Why Trump Wants to Disempower Institutions That Protect the Truth

Donald Trump is hardly the first president to lie. But what distinguishes Trump from previous presidential fibsters are his meta-lies. These claim that the very institutions empowered in a democracy to expose lies are themselves corrupt, dishonest and lying. In spreading his meta-lies, Trump poisons the well of democratic discourse. 

The great political thinker Hannah Arendt once dryly observed: “Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools … of the statesman’s trade.” Arendt writes that what distinguishes democratic from authoritarian regimes is not the greater honesty of democratic politicians. The saving grace of democracies is the existence of neutral, politically-independent institutions capable of safeguarding truth from the politics of prevarication.

It is precisely these institutions that are the target of Trump’s most persistent lies and calumny.

These institutions – the university, the judiciary and the free press – subject the statements of politicians to truth-testing. In this way, citizens can make informed choices at the polls. Without these institutions – and, just as crucially, without belief in their integrity – democratic self-governance would be impossible. 

That is why it is significant that after storefront windows in downtown Berkeley were smashed by non-student rioters, Trump threatened to withdraw federal funds from the University of California, Berkeley, for practicing “violence on innocent people with a different point of view”.

After US district court judge James Robart, a stalwart Republican jurist appointed by George W Bush, issued a nationwide stay on the president’s travel ban, Trump attacked Robart as a “so-called judge”, and encouraged his supporters to “blame him [Robart] and the court system” if “something bad happens”. 

And in response to reports of a testy phone call with the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, Trump insisted the conversation had been “very civil” and dismissed claims to the contrary as “FAKE NEWS” that the “media lied about”.

These are not ordinary lies. These are meta-lies, second-order lies, lies about the very institutions vouchsafed with testing and examining the truthfulness of political statements.

This reckless disregard of reality reveals an unusual quality to Trump’s lying. Other presidents lied to deceive their opponents. Not so Trump. Trump does not even make the pretense of trying to hoodwink his opponents. Instead, he deceives his supporters. By lying about the neutrality and integrity of our truth-defending institutions, he consolidates his power by depriving his supporters of tools that might authorize an informed, critical assessment of his performance.

It is for this reason that ordinary fact-checking provides a wholly inadequate response to Trump’s lying. Such fact-checking presupposes confidence in the fact-checker, the very trust that Trump labors to systematically undermine with his meta-lies.

For why would I accept your fact-checking if I do not trust the good faith and competence of your testing procedures? What is needed, then, would be a meta-fact checker, an institution that examines whether the fact-checking institutions can be trusted! 

Trump’s radical strategy would not be possible in a less fractured media environment and without Trump’s minions of mendacity at Breitbart and Fox News. But the fact that Trump is aided and abetted in his meta-lies only makes them all the more efficacious – and dangerous.

It is these meta-lies that radically undermine confidence in the very institutions that, according to Arendt, distinguish a democracy from an authoritarian regime. And it is the signature of authoritarians that they rule by the truth they themselves manufacture. 

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