversations with the Russians before Trump took office. Flynn pled guilty and was saved by politics when the President pardoned him. Flynn lied not only to the FBI but to Vice President Pence and other White House officials. A serial lair, he is a cause celebre for Trump and right-wing allies.
If you deal with Trump, you play by his rules. He held a meeting with senators on immigration a few years ago in which he assailed Haiti as a “shithole country.” That was confirmed by some attendees. But Trump denied it, and two loyalists who were at the meeting — Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) — insisted he never said it. Of course he did — as confirmed by a superb book on these immigration controversies, “Border Wars.”
Falsehoods spread by Trump and a few associates about a “rigged election” go to the heart of our democratic system, accepting the will of the voters. The courts, election experts and a few uncowed Republican officials in states like Georgia and Michigan — and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — have made clear this is beyond frivolous.
Still, it took most Republicans — including all but a handful of senators — more than a month to acknowledge an obvious truth. Some Republican officials still haven’t.
Does anyone think the next presidential loser, perhaps in a genuinely close election, won’t play the same game?
The Republican whitewash of the Trump stain, as the Washington Post reported, has begun. South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham suggested it was just a problem of “tone,” which is correctible.
Sen. Graham, telling the truth might help.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.
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