Mark Green

Trump's top 10 tricks: Here's a useful guide to have on hand as the presidential debates get underway

Ready for even more Trumpian disinformation?

Cornered by a continuing pandemic, teetering economy and racial strife, President Houdini has been resorting to rhetorical tricks honed over a lifetime to escape political calamity. One way to prepare for this Tuesday's first debate and his Fall barrage is to reveal Trump's "magic" beforehand so that viewers and voters can be their own BS Detector when he next tries to sliver away from lying about Covid-19 or his fascistic plans to overthrow the election.

1. Cherry-picking -- Black Swans.

This trick is based on seeing a black swan and then pretending all swans are black.

So when millions of Black Lives Matter protesters peacefully march against police brutality, Trump will cite one who years ago allegedly called cops "pigs in a blanket, fry 'em like bacon" to imply that all are looters and anarchists. And when a Republican US Attorney in Pennsylvania this week told AG Barr that his office had found nine discarded Trump ballots (later changed to seven), the White House immediately played it up to imply that this was organized mail-in ballot fraud (though it was quickly shown to be an isolated, local administrative error, not a Democratic conspiracy).

The idea is to make the aberrational appear typical. Would anyone judge Michael Jordan's career based on a reel of three missed clutch shots rather than his career stats?

2. Adjectives and Assertions.

Since it's hard to enact legislation, why not instead just predict great or awful events since hard to prove the contrary. Or to paraphrase Nike, "Just Say It."

Hence "next year [the economy] will be the best ever." This summer Trump began declaring that Democrats would "destroy the suburbs." How? Presumably by prohibiting segregated public housing, stating that this time the 2018 "caravan" from Latin America might directly settle in White Plains, New York.

The 'tell' here his frequent refrain, "believe me!"

3. The Bully's Pulpit.

Humorist Larry Wilmore joked that Trump was indeed our Roosevelt since "the only thing Trump has is fear itself."

Politico reported that a third of his first 2000 president tweets disparaged people, totaling a hard-to-believe 598 people by the end of 2018. Here he's channeling the Italian philosopher and politician who said five centuries ago, "it's better to be feared than loved."

Like Machiavelli's princes, Trump loves being feared. And since a president's bullying can do real reputational damage, this thuggish tactic often produces the desired effect of anticipatory obedience by those fearing massive retaliation. That helps explain why 52 of 53 Senate Republicans during his Impeachment trial, faced with his open-and-shut political extortion of Ukraine, concluded that what happened didn't happen.

4. Rhetorical Questions.

This is a low-grade but popular sleight-of-hand -- burying a disrupted premise in the form of a question in order to mislead listeners to a false conclusion. "What do you have to lose?", he would repeatedly ask Black audiences in the 2016 campaign (now they know). And "why would" Putin interfere in that election? (Duh.)

5. Upside-downism.

Trump repeatedly accuses others of his own misconduct in order to confuse "low education voters" (his phrase). Recall how he indignantly declared that Democrats are the real "liars" who are trying to "rig the election" while Biden's the one fomenting violence and Harris undermining science. When Nancy Pelosi said that Trump was trying to "Make America White Again," he accused her of racism because in Trumpland even talking about race is racism.

6. Figures Don't Lie but Liars Figure.

Trump reverses the scientific method: facts don't lead to conclusions but rather conclusions lead to "facts", which is otherwise known as confirmation bias. This trick has a long history, from the 1920 Scopes Monkey trial and Lysenko-ism in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Today's version of Creationism is his river of obvious lies about Covid-19, Climate, Crime and Race, as when a whistle-blower just charged that DHS ordered staff to underplay violence by white nationalists and Russian campaign interference.

In his acceptance screech this past August, for example, he bragged how his administration "had created" nine million new jobs, which sounds good until you realize that it followed three months where the economy lost 20 million jobs.

7. Rooster-Taking-Credit-for-the-Dawn.

With vanishingly few positive accomplishments, Trump will keep claiming credit for the good work of others while shunning any responsibility for his own wrongdoing.

He's said or tweeted over 350 times a version of -- 'we have the greatest economy in our history.' Which a) isn't true since his six immediate predecessors all had better jobs and GDP numbers and b) it was Obama who turned Bush's Great Recession into seven years of steady growth, which Trump has merely coasted on, albeit at a slower pace.

This trick veered into parody when he claimed that there were no passenger airline fatalities in his first year as president. True... although there had also been none for the prior seven years. He abandoned this particular boast after Boeing's 737 Max planes twice crashed because of failures by Boeing and the FAA.

8. Both-sidesism.

Whenever criticized, he and his team search for some arguably equivalent offence in history to exonerate him. Recall how he would cite Monica Lewinsky to wave off the few dozen women accusing him of sexual abuse and famously declare there were "fine people" on both sides of that Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville.

This maneuver can backfire. After flailing Hunter Biden's business work during the Obama-Biden administration, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was asked by CNN's Jake Tapper about Trump's sons traveling the world making deals at taxpayer expense. Replied Mnuchin, "I don't want to get into those details."

9. The Hyperbolic.

The man exaggerates exaggerations. Trump tries to explain away this repeated trick as "bravado...truthful hyperbole." Actually -- see "beautiful coal" -- it's untruthful hyperbole. So he announced that there would have been a nuclear war with North Korea if he hadn't been elected in 2016 and he is the world's leading expert on "drones, nuclear weapons, technology, banks…[plus another 30 specialized categories]."

Speaking of Kim, listen carefully and you'll hear Trump sound like the North Korean dictator who claimed to have shot five holes-in-one playing his first round of golf.

10. The Lyin' King. The problem is not merely that Trump, like all presidents, has at times lied, fibbed and cut-corners but that he nearly always does. His go-to response to any public criticism is "fake news," even as he deploys what he deplores.

It's hard to arrive at any other conclusion after Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler has documented (so far) 20,000+ lies or falsehoods from his mouth -- or 22 a day for the past year, including when he pretends that prosecuted aides were invariably minor figures to him (Manafort? Cohen? Stone? Bannon? Flynn?). His lava of lies and disinformation reflects a comment attributed to Katherine the Great, "the first lie wins."

Off camera, Trump knows exactly what he's doing. After grossly puffing up his TV ratings, he then explained to Billy Bush, of Access Hollywood fame, "Billy, look, you just tell them and they believe it. That's it. They just do."

A different approach was taken by our 32d president. FDR speech writer Robert Sherwood, in his book Roosevelt and Hopkins, wrote that "the New York Times can make mistakes but the President of the United States must not make mistakes. After 1940, Isador Lubkin, the Commissioner of Labor Statistics, was constantly available and incalculably invaluable to Roosevelt in checking every decimal point."

Now we're about to find out whether, contrary to everything our parents told us, dishonesty is the best policy. Or whether truth still matters. For without truth there can't be trust and without trust civilization can fracture and collapse.

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Air America 2.0 Begins Today

Today my family formally purchases and takes over Air America Radio. Why? Because if progressive values were a stock, now is the time to buy.

That hasn't always been true, as the cycle of politics demonstrates. In recent decades, politics seems to have been governed by physics -- for every action, there's an opposite and equal reaction.

William F. Buckley Jr. started The National Review in the 1950s to rebut what he saw as the dominance of liberalism in the academy and opinion journals like The Nation and The New Republic. From 1970-72, Public Citizen, Common Cause and the NRDC were all created in reaction to Nixon's depredations. Similarly, People For the American Way grew out of the rise of the Religious Right under Reagan in the mid-80s.

New progressive think tanks over the past 10 years, most recently and prominently the Center for American Progress, were created to counter AEI and Heritage. And, of course, the Huffington Post and Air America were born in reaction to the electronic propaganda of Drudge and Limbaugh et. al.

Air America was a large, smart idea to counter the near-monopoly on talk radio by the far right. But like most start-ups, the business plan collided with reality. Six CEOs over its first three years -- and various missteps and misspending -- sent it into Chapter 11.

It's now ready to go from The Perils of Pauline to The Little Engine that Could. How? First, by focusing on the radio fundamentals of making a strong line-up even stronger; second, by connecting to other progressive membership organizations to be mutually fortifying; and third, by being a multi-media content company involving other distribution platforms -- Internet, blogging, audio and video streaming, mobile, social networks, and more. It's time to think outside the (radio) box.

The twin goals are to make it profitable and influential. One without the other won't work. If it's not a business, it'll go out of business.

But it'll be a business with a sharp point of view. The era of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand liberalism is over -- or as Robert Frost once wrote, "a liberal man is too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel." For all those who worry about messianic misleaders governing on a right wing and a prayer, Air America 2.0 will be an answer. For all those fearful of plutocracy and theocracy, the pro-democracy hosts of AAR's programs will be an answer. If the conservative media continue to spout propaganda and call it news, there's now the alternative of truth, justice and the Air American way.

It's no longer enough just to hope that The New York Times will cover a rally or press release. The relatively new combination of The HuffingtonPost, AlterNet, Moveon, Center for American Progress and Campaign for America's Future, The Nation and The American Prospect, DailyKos and TalkingPointsMemo -- and so many labor unions -- means that Air America will be part of a larger progressive infrastructure heard by a widening audience. For if we can't grow and prosper now -- given the 110th Congress, given the unmitigated disaster that's Iraq, given a slew of top-quality presidential aspirants -- when will we?

So Air America will aggressively cover national politics and policies in ways that will be informative, opinionated and entertaining. All three. We'll be full of news and views. Two views especially. First, America should stop attacking Muslim countries in ways that multiply terrorism. Second, instead of only talking about exporting democracy, Washington should begin practicing it here at home, for example by making sure elections aren't auctions.

Speaking personally, my brother and I are excited by this important challenge and look forward to working with the Air America professionals -- in front of the mic and behind it -- who have held this dream together. Steve Green has been a very successful businessman accustomed to making money -- and he doesn't intend for AAR to be an exception. I've been an author, public interest lawyer and the NYC Public Advocate. For me this feels like a continuation of so much I've done in the progressive movement over three decades. Air America is like a public advocate for the country, exposing problems and offering solutions.

We're both optimists in the spirit of Walt Whitman, who wrote that "America is always becoming." Well, Air America too is always becoming.

But that requires a conversation called democracy. In the spirit that dialogue beats monologue, I am today contacting the New Hampshire Republican Party and the New York Post editorial page. Since the Democratic Party of Nevada actually invited Fox News to host that state's Democratic debate, I asked if Air America could host the first Republican debate in New Hampshire, assuring them that "we too can be fair and balanced."

And to Bob McManus, editorial page editor of the New York Post, I proposed that he come on Air America to discuss his views and that Air America commentators would in turn once-a-month write an op-ed on his pages, because "it's better to exchange ideas than insults." His 500,000 readers should hear from us and our 2 million+ audience should hear from him.

We have many fresh ideas for programming, for technology, for partnerships with sister organizations. But it's this conversation called democracy that's the cornerstone of Air America 2.0. We intend to listen to our listeners. To increase our listeners. To hope they will join our journey to better content, better programming, and a better country. To tell them that it's your America, and your Air America.

The New Scopes Trials

What if the research agenda of the University of Texas College of Natural Sciences were drafted not by the professors who actually conduct the studies but by, say, the alumni who funded the department? We might end up with research on the stickiness of Mr. Big's brand of glue instead of the development of an AIDS vaccine. Luckily, most research universities don't work that way. The federal government, however, occasionally does. In the Bush Administration, when the religious right or big business weighs in on a matter of science, politics usually prevails. So while this President may lack the powerful eloquence of William Jennings Bryan, in the world of science he's the modern equivalent of the Great Orator defeating the infidels of evolution in the Scopes Trial of 1925.

Scientific panels and committees have proven especially susceptible to political manipulation by the White House. In one revealing case, Bush & Co. intervened at the precise moment that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention was set to consider once again lowering acceptable blood-lead levels in response to new scientific evidence. The Administration rejected nominee Bruce Lanphear and dumped panel member Michael Weitzman, both of whom previously advocated lowering the legal limit. Instead, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson appointed William Banner -- who had testified on behalf of lead companies in poison-related litigation -- and Joyce Tsuji, who had worked for a consulting firm whose clients include a lead smelter. (She later withdrew.) Banner and another appointee, Sergio Piomelli, were first contacted about serving on the committee not by a member of the Administration but by lead-industry representatives who appeared to be recruiting favorable committee members with the blessing of HHS officials.

The supposedly nonpartisan President's Council on Bioethics -- a panel whose creation Bush announced during his much publicized stem-cell speech of August 2001 -- proved susceptible to a different arm of his political base, the far right. The council is the organization charged with leading America through the murky waters of cloning and other genetic research. But instead of appointing a calm voice to lead those difficult discussions, President Bush chose Leon Kass, a University of Chicago bioethicist who opposed in vitro fertilization in the 1970s on the basis of Brave New World-esque fears of reproduction run amok and likes to refer to abortion as "feticide." In a recent issue of The Public Interest, Kass lamented that today's young women live "the entire decade of their twenties -- their most fertile years -- neither in the homes of their fathers nor in the homes of their husbands; unprotected, lonely...." He is hostile to everything from "women on the pill" to sex education and believes children of divorce are "maimed for love and intimacy."

A similar case of politically inspired panel-stacking involved the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, which reviews research and makes suggestions on a range of public health policy issues. When advisory committee members came up for renewal, committee chair Dr. Thomas Burke was surprised to learn that fifteen of the panel's eighteen members were going to be replaced. In the past, HHS had asked Burke for a list of recommendations; this time, it had its own list, and Burke was not on it. The new panel included chemical company favorite Lois Swirsky Gold, who denies many of the links between pollutants and cancer, and Dennis Paustenbach, who testified for Pacific Gas & Electric in the real-life Erin Brockovich court case.

None of this should be surprising from an administration that sees nothing wrong with conducting an ideological litmus test for potential scientific appointees. For example, William Miller, a nominee to the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse, was contacted by Secretary Thompson's office after he'd been asked to consider the appointment. The caller, according to Miller, asked whether he'd voted for President Bush. When he confessed that he had not, he was asked to explain himself, and did not receive a callback.

The scientific community has balked at these decisions and appointment practices. The American Public Health Association released an official policy statement in November 2002 that objected to "recent steps by government officials at the federal level to restructure key federal scientific and public health advisory committees by retiring the committees before their work is completed, removing or failing to reappoint qualified members, and replacing them with less scientifically qualified candidates and candidates with a clear conflict of interest. Such steps suggest an effort to inappropriately influence these committees."

Science magazine published an editorial signed by ten prominent US scientists railing against Bush's appropriation of the nation's scientific advisory committees and panels for political purposes. One of those scientists, Dr. Lynn Goldman at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, sees an eroding relationship between federal science agencies and the scientific community and fears that eventually scientific professionals will no longer trust crucial information gleaned from government research. Unlike previous administrations, the Bush White House, Goldman believes, has a "to the victor goes the spoils" approach to scientific research. She adds that "what they don't understand is that everybody hasn't done it that way. Science isn't 'the spoils.' Science isn't something to be politicized based on who's elected."

But if there's one thing that's been obvious over the past three years of the Bush Administration, it's that nothing is out of bounds when Bush's electoral bases are involved. The federal government funds a quarter of the scientific research in this country. When a President starts appointing scientists as he does campaign staffers, we risk an era of Lysenkoism in America -- when Soviet citizens were told (among other things) that acquired traits can be inherited. While Bush's supporters may giddily profit from such changes, it's the rest of us who lose out when science becomes another avenue for propaganda.

W's Reality Gap

George W. Bush is different, very different. Other presidents have misled, deceived, even lied. When Ike was asked his worst mistake, he candidly said, "The lie we told [about the U-2]." LBJ and the Gulf of Tonkin were examples of both deception and self-deception.

The problem today is not simply that "Bush is a liar." While only he knows whether he's intentionally saying untrue things, it is a provable fact that he says untrue things, again and again, on issues large and small, day in and day out. The problem is not "16 words" in last year's State of the Union but 160,000 words on stem cells, global warming, the "death tax," the Iraq-9/11 connection and the Saddam-al Qaeda connection, the rise of deficits, cuts to Americorps, the air in downtown Manhattan after 9/11. On and on. It is beyond controversy that W "has such a high regard for the truth," as Lincoln said of a rival, "that he uses it sparingly."

Why this penchant for falsehoods?

First, George W. Bush begins any policy consideration with three fundamental questions: What does the religious right want? What does big business want? What do the neo-conservatives want? If he has stood up to any of these core supporters in the past three years, examples don't come readily to mind. Convinced by political advisor Karl Rove that the way to a second term is to "activate the base," his policy process is more catechismic than empiric -- instead of facts leading to conclusions, conclusions lead to "facts."

Second, he is openly uninterested in learning and reading -- the Bushes "aren't serious, studious readers" he has said, also admitting that he now reads headlines, not articles. The point is not that he's stupid, only that he knew less about policy and the world as a presidential candidate than the average graduate student in government. Lacking Eisenhower's worldliness or JFK's intellect, however, Bush is prone to grab onto a politically useful intellectual framework like a life preserver and then not let go -- whether it's Myron Magnet's sour interpretation of the 60s in "The Dream and the Nightmare" or Paul Wolfowitz's Pollyannaish analysis of the likely consequences of an American invasion of Iraq.

The result: the most radical, messianic and misleading presidency of modern times. Frankly, no one else comes close. It has gotten to the point that President Bush appears to believe that he can do almost anything if he says the opposite: hence "no child left behind," "clean skies law," "healthy forests," and "love the poor" are mantras repeated in the hope that he can bend reality to his will. Arthur Miller calls it "the power of audacity."

Bush himself in the past has aptly called the first Tuesday in November "Reality Day" because talk ends when there's a real result. So what happens on presidential "reality days" when the results are the opposite of his wishful assertions -- when we find neither WMD nor cheering crowds in Iraq, when a surplus of $5 trillion becomes a deficit of $4 trillion, when there are so few stem cell lines for scientific research that scientists leave for London, when the ice caps melt due to global warming, when a Supreme Court of largely Republican appointees rules that affirmative action is not "quotas" but desirable -- and when the populations of even our allies regard us as a "bungling bully" (in the phrase of the Financial Times).

When Presidents Reagan and Bush 41 were shown how their pie-in-the-sky economics were producing ruinous deficits, they enacted tax hikes to begin to correct the economy. Not Bush 43. Hearing only applause as he shuttles between his financial base to military bases -- W retreats into messianic incompetence. "We don't second guess out of the White House," he announces, confusing stubbornness for strength; and he tells the G-8 leaders in 2001, "Look, I know what I believe and what I believe is right."

Whenever President Bush is now confronted with an unacceptable reality, he either changes the subject -- is steroid use really more important than the environment? -- or expresses confidence in his certainty. "I'm absolutely confident that..." he'll say, as if the issue is his determination rather than his conclusion. One is reminded of Igor in Young Frankenstein, who when asked about the foot-high hump on his back blithely answers, "What hump?"

This is not just a credibility gap but a reality gap. An empirically challenged and uninformed leader in denial and governing on a (right) wing and a prayer, however, is a big problem. What if Bush were president during the missiles of October -- would he have been able to avoid a nuclear war? That he squandered a quarter trillion dollars and 4,000 American casualties attacking Iraq because al Qaeda in Afghanistan attacked us is not encouraging.

Just when they're needed, the usual mechanisms to bring a president to his senses are badly malfunctioning. A Congress of the same party now almost never holds adversarial hearings or holds him accountable, unlike how the Republican Congress treated Clinton. And with noteworthy exceptions, most of the media essentially gave him a pass on his eyebrow-raising military and business histories. The early and continuing storyline was that he was a charming guy who made up funny names for reporters and was no pompous prevaricator like his 2000 opponent. It was strange that, until the Niger-uranium fabrication, the media wrote far more about the spectacular deceptions of Jayson Blair than the more consequential deceptions of George W. Bush.

Of course, adding to his immunity is the understandable impulse to rally around a president during a crisis -- a crisis the president regularly stokes as in his recent "State of Baghdad address" to the Congress. Or as commentator E.J. Dionne put it, W's slogan might as well be "the only thing we have to fear is the loss of fear itself."

So it comes down to November 2. If the public rewards W with a second term -- and with no re-election contest to impose any possible moderating influence -- then W's far-right impulses will be vindicated and corroborated. On that "reality day," which will prevail -- Bush's certainty or our reality?

Mark Green, president of the New Democracy Project, is the author, with Eric Alterman, of The Book On Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America (Viking 2004).

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