If President Donald Trump ever gets around to writing a book about his presidency, he could title it “The Art of the Lie.”
He’s a master at flaunting, exaggerating or flat-out denying the truth. Even just a few weeks after taking the Oath of Office, the former reality TV star has already proven himself to be an alternate-reality president, guaranteeing a constant stream of new material for late-night comedy hosts and memes on social media.
But this is no laughing matter.
Trump’s modus operandi is to manipulate public opinion by distorting facts about matters large and small. Moreover, his allergic reaction to facts has also infected his closest advisers and spokespersons.
Regardless of party affiliation, throughout the administrations of the first 44 presidents, most voters and politicians have generally agreed that an assiduous adherence to the facts must be a fundamental requirement to hold the country’s highest office. Without a basic level of trust from voters, the government cannot represent us adequately and we cannot hold our leaders accountable. The Trump White House has nonchalantly violated Americans’ trust since day one.
To be fair, lies have plagued previous presidents. President Bill Clinton lied under oath and faced impeachment for it. Deception doomed President Richard Nixon’s presidency.
However, we have never witnessed the kind of habitual, default and carefree disregard for the truth that Trump exhibits. As his presidency progresses, we can expect that Trump will reflexively promote his alternate reality and will have no moral qualms about withholding the facts.
His unwillingness to accept the simplest and most obvious facts is astonishing. He called the National Park Service to demand photographic evidence that “a million, a million and a half” people attended his inauguration even though correct figures were far smaller. Worse, he outright denied cruelly mocking a disabled reporter despite flagrant video evidence.
How can we trust the president to inform us correctly about life-and-death matters in which the truth is not clear to the average citizen while he so readily denies the obvious?
His artful truth-dodging is staunchly self-serving and fixated on adjusting the score in his favor. For example, while rehashing the voter fraud narrative, he tweeted that “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” False. Out of the over 135 million ballots cast, an investigation by the Washington Post uncovered only four cases of voter fraud, including an Iowa woman who voted for Trump twice.
As we relentlessly challenge Trump’s falsehoods, we must also remain attentive to how his motives reveal his priorities. For example, Trump’s obsession with voter fraud demonstrates more than narcissism and conceit. It paves the way for Trump and the GOP in Congress to pursue harsh voter identification and suppression laws. Led by Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice could choose not to enforce much of the historic and crucial Voting Rights Act, which would leave red states free to institute cumbersome voter requirements, convoluted registration procedures, reduced precincts, and limited times for voting.
By planting the seed of the idea that voter fraud is a legitimate problem in Americans’ minds, it becomes much easier to disenfranchise large segments of the voter base, particularly minorities.
Furthermore, Trump has shown virulent hostility to anyone who calls him out on his dishonesty, particularly the media. Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, told The New York Times, “I want you to quote this … The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Trump later backed Bannon’s comments, adding, “Yeah, I think the media’s the opposition party in many ways.”
The media is of critical importance, though; an aggressive free press will be one of the only checks on this abuse of power.
Trump’s closest advisers have shared the alternate-reality stage with him. Kellyanne Conway, the Counselor to the President, offered a laughable excuse for Trump: “Why is everything taken at face value? You can’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this and he’s telling you what was in his heart? You, [the press], always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”
Okay, Conway. I’ll look at what’s in Trump’s heart: a self-interested hunger for power aided by the distraction that comes from turning facts on their head. His desire is that we swallow his reality without question, just as George Orwell foreshadowed in his dystopian novel 1984: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command and if all others accepted the lie, which the party imposed, if all records told the same tale, then the lie passed into history and became truth.” The moment that we reject the evidence of our eyes and ears will be the moment that Trump’s alternate universe becomes reality.