President-elect Donald Trump’s apologists, sensitive to the charge that their candidate wallows in conspiracy theories, misinformation and out-and-out lies, like to play the moral equivalency game. (Yes, conservatives used to abhor moral equivalence games, but too many prefer Trump’s postmodernist perspective.) Other presidents lie. The mainstream media says things that are not true. Hillary Clinton lied.
It would be hard to find a politician who didn’t lie, but presidents, governors and members of Congress generally try to stay in the ballpark of the truth. They will parse and distract, but they feel queasy about a direct lie. Sometimes they engage in wishful thinking or false choices. But here is what is different about Trump: He doesn’t try to get it right. He doesn’t assume that people care about the truth or that the truth is important. He will repeat blatant untruths (e.g. Arab Americans celebrated after 9/11, President Obama wasn’t born in the United States, he won by a landslide, we don’t know whether Russia hacked us), and then try to bully those who dispute him. Rather than engage on the facts, Trump insults, demeans and bullies the messenger. Critical voices — even “Saturday Night Live” — are, in his view, “losing” business (even when they are not), because for Trump, financial success makes one good and truthful while financial distress means one is bad and a liar.
We are not merely talking about the obvious lies — Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK conspiracy — but entire issues that are based on fundamental untruths. “No one knows whether climate change is happening.” No, we do. “Immigrants are stealing our jobs.” No, they aren’t. (For the umpteenth time, a report — this one from the St. Louis Federal Reserve — provides factual confirmation that the correlation between unemployment and percentage of foreign-born workers “is weak to nonexistent. For instance, many states experienced declines in their rates of unemployment of nearly 4 percentage points during this period. This coincided with a reduction in the proportion of foreign-born individuals for some states. For others, this coincided with an increase in the proportion of foreign born.”)
A good deal of the right-wing media and virtually all of the Fox Non-News and right-wing talk radio hosts specialize in such phony positions and make-believe concerns, to the point where even “informed” conservatives think trade costs us millions of jobs, climate change is a hoax and immigration is bad for the economy. Trump has now taken the made-up issues, the fake facts and the grand conspiracies all the way to the White House. No president has ever come close to doing this.
The reality-based media (which includes legacy media, responsible conservative media, nonprofit media, scholarly work, etc.) surely makes errors and displays bias. The difference, however, is that it tries to get the facts right. It requires actual sources, real documentary evidence and accurate quotes. It doesn’t doctor photos or put fake captions on photos. The accuracy rate is high, the error rate low; the reverse is true in the Trumpian phony-news world. How members of the White House press office will interact with hordes of reporters who will routinely call them out for intentional falsehoods remains to be seen. Let’s be clear, however: Trump disdains the mainstream media because it contradicts him and accurately records what he says. It takes him “literally.”
Finally, Hillary Clinton wins no prizes for trustworthiness. She certainly misled the public about her emails. Her penchant for exaggeration and for evasion was well known. And she lost the election. Comparing oneself to someone you have accused of dishonesty and who arguably lost the presidency because of it seems like a poor strategy. Trump is no longer running against Clinton; we aren’t grading on the curve any longer.
Unfortunately for the Republican Party and the country, Trump’s addiction to lies and capacity for self-delusion (“the” Hispanics love him) make Republicans into liars and self-delusional spinners. Reince Priebus says we don’t know whether Russia was responsible for the pro-Trump hacking. Why does he say such nonsense? His boss says it — that’s why. As #NeverTrumpers predicted, we therefore see the creeping intellectual and moral corruption of a national party. Too few Republicans are willing to stick to their guns and the truth, and the country will suffer as a result.