THE MORNING PLUM:
When Donald Trump lies, is he telling a lie? Not if we cannot prove an intent to mislead, apparently.
With Trump set to take control of the presidency, media figures are currently engaged in a spirited debate over how to handle the Trump administration’s approach to the news media, now that it looks likely he will continue employing the unprecedented levels of dishonesty he wielded to great effect during the campaign.
The early returns in this debate are not encouraging. In fact, they suggest that we in the news media are simply unprepared for the challenges the Trump presidency will pose to us. I’ve already tried to argue that news orgs are needlessly helping Trump’s use of unverified claims result in precisely the headlines he wants.
Now here’s yet another data point. On “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd pressed Wall Street Journal editor in chief Gerard Baker on whether his paper would call out Trump’s lies for what they are, as other news orgs have been doing with more regularity. Baker’s response is worth quoting in full, because it should go into the time capsule for future generations to ponder in puzzling out what happened in this country at the outset of the 21st century:
I’d be careful about using the word, “lie.” “Lie” implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead. … when Donald Trump says thousands of people were on the rooftops of New Jersey on 9/11 celebrating, thousands of Muslims were there celebrating, I think it’s right to investigate that claim, to report what we found, which is that nobody found any evidence of that whatsoever, and to say that.
I think it’s then up to the reader to make up their own mind to say, “This is what Donald Trump says. This is what a reliable, trustworthy news organization reports. And you know what? I don’t think that’s true.” I think if you start ascribing a moral intent, as it were, to someone by saying that they’ve lied, I think you run the risk that you look like you are, like you’re not being objective.
And I do think also it applies — this is happening all the time now, people are looking at Donald Trump’s saying and saying, “This is false. It’s a false claim.” I think people say, “Well, you know what? Hillary Clinton said a lot of things that were false.” I don’t recall the press being quite so concerned about saying that she lied in headlines or in stories like that.
The comparison to Clinton is silly. Trump lied far more often, and far more egregiously, than Clinton did. Not only that, unlike Clinton, most of the time Trump’s campaign felt no obligation whatsoever to back up his claims when they were called out as false. And to a far greater degree, Trump would simply continue repeating those lies after they’d been exposed. It is the nature of Trump’s dishonesty — the volume, ostentatiousness, nonchalance, and imperviousness to correction at the hands of factual reality — that became the issue. (See The Post fact-checking team’s deep dive into this phenomenon for all the evidence you need.)
This gets at why Baker’s response is so worrying: It suggests an unwillingness or an inability to entertain the possibility that we may be looking at something new and different here. Take the example that Baker himself chose: Trump’s claim that “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims celebrated 9/11. This was not some casual falsehood — this lie was key to a months-long campaign of vilification and scapegoating of Muslims that in turn was central to his broader appeal. As Glenn Kessler pointed out at the time, Trump repeatedly refused to entertain any evidence to the contrary even when it was directly presented to him. Indeed, his campaign team responded to media efforts to present that contrary evidence by accusing the media of covering up the truth.
In this and many other instances, Trump barely even tried to make a fact-based case for his version of reality. Rather, he seemed to be trying to obliterate any possibility of shared agreement on what constitutes an authoritative source, and even on reality itself.
Take Trump’s biggest lie of all — his racist birther claim. Trump himself originally conceived of it as a means of entree into the political consciousness of GOP primary voters. It was debunked countless times over many years. Yet Trump kept his birther campaign going all throughout anyway.
In these cases, was Trump lying? The standard that Baker adopts — that there must be a provable intent to mislead — seems woefully inadequate to informing readers about what Trump is really up to here. Sure, it’s possible that Trump continued to believe these things after they were debunked. We cannot prove otherwise. But so what? If we accept that it’s possible to prove something to be false — which Baker does, judging by his own comments — then we presumably also accept that this can be adequately proved to Trump. And so, Trump is telling a falsehood even though it has been demonstrated to him to be a falsehood.
If we don’t call that “lying,” or if we don’t squarely and prominently label these claims as “false,” don’t we risk enabling Trump’s apparent efforts to obliterate the possibility of agreement on shared reality? We’re already seeing a preview of how this will work in practice when Trump is president. On multiple occasions, Trump has dubiously claimed credit for jobs he has supposedly “saved,” and the headlines have tended to reflect his claims without also informing readers that those claims are unverified or open to doubt. People don’t always take the time to learn the details. Even when they do, if news orgs don’t take a clear stand on what is true and what isn’t, confusion can often follow.
New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet has come closer to getting this right, pointing out that we must label Trump’s lies as such because he has shown a willingness to go beyond the “normal sort of obfuscation that politicians traffic in.” Writer Masha Gessen has gone even further, suggesting that Trump’s approach to information — or disinformation — looks like a hallmark of Putinesque autocratic rule, in which the autocrat is trying to “assert power over truth itself,” and convey the message that his “power lies in being able to say what he wants.” We don’t yet know if this will prove an accurate description of Trump’s approach as President. But given the authoritarian tendencies we’ve already seen from Trump, it seems like we should at least be on guard for this possibility. Baker’s nonchalance suggests a lack of preparedness for what we may be facing.
* TRUMP WILL LIKELY BACK CONSERVATIVE AGENDA: The Post has a good piece pointing out that congressional Republicans are set to enact “the most conservative agenda since the 1920s,” and Trump will probably go along:
Rather than a Democratic president standing in the way, a soon-to-be-inaugurated Donald Trump seems ready to sign much of it into law. The dynamic reflects just how ready Congress is to push through a conservative makeover of government, and how little Trump’s unpredictable, attention-grabbing style matters to the Republican game plan.
It will be a huge shock if we see deep tax cuts for the rich, Obamacare repeal, and Wall Street deregulation go forward, even as the “populist” elements of Trump’s agenda quietly don’t.
* GET READY FOR MORE POLITICAL TUMULT IN 2017: CNN has an interesting piece predicting that 2017 could bring plenty more of the political tumult we saw in 2016:
Crucial elections loom this year in France and Germany, where the same anti-establishment backlash that produced Donald Trump and Brexit could offer an opening to nationalist leaders who oppose Muslim immigration and further erode the European unity that has been a signature of the post-World War II era. … rising powers such as China, Russia and Iran are closely watching the developments to determine whether the convulsions in the West give them an opening to advance their own interests.
And, as CNN points out, President Trump’s erratic, impulsive, and unpredictable approach could exacerbate all these trends. Happy New Year!
* THE WORST CASE SCENARIO ON CLIMATE: The New York Times looks at the question of how much damage Trump can do on climate change. It could get pretty bad:
In the worst case, with a sufficiently pliant Congress, Mr. Trump could roll back a decade of progress on climate change. … To meet the climate goals embodied in the Paris Agreement, the world needed an American president who would have pushed hard to accelerate the energy transition. … it is certainly clear that Mr. Trump will not be. So as Washington goes into reverse gear on climate policy, seas will keep rising and heat waves will get worse.
The flip side: The transition to renewable energy proceeds apace; many states have accepted mandates limiting carbon emissions; and Trump may not be able to reverse those things.
* REPEAL COULD IMPACT JUST ABOUT EVERYONE: CNN makes a great point here: Obamacare has an impact on far more people than is commonly supposed:
It’s not just for the 20 million people who have health insurance through the individual Obamacare exchanges or Medicaid expansion. Under Obamacare, senior citizens pay less for Medicare coverage and for their prescription drugs. Many Americans have received free contraceptives, mammograms, colonoscopies and cholesterol tests. And small business employees with older and sicker workers have not been slapped with super-high premiums.
Of course, for Republicans, the benefits of Obamacare simply don’t exist, so this won’t figure into their thinking in the least.
* WE MUST STAND UP FOR OUR DEMOCRACY: E.J. Dionne has a nice column reminding us that Trump’s election, combined with other global events, make it clear that the threat to democracy is real:
Small-d democrats have gotten out of the habit of offering robust philosophical defenses of a form of government they took for granted. In 2017, supporters of democracy need to stand up resolutely in its defense. They must also be vigilant against violations of the democratic rules of the game, especially here in the United States. Keeping America great means protecting the institutions that have made our greatness possible.
Needless to say, congressional Republicans have already shown they will do nothing to rein in Trump’s threat to our democratic norms, which is already proceeding on multiple fronts.
* TRUMP IS ASSEMBLING A ‘TEAM OF CRONIES’: Paul Krugman makes a key point about what to expect from a Trump presidency:
The corruption won’t be limited to the very top: The new administration seems set to bring blatant self-dealing into the center of our political system. Abraham Lincoln may have led a team of rivals; Donald Trump seems to be assembling a team of cronies, choosing billionaires with obvious, deep conflicts of interest for many key positions in his administration.
See Tillerson, Rex. Since Republicans are also unlikely to act as a check on this front, it will be left to Democrats to use the confirmation hearings to force whatever they can out into the light.
* STARK RACIAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE TWO PARTIES: The Wall Street Journal looks at the racial make-up of the new House of Representatives:
White men will account for 87% of House Republicans, the same as last session, but only 41% of House Democrats, a 2% drop from the prior Congress. … The racial composition of each party’s congressional wing mirrors the voters who elected it: Some 87% of President-elect Donald Trump’s votes this year came from whites, compared with only 55% of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s votes.
White men are really under-represented in the new House GOP. So unfair!