Whenever someone asks me why media coverage of President Trump is so negative — and it is, irrefutably — I respond with some version of this: There is a fundamental disconnect between reporters and Trump. Reporters are taught from Day One in journalism school that their chief concern is with the truth. For Trump, the truth is far from his primary concern. It doesn’t seem to be of any concern, really, and he often seems to flout it for political gain. This is an irreconcilable difference.
Whatever your opinion of Trump, to support him requires overlooking his myriad falsehoods. It requires prioritizing other things — like conservative policy or a desire to shake up Washington — while shrugging off the idea that a president must be truthful in the pursuit of such goals. People are welcome to do that, but it’s undeniable that they are making a bargain.
But this is also true: Trump is increasingly tilting the scales of that bargain against the truth. He’s requiring more and more buy-in from his supporters. And the consequences of that bargain could have extremely long-lasting implications both for our body politic and the very concept of objective truth in American society.
Whether by design or because it’s just who he is, Trump has spent the better part of the past three-plus years waging a war on truth. And the pace of this war and the brazenness with which he has waged it have only increased. He’s now responsible for well over 5,000 false or misleading claims as president, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. Rallies this campaign season have featured claims of crowd tallies that were 76 percent and 70 percent false, misleading or lacking evidence. Trump has even ratcheted up the degree of the falsehoods: Whereas before he called Democrats the “party of crime,” he now says things like they “want to turn America into a giant sanctuary for criminal aliens and MS-13 thugs.”
The below graph from the Fact Checker shows just how Trump’s falsehoods and dodgy claims have proliferated and accelerated:
Other politicians lie, yes. And some media coverage might be too uncharitable to Trump. But he has no political equal on this front. It’s not close.
But even more than the sheer number and degree of the falsehoods is Trump’s own commentary on them. He increasingly seems to be tempting his supporters, who already either don’t mind the falsehoods or don’t believe the media’s fact-checking of them, to shrug off the very notion of objective truth.
Perhaps the most acute example of this came Tuesday, when Trump was asked to substantiate his unsubstantiated claim that Middle Easterners were among those in the caravan headed from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“They could very well be,” Trump said, seeming to back off his previously firm contention that they were, in fact, in the caravan.
When pressed on the complete lack of proof provided by his administration, Trump added, “There’s no proof of anything.” Then he repeated: “There’s no proof of anything. But they could very well be."
This rekindled Trump’s months-old riff about how “what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.” That quote was ostensibly about media coverage, but Trump often massages context to send a coded message to his base. This seed was long ago planted by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” and then fertilized by quotes like Trump attorney Jay Sekulow’s “facts develop.”
When Trump or those around him are actually forced to substantiate his bogus claims or to explain them, they have argued that objective truth is elusive or even — as the postmodernists argued — nonexistent. They’ve suggested Trump can’t be expected to tell the truth because evidence isn’t definitive. They’ve implied that the approach taken by most people — to make sure the evidence is definitive before making a claim — simply wasn’t an option.
Similar to the “what you are seeing” quote, Trump’s new “there’s no proof of anything” quote carries with it enough plausible deniability to shield him. He was talking about the specific claim and not about all objective truth!, his supporters will say. But this is a guy who, mere days before, had argued with conviction that there were Middle Easterners in the caravan. Now he’s admitting there isn’t proof, but he would very much like you to believe his claim anyway. “There’s no proof of anything,” in that context, suggests Trump truly doesn’t really care about objective truth or evidence, writ large.
An anonymous senior administration official offered this particularly nihilistic explanation for the caravan claim to the Daily Beast on Tuesday: “It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 percent accurate; this is the play.”
This view of Trump’s words and actions has clearly taken hold within the Republican base. The ends justify the means. And it’s not difficult to see why that’s a compelling bargain for conservatives who got tax cuts and just got a second conservative Supreme Court justice out of the whole thing.
But what if the means are the complete destruction of universally agreed-upon, nonideological truths and a common sense of right and wrong? That’s got to factor into all Trump supporters' bargain. And the erosion is proceeding apace.