The phrase launched a thousand laments: Trump’s lies work! Their sheer relentlessness has mesmerized voters into distrusting all legitimate sources of authority! Trump’s reality-bending mysticism has reduced us to a nation of epistemic zombies, rendering accountability impossible!
But, now that the final presidential debate is behind us and we’re heading into the campaign’s homestretch, a funny thing is happening: If Trump has succeeded in “flooding the zone with sh-t,” Trump himself is the person most at risk of drowning in it.
Many of the nation’s leading fact-checkers, weighing in on the Thursday night debate, converged on the same story: Only one of the candidates has been relentlessly and uncontrollably lying about literally everything. The other, well, isn’t doing anything close to that.
This idea is itself becoming one of the big stories of this cycle. And that’s not a small development. If the whole point of the zone-flooding is to drown the possibility of parsing truth from fiction in a tank of uncertainty and false equivalence, then it’s a welcome paradox that this murk is yielding a clarifying narrative about the lopsided dishonesty imbalance between the two candidates.
“Trump yet again broke the fact-check meter at the second presidential debate, while Democratic nominee Joe Biden made relatively few gaffes,” concluded the Post fact-checking team, adding that “virtually all” of its biggest falsehoods and distortions came from Trump.
“We have a president who’s running for re-election on a strategy of deliberate serial dishonesty,” added CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale.
Trump’s lies are failing
The striking possibility that Trump is drowning in his own zone-flooding is unfolding on several fronts at once.
First, there’s the coronavirus. At the debate, Trump claimed his spectacular leadership prevented 2 million deaths, an absurd manipulation of statistics. He hyped the role of his China travel restrictions, which did far less than he regularly claims. He falsified the Obama-Biden record on swine flu. He falsely claimed a vaccine is “ready.”
All this points to a way that Trump’s zone-flooding might paradoxically be producing a higher form of clarity. Even if it’s true that voters might not know what to believe on this or that detail — though on the coronavirus that’s doubtful — they know they can’t believe what Trump tells them on the single biggest crisis facing the country right now.
Drowning in his own zone-flooding
Trump also absurdly tried to paint Biden as supporting a socialist takeover of health care, when voters everywhere saw Biden arguing with his progressive primary challengers about this for months. Surely all this gaslighting helps explain why Biden is trusted over Trump to handle health care by large majorities.
Similarly, Trump’s airing of the latest turns in the fake Hunterghazi scandal again displays bottomless faith in his zone-flooding powers. But at the debate this grew so absurd that it almost became a topic of mockery for reporters. Many noted that Trump’s “laptop from hell” chatter has become incomprehensible to those unschooled in right-wing media-bubble vernacular.
In an interesting conversation about journalism in the Trump era, Sean Illing and Jay Rosen identified the big problem that Trump’s zone-flooding poses to the media. As Illing noted, faithfully reckoning with it will inevitably be seen as “inherently biased” by some audiences.
And as Rosen added, doing this risks alienating audiences that media organizations don’t want to lose. But on the other hand, not doing this is tantamount to surrendering to journalism’s “enemies.”
It may be that more and more journalists are deciding that forthrightly reckoning with all the lies is a risk they have to take. In short, all of Trump’s relentless lying is, at least to some degree, slowly nudging the press into a more illuminating posture.
None of this necessarily means Trump will lose reelection. He could go on to win, especially via cheating. But it’s hard to see how all the lying and zone-flooding is helping him at this point. And if he loses, we might look back and conclude that the real story all along was that he drowned himself in it.