President Trump’s assault on truth has developed into the central organizing principle of his presidency. For two years he has piled lie upon lie to build an alternative reality, a fable embraced by tens of millions of credulous adherents.
The president’s false statements and lies aren’t occasional, unguarded fibs. They fit together in an all-encompassing strategy of discrediting society’s fact-finders who base their conclusions on facts and objective reality – journalists, judges, scientists, special prosecutors.
Trump is no Hitler. But the thousands and thousands of lies he has told in his campaign and presidency are the building blocks of a Big Lie he uses to bludgeon critics and supercharge supporters who embrace his false version of reality with an unquestioning fealty. This Big Lie is the foundational myth of the Trump presidency. It goes like this:
The mainstream press, on which Americans have long relied for news, is actually “fake news” and “enemies of the people.” Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating Russia’s influence on the 2016 election, is actually a deeply conflicted partisan who has hired Democratic lawyers as part of a McCarthyite “witch hunt.” The federal agents and intelligence officials who have turned up law-breaking by Trump’s inner circle are part of a “deep state” conspiring to take down the president. Prosecutors’ documents about Trump directing illegal actions of his subordinates actually amount to vindication. Invading immigrants are often murderers, rapists and gang members who must be stopped by the military and a wall. Many black athletes, celebrities and politicians are not smart or patriotic. Hillary Clinton was a liar and a criminal and Barack Obama’s presidency was illegitimate. Scientists’ predictions of global warming aren’t true; America should burn more coal, drive more gas guzzlers and withdraw from international efforts to save the planet.
This Big Lie is the mirror image of the truth. The newspapers Trump calls the “failing New York Times” and “Amazon Washington Post” actually have printed the truth about the Trump presidency and Mueller investigation, while Fox’s Sean Hannity has invented fake news when he is not on stage at a Trump campaign rally. Mueller, a Republican and a no-nonsense professional, has led an only-the-facts investigation of Trump’s Russian connections. It already has led to criminal convictions of Trump’s national security adviser, campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, personal lawyer and charges against a small platoon of Russian intelligence hackers.
Despite the president’s dubious claim to have been “totally cleared,” we now know 14 Trump associates had contacts with Russians during the campaign and presidential transition. We know Russian operatives were promising election assistance as early as 2015 and continued to offer it through the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. There the president’s son welcomed Russian assistance rather than call of the FBI to report it.
Meanwhile, Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, continued to negotiate with a top aide to Vladimir Putin about building a Trump hotel in Moscow, later admitting he lied to Congress when he claimed the talks had ended in 2015. We also know the president and Cohen orchestrated illegal hush money payments to porn stars fearing their stories about affairs with Trump would cost Trump votes. Cohen has pleaded guilty to the crime; the president directed his actions and would almost certainly be indicted were it not for a Justice Department policy against indicting sitting presidents. And beyond the Russian connection and porn star payments there is the evidence that Trump obstructed the Russia investigation beginning with his firing FBI Director James Comey.
America is at an inflection point. Donald Trump and his war on truth are a stress test for the First Amendment and our form of democracy, which is heavily dependent upon checks and balances and the belief that no one is above the law.
Will the tried and true philosophy of the First Amendment prevail – that truth wins out over falsity on the battlefield of ideas? Is that still true in a world where billions of bytes of misinformation flood people’s electronic devices daily – where disinformation travels farther and faster than truthful information – where the president of the United States tweets misinformation and lies daily to admiring fans – where two-thirds Americans doesn’t trust the mass media – where a publisher like Julian Assange allegedly becomes an agent of Russian spies and the mainstream media become accomplices after the fact publishing stolen information hacked from a political party’s files?
How, in this world of information chaos, can democracy make the judgments that assure truth rises to the top and serves as the basis for democratic decisions?
Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said in November that the Trump presidency presented a “pernicious” threat to the “very concept of truth itself…. The goal is evident, and it is cynical: obliterate the very idea of objective truth,” he added.
“If we come to feel the truth is unknowable, mission accomplished: People just believe what they would like to believe. If we conclude that everyone is lying for selfish reasons, mission accomplished as well. Then it doesn’t matter if our leaders are being untruthful, as long as they serve our individual interests. If we now believe truth can only come from the head of state, then we have surrendered the foundational idea of America.”
Putting Baron’s observation another way, if Trump’s “shrugged shoulders” response to the Mueller findings is successful and his supporters shrug their shoulders too, then truth be damned.
Baron said the Post’s goal is “to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.”
This journalistic goal of searching for the truth means two things. The truth isn’t obvious and the search can be hard. But it also means that some things are objectively true.
Hopefully Craig Silverman, media editor at BuzzFeed News, was wrong when he said last year that in a world where page views and clicks are all important, “Whoever has the most people and activates them the most effectively determines what truth is.”
More than 350 years ago during the Enlightenment, John Milton wrote a famous criticism of England’s licensing of printing presses. He said: “And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.”
The image of the winds of doctrine playing upon the earth was hyperbolic in Milton’s time. It isn’t today when billions of bits of information and news flash around the world in seconds. The American people and the people in the world’s other democracies will determine whether the free speech doctrines of Milton’s age are powerful enough for the winds of propaganda that gust around the globe in the age of Zuckerberg.