With Donald Trump’s ascension as the GOP’s presidential nominee, we’ve clearly entered a new stage, and as usual this election cycle, it’s happening much more rapidly and in ways that have caught media and political elites by surprise. But how we got here and what lies ahead share much more in common than most are willing to admit, most pointedly, the extent to which the media and the GOP have created the Trump candidacy—despite all their professions of dismay—by decades of devaluing objective reality.
A classic book on this subject is Mark Hertsgaard’s On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. In an early passage about the GOP’s role in the abandonment of reality, he wrote:
Leslie Janka, a deputy White House press secretary, who resigned in protest after the administration excluded the press from the Grenada invasion, went so far as to say, “The whole thing was PR. This was a PR outfit that became President and took over the country. And to the degree then which the Constitution forced them to do things like make a budget, run a foreign policy and all that, they sort of did. But their first, last and overarching activity was public relations.
As for the media’s role, Hertsgaard interviewed more than 150 journalists and news executives, most of whom “rejected the idea that Ronald Reagan had gotten a free ride from U.S. news organizations,” he noted, “But this self-absolution by members of the press was contradicted by none other than the Reagan men themselves…. ‘I think a lot of the Teflon came because the press was holding back,’ said [Reagan’s Director of Communications] David Gergen. ‘I don’t think they wanted to go after him that toughly.’”
The book presents wide-ranging evidence of precisely how this came about. A classic example was Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense program, which he claimed would render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete,” an example of “politics as theater taken beyond the absurd…. Had Reagan bothered to ask he would have found that not one of his senior advisers shared his simple minded faith that SDI would protect American people and cities from nuclear ruin. Reagan’s dream of a leakproof nuclear umbrella was a fantasy, and all the King’s men knew it.” Yet, to this very day, the media has never accurately reported how utterly impossible the Star Wars promise was.
But that was three decades ago. In the years since—from the imaginary Whitewater scandal during the Clinton Administration to Iraq’s imaginary WMDs during Bush—the GOP and the media together have created the perfect environment for Trump, a man for whom “everything is negotiable” applies quite literally to the very notion of objective reality itself.
Some in the media understand that something is wrong. Last December, PolitiFact noted that, “In considering our annual Lie of the Year, we found our only real contenders were Trump’s — his various statements also led our Readers’ Poll. But it was hard to single one out from the others. So we have rolled them into one big trophy” and thus awarded is “2015 Lie of the Year” to “the campaign misstatements of Donald Trump.”
And Factcheck.org’s year-end roundup reached a similar conclusion, designating Trump “King of Whoppers,” as it explained:
It’s been a banner year for political whoppers — and for one teller of tall tales in particular: Donald Trump.
In the 12 years of FactCheck.org’s existence, we’ve never seen his match.
He stands out not only for the sheer number of his factually false claims, but also for his brazen refusals to admit error when proven wrong….
In past years, we’ve not singled out a single claim or a single person, and have left it to readers to judge which whoppers they consider most egregious.
But this year the evidence is overwhelming and, in our judgment, conclusive. So, for the first time, we confer the title “King of Whoppers.”
More recently, in late March, the Washington Post’s fact check editor, Glenn Kessler, collected all of Trumps “four Pinocchio” lies in one place, expressing a similar sentiment:
There’s never been a presidential candidate like Donald Trump — someone so cavalier about the facts and so unwilling to ever admit error, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. At last count, 67 percent (26 of 39) of our rulings of his statements turned out to be Four Pinocchios, our worst rating. By contrast, most politicians tend to earn Four Pinocchios 10 to 20 percent of the time. (Moreover, most of the remaining ratings for Trump are Three Pinocchios.)
As a reader service, here’s a running list of our Four Pinocchio rulings. Since Trump never takes anything back — and often repeats the same false claims — voters are likely to hear these time and again during the campaign season.
The problem with all this recognition of Trump’s mendacity is just how little difference it seems to make—and how clueless the press itself remains regarding what to do about it. They seem to understand little or nothing about how the situation came about over time, what they are doing wrong right now, or what they ought to be trying to achieve going forward.
Trying to knock down Trump’s lies one at a time is a fool’s errand. It’s like trying to cut the head off of the hydra; for every lie you chop down, two new ones take its place. You have to step back and grasp the full magnitude of his lying, how he kneads together a whole multitude of lies into a single narrative, one which he then quickly casts off the moment it becomes advantageous to abandon it in favor of something else—possibly even the exact opposite of what he had been arguing the moment before.
Perhaps the best way to understand him is simply as a salesman. There are no objective facts where he comes from, just selling points. And the only thing he’s really ever selling is himself. Whatever dream or desire you may have, he is the answer to what you want. As I argued back in December, he does not lie so much as bullshit, in the sense of H.G. Frankfurt’s book “On Bullshit”:
[B]ullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t lie, however. He’s simply indifferent to whether what he says is true or not. Which is why he lies so easily and excessively, even without concern if the lie has already been publicly debunked. The ideal bullshitter could pass a lie-detector test no matter what he said, which seems to capture Trump perfectly. It can help, of course, to recognize his lies. But it’s much more useful to recognize what he’s trying to accomplish with them—or with the sprinkling of truths he freely intermingles with them. First, he’s trying to free himself of any possible accountability to anyone else: If facts themselves are negotiable, no one can call him to account for lying; he is free to define reality in any way that suits him. Second, the ultimate purpose of freeing himself, and defining reality as he wishes, is to establish dominance over everyone else: He is interested in power, pure and simple. Some examples can help to clarify both of these goals.
When it comes to freeing himself of accountability, it’s useful to think of some of Trump’s common verbal tropes, such as “hearing” that Obama wants to confiscate guns, or to admit 200,000 Syrian refugees, or making vague claims about sourcing advice, praise or even resentful admiration from “experts” or “really smart people”—for example, falsely claiming that “Many of the great scholars say that anchor babies are not covered” by the 14th Amendment, or his widely reported, but nonexistent investigative team he sent to Hawaii to research Obama’s birth certificate. “I have people that have been studying it and they cannot believe what they’re finding,” Trump told Today Show‘s Meredith Vieira on April 7, 2011. On April 25 he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that “somebody” he refused to identify told him “it’s not there and it doesn’t exist.” Two days later, Obama released his long-form birth certificate, and we never heard of Trump’s “investigation” again. Why? Because it never existed. It was all bullshit, from top to bottom. But it was always phrased in a way to free Trump of ever having to prove anything. The flip side of Trump’s imaginary experts and investigators is his habit of saying “nobody knows” about things that actually are well known — such as whether our nuclear arsenal works (it does), or who Syrian refugees are, perhaps even ISIS! (actually we do), or where Obama was before his public life, expanding on his trademarked birtherism. “He grew up and nobody knew him. You know? …. Nobody knows who he his until later in his life. It’s very strange,” Trump said. “The people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.” Except, they do. From grade school through college. It’s Trump who is crazy—100 percent wrong about everything.
Similarly, Trump likes to say that various good or bad things “never happened before,” such as his winning 66 of 67 counties in the Florida primary (Bush and Gore both swept the state in 2000), or having GDP growth under zero (which has happened 42 times since WWII). No doubt he has “experts” who research these things for him, too!
Trump’s entire existence is one of ceaseless exaggeration, which appears repeatedly in these sorts of statements, often overshadowed by other considerations—the fact checks above focus on the 14th Amendment, or the nuclear arsenal, rather than on Trump’s imaginary “great scholars” or who Trump was talking about when he said, “They don’t know if it works.” Cogent—if mistaken—arguments could be made on any of these subjects, based on genuine, specifically cited expert testimony, for example, or specific individuals who could credibly contradict Obama’s life story, or a list of past county-level election results. But Trump is not even remotely interested in making such arguments. He holds them in contempt. However, he is interested in having people take him seriously, because if they all laugh, he can never gain power—which is why we ought to be paying attention to his routine reliance on wild overgeneralizations and hyperbolic, anonymously sourced claims and accusations that go along with them. They represent the soft underbelly of all his extravagant lying. Just imagine an 8-year-old saying these same sorts of things. You’d immediately spot him as a bullshitter, regardless the specifics he was talking about.
Trump’s interest in being taken seriously is only a means to an end, of course. And that end is power, pure and simple. Trump’s politics may have morphed dramatically over time, but his interest in power has not. The core of what he’s up to is a struggle for personal power, and all his lies, all his bullshitting are most fundamentally explicable when viewed in terms of who he’s going after and why. Focusing on the lies themselves, rather the purpose that Trump is pursuing, will only generate longer and longer lists of things that Trump and his supporters will ignore. If they can ignore 30 things, then why not 300? Or 3,000? But if you look to what his game is, then you’ve got a chance to get a foothold in confronting him in terms of that very same game.
Take, for example, Trump’s recent refusal to release his taxes, on the grounds that he’s being audited. “I would love to give the tax returns. But I can’t do it until I’m finished with the audit,” he said on Meet the Press. But this claim is utterly bogus, as the IRS pointed out back in February: the IRS can’t so much as comment, but there’s no reason Trump needs to hold back anything. If he’d love to give his tax returns, go right ahead! Then Buzzfeed reminded everyone of another lie baked into this little charade: Trump had promised to release his taxes in 2011—and tied that promise to Obama releasing his birth certificate. Of course, Obama did release his birth certificate shortly after that, and Trump, being Trump, never did release his taxes—though he did promise to release them “at the appropriate time,” another habitual Trump obfuscation.
We could go deep into the detail of how Trump is lying about releasing his taxes—in fact, I’m about to say a bit more about that. But the most important thing is to keep focused on his struggle for power: Why is he lying, rather than simply releasing his taxes, like everyone else? The two most sensible points to make are (1) he’s got something to hide—very low tax rates, unsavory associations, whatever—which he thinks would be very damaging, and (2) he thinks he’s better than anyone else, so he doesn’t have to play by the rules. These are important points to focus on because they deal with his obsession for power.
We can see that obsession in action if we take a closer look back at that earlier episode Buzzfeed called attention to. Trump’s promise then emerged as part of a series of Trump-imagined tests of strength and dominance, which he sketched out over the course of a few minutes in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, first versus NBC, then versus President Obama, and finally versus Mitt Romney. While Buzzfeed linked to a condensed presentation on The View, the full interview in context [transcript] allows us to see how Trump strings together this series of different bullshit narratives, each of which served him well in the moment, which is all he seemed to care about. He lied repeatedly—but always in the service of portraying himself in command.
Stephanopoulos first asked about Trump’s plans to announce if he’d run for president, and Trump responded by chest-thumping over how distressed this was making NBC, as a way to build himself up while simultaneously explaining away his refusal to commit:
I have the number one show on NBC. The Apprentice, The Celebrity Apprentice. And they are not happy about it. And I’ll be honest with you, NBC wants to renew anything I want to do. They’ll do anything for me. Anything….
So, the head of NBC and all of the people at NBC are working very, very hard on me. “Donald, we’ll give you anything. We’ll do anything you want to do. One year, two years, three years. Please, whatever you want to do.”
Not exactly. Celebrity Apprentice was NBC’s fifth-rated show that season so far (#44 overall and #36 in the 18-49 demographic), and was way past its peak popularity. The initial incarnation of The Apprentice ranked 7th, 11th and 15th its first three seasons, and then dropped out of the top 30, never to return. It fell to 75th in 2006-07, after which it was replaced by Celebrity Apprentice, which ranked 48th in 2007-2008, and in the 50s the next two seasons. It was ranking modestly better in 2011, but after all Trump’s pretense of magnanimity for NBC in delaying his decision, his grandstanding and taunting of President Obama helped drag the show’s ratings down. At the end, it was reported:
Pulling in a rather paltry 2.9/7 share in the coveted 18-49 demo, the episode proved to be the lowest spring finale ever for The Apprentice, Celebrity or otherwise.
Next comes the tax returns-for-birth-certificate quid pro quo, sandwiched between this initial act of preening vis-à-vis NBC and another act of preening vs. Mitt Romney. Here’s how Trump presented it:
Trump: … I give up a lot if I run. A thing like that, I also give up a lot of my free, private life. I have a great company. I’ve done a great job. Which if I run, you’ll see what a great job. Because I’ll do a full disclosure of finances.
(OVERTALK) [Stephanopoulos: Including your tax returns?]
Trump:We’ll look at that. Maybe I’m going to do the tax returns when Obama does his birth certificate. I may tie my tax returns. I’d love to give my tax returns. I may tie my tax returns into Obama’s birth certificate.
Note how Trump says two directly contradictory things, back to back. First, that he’d “ love to give my tax returns,” and then that he “may tie my tax returns into Obama’s birth certificate.” So which is it? Something he’d love to do? Or something he’ll do only in exchange for something else?
It’s an absurd offer on its face. Every presidential candidate in the post-Watergate era has disclosed their tax returns. It’s what you do. No president had ever been asked to produce a long-form birth certificate. Trump asserts his dominance over Obama by making an absurd demand, and insisting that it be taken seriously as a normal political transaction. He even pretends he’s being generous, further posturing himself as superior to Obama. For Trump, the promise of releasing his tax returns only matters as part of this mini-drama. Once the drama is finished, it’s on to the next one.
After a brief interlude of preening and self-praise for building “a great company,” “a strong company,” “an under-levered company,” with “tremendous net worth, far greater than even numbers that you’ve read,” Trump turns to contrasting himself with Mitt Romney, after prompting from the host:
Stephanopoulos: You took on Mitt Romney, you said it [Trump’s net worth] was bigger than Mitt Romney’s.
Trump: Well, it’s many times bigger, but that’s nothing bad about him. By the way, I have respect for Mitt Romney. I don’t know him, but I have respect for him. The fact that my net worth is many, many, many times greater, I’m not knocking him. You know, it comes off like it’s a knock. It’s not a knock. I have respect for Mitt Romney.
Of course Trump is knocking Romney! Why else make the comparison in the first place? And by claiming that he’s not knocking him, Trump only twists the knife even further. That’s just how he rolls. It’s all about finding the right angle to attack someone, and then building layer upon layer on the original attack. Facts have no more role in the matter than they do in a schoolyard fight.
Which is why Trump really doesn’t seem the least bit concerned that as part of this series of put-downs he said, “I’d love to give my tax returns,” or that he proposed tying their release to Obama’s birth certificate. Whatever he said yesterday—or even a minute ago—forget about it. Five years ago? You’ve got to be kidding! Facts are negotiable, like everything else. Power is the only thing that matters.
This is what Trump is. This is how he operates. It’s why he ran the sort of primary campaign he did—a campaign characterized by a series of vicious attacks on other candidates as they appeared to pose a threat to his advancement. Facts do not matter to him—why should they? They only get in his way. They are perhaps his most persistent enemies. But facts matter enormously to the health and survival of a democratic republic. Without them, ruination is assured. There is no such thing as a post-truth republic. It’s time that the press woke up from its decades-long slumber that began with Ronald Reagan. They’ve got a lot of lost ground to make up, before it’s too late.