Why fact-checking may be futile against Trump's black hole of lies
Donald Trump has publicly lied at least 20,000 times since taking office, according to the Washington Post. He does this in part because he has shown himself to be mentally unwell, if not a sociopath. But he also lies because he is a fascist authoritarian. For such leaders, lies are a way of assaulting reality and truth as a means of achieving unlimited power. These explanations are not discrete. They overlap with one another.
In a season of massive death, Donald Trump and his regime's lies about the coronavirus are a public health emergency – one which has killed at least 216,000 people in the United States.
Donald Trump and his regime's lies have also severely damaged America's prestige, alliances and global power. The country's enemies have also been emboldened by the Trump regime's lies and overall lack of consistency in foreign policy and principles.
Most important, Trump and his regime's policy of lying (in conjunction with wanton cruelty and other evil) has undermined American democracy. A common understanding of reality is the foundation of a health democracy. The Trump regime's lies and those of its agents are rotting that foundation.
In "The Death of Truth," Michiko Kakutani explains that the damage Trump has done to the country's institutions and foreign policy will take "years to repair."
"And to the degree that his election was a reflection of larger dynamics in society—from the growing partisanship in politics, to the profusion of fake stories on social media, to our isolation in filter bubbles—his departure from the scene will not restore truth to health and well-being, at least not right away," Kakutani writes.
Why is Donald Trump such a powerful and effective liar? Why has the mainstream American news media largely surrendered to his lies, and by doing so normalized them? Would more aggressive fact-checking have blunted Donald Trump and his regime's strategy of lying? What explains why the mainstream American news media as a whole refused — and for the most part, continues to refuse — to describe Donald Trump and his regime accurately as being fascist and authoritarian?
In an effort answer these questions, I recently spoke with Eric Alterman, a columnist at The Nation and the author of more than 10 books, including the bestseller "What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News." His latest book is "Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie and Why Trump is Worse."
Why are there now so many more voices in the mainstream American news media who, several weeks from Election Day, are finally using language such as "fascism" and "authoritarianism" to describe Trump and his regime? This was obvious several years ago. Why the delay? What were they waiting for?
There are many disincentives to tell the truth about Donald Trump. The most obvious one is that he's the President of the United States and people consider it disrespectful to use certain words about the president, like "liar" and "racist" and "conman" and "conspiracy nut," even when they're true. It is worse in Washington D.C. to call someone a liar than for them to actually be a liar.
In Washington, that rule is part of how a person makes a living. Therefore, people in the news media have to show respect for the office of the presidency. The second reason is that the ideology of "journalistic objectivity" does not have a framework for determining what the truth is. It has no bias for truth. "Journalistic objectivity" says on the one hand, so-and-so said this; on the other hand, his opposition said that, and you, the reader, you, the viewer, you, the listener, it is up to you to decide what's true.
Donald Trump is an idiot in many ways, but he is a genius when it comes to media manipulation.
The Washington Post has now documented at least 25,000 or so lies by Donald Trump — and nothing has changed in his behavior. If anything, he has become more brazen.
I do not find fact-checking as done in that way to be very helpful, because Donald Trump is not being fact-checked as he says the lies. If a person reads the fact-checking article, they will learn what Trump said is not true. Trump's lie still has power because it is repeated by the president and circulated. Again, Donald Trump has been winning this battle against the mainstream news media every day and they still have not really caught up to his strategy. The New York Times still does not really know what to do about Donald Trump in this regard and others.
Is the reluctance, if not fear, of calling Donald Trump a liar a function of the corporate culture of American's mainstream news media? Are reporters and journalists afraid of being punished in terms of their careers if they tell the unpolished truth about Donald Trump?
I have a different idea of lying than most of the country's journalistic institutions do because they will almost never use the words "lie" or "liar" when it comes to the president or most politicians. Instead most in the mainstream news media will say, "We can't know his intent. We can't know what's in his heart." They assume that a lying politician may believe the nonsense that they are saying. My position is if a politician should know what is true and he does not, then he is lying.
I do not care what the excuse is. I don't care if Trump or some other politician thinks God is talking to him. I don't care if Trump is too disengaged from reality. I don't care if Trump is so much of a narcissist that he makes up stuff and he believes it. If it's the president's job to know something and he misinforms the country, then he's lying. Worry about his motivation some other time.
There has never been a historical moment in this country where a president, in this case Donald Trump, could be ignored because everyone knows he's so full of lies and nonsense.
Donald Trump might get reelected and destroy our democracy because so many in the mainstream news media are treating Donald Trump's lies and delusions as though it is all somehow normal.
Why has the White House press corps been so accommodating and enabling of Trump's lies? He also uses them as props for his fascist performances. Why do the members of the White House press corps not just walk about of the briefings or stand up and turn their backs to him?
They do not know how to do their job any other way. Their job is defined as getting whatever information is available at the White House. So even if it's lies, even if it's daily humiliation, the press corps has to go back the next day. Those reporters need to be on good terms with the people who are giving out the information — even if they're not giving out real or otherwise substantive information. It would be nice if the job of the White House press corps was to actually go out and find news, but that's not what they're there for. They're there as conduits for the White House.
There are few public voices who have been consistently warning the American people and the world about the realities of Trumpism and the threat Trump represents to the country. Why have the American people, largely, been in so much denial about the horrible reality that is the Age of Trump and what it means for the present and future of the country?
There's about a third of the country that lives inside this bubble where the truth never reaches them. They watch Fox News, they listen to conservative talk radio, they read Breitbart and Daily Caller and so forth, and they are lied to, and the lies that they are told make them feel good about themselves. They blame other people, mostly Black and brown people and Muslims and immigrants and so forth, sometimes Jews, for the problems in their lives, and it works for them. Such people are unreachable. You cannot get through to them.
There is a battle over the rest of the American people. Trump and his spokespeople and others who are doing all the lying on the right have a gravitational effect on the entire public discourse.
It began initially with Ronald Reagan and then went into warp drive with Newt Gingrich. But before Ronald Reagan, and especially before Gingrich, both parties pretty much had an idea where the goalposts were on what you could get away with in terms of not telling the truth. There were a lot of problems. Nixon was a big problem, Lyndon Johnson was a big problem, but still people understood what was all right and what wasn't all right, and then Reagan and Gingrich just started making stuff up all the time. They did this with no consideration for the truth — and they discovered that the media wouldn't call them on it.
The American right-wing learned that the American people did not care enough. As long as the news media was attacked as having a "liberal bias" it did away with the problem of them being called on their lies. This dynamic expanded and grew until Donald Trump could run for president with his claims that Barack Obama was an illegitimate president because he was born in Kenya. There were 30 or 40% of Trump voters believing that Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile ring inside a pizza parlor in Washington. They actually believed that.
Now the country is facing QAnon nuttiness with millions of people believing such nonsense because as a country we have just completely lost track of the truth in our political discourse. As Hannah Arendt warned, "This is how you create a dictatorship. You destroy the idea of truth."
Why this obsessive narrative and all these expeditions out to Trumplandia to talk with "white working class" and other Trump followers by the mainstream American news media? What is there left to learn? The research shows that Trump's voters are driven by racism, white supremacy, misogyny and authoritarianism, if not outright fascism and in some cases Nazism.
They just have to be defeated. Enough is enough. We have to beat them into the ground as hard as we can and let them start over. For example, the Lincoln Project is seeking to destroy every single Republican senator because they believe that the Republican Party cannot be saved. It's been taken over by crazy people, by corrupt people, by the equivalent of a mafia gang, and they just have to be beaten. There is no sense in trying to talk sense into them anymore.
Fox News really is sports talk radio for conservatives. What are the implications of how American politics is now treated like some type of sport by the right wing?
I recall an observation that Noam Chomsky made when I was writing my first book. He said, "What we need in this country is a politics where people care as much about sports as they do about politics, because if you listen to people on sports radio, they're very knowledgeable in a way that people did not have the same passion about the Democratic and Republican candidates." And then there was the rise of talk radio and the internet and it brought in all this passion — but it seems to only exist on one side. The conservative side is driven like mad to care about every little thing. By comparison liberals do not feel that way. Liberals would let the people who are in charge do the right thing.
Liberals trust scientists and want to let them be the experts. Almost every single-issue group is a conservative group. They win. 90% of the country wants stronger gun control, but we're not getting it because the 5-10% that doesn't want it has a stronger voice than the 90% because they're so dedicated. They vote only on this issue, and you can't say that about really any issue for liberals. We see this on Fox News and on right-wing talk radio.
When Trumpists say that "all politicians lie" and "Trump is no worse than Obama," and the news media is being "mean" and "unfair" to Donald Trump, how do you respond?
The New York Times tried to answer that question about Obama. Trump followers say that, "Why all the fuss about Donald Trump lying? Why don't you explain that Obama lied too?" The New York Times looked at the entire eight-year record of Obama's presidency and they found 12 false claims over eight years, none of which he repeated, all of which he then corrected when he found out that what he had said was not true. Trump can tell 12 falsehoods in 10 minutes. He does it all the time. There is no comparison between Trump and Obama. Some presidents lied a lot. Trump is in his own category. Trump lies about absolutely everything, and he gives his cabinet and his advisors permission in doing so to lie about everything as well.
Are our expectations of the American public too high or too low in terms of their understanding of politics, generally, and capacity to intervene against and reject Trump's lies, specifically?
Too many Americans have had a full meal of bullshit and now they have no way to judge good and bad, right and wrong. I'm very angry at the people who support Donald Trump because they are destroying my country. They are responsible for putting people in cages and separating families. A lot of Trump's supporters do not know any better. Some of them are just terrible people. I do not really care why people think what they think anymore, I just want to beat them. Trump's supporters are on the wrong side.
Does Donald Trump believe his lies? Or is this all some type of performance?
All that Donald Trump cares about is winning the next five minutes — and he only really cares about the next minute or so. Trump is always doing the wrong thing. Trump is a toddler and he just wants to have his belly stroked every minute or so and then he forgets that it happened.
What is your greatest hope in this moment? What is your greatest fear?
My hope is that we turn this ocean liner around in the 2020 election. I hope that the Republicans are defeated, that Trump is defeated, that the Supreme Court is made rational, and we start moving the country back in the direction of sanity and decency. My fear is that the upcoming election is the last time we actually have a chance to save the United States from an American form of fascism. I'm only 60, but I'm an American historian, and I don't think things have ever been this bad since the Civil War. I wish there was more of a sense of alarm among the institutions that really matter to this country's democracy.