There is a fundamental disconnect in the relationship between the news media and President Trump. It’s not just that Trump attacks the media as the “enemy of the people” or that the media tends to come from more left-leaning backgrounds; it’s that they have completely polar-opposite mission statements. A journalist’s first obligation is to the truth, whereas Trump’s goal, in many ways, seems to be to devalue truth in the American political discourse.
That long-running effort reached a once-unthinkable milestone in recent days. According to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker team, Trump has now uttered more than 10,000 false or misleading claims as president.
And it’s not just that Trump has a penchant for falsehoods that he can’t shake. He seems to have made a calculated decision to keep pushing the envelope when it comes to bogus claims. While it took him 601 days to reach 5,000 false claims, it has taken him just 226 more to get from 5,000 to 10,000. In a three-day period recently, he made 171 false or misleading claims — more than he had in any of his first five months as president.
My colleague Philip Bump has dispatched with the notion that people simply aren’t familiar with Trump’s falsehoods or that the media isn’t pointing them out enough. At one point in the 2016 campaign, for example, as many as half of Republicans said Trump wasn’t honest or trustworthy.
Of course, that number has since declined markedly, even after Trump’s 10,000 false or misleading comments as president. Today, only about 1 in 5 Republicans say he isn’t honest and trustworthy.
Is that because they suddenly realized they were wrong about Trump’s dishonesty, against all evidence? Of course not. This is partisans falling in line and supporting the guy who is doing the things they like. This is the media they consume not dwelling on these falsehoods and, in some cases, obscuring them.
But that’s also kind of the point. One of the potentially long-lasting effects of the Trump presidency is that it has shown politicians that it’s not necessary to be truthful, as long as your base stands by you. He has a pretty good chance of getting reelected in 2020, even as he’s spouting an average of more than 20 false or misleading claims per day.
Even if you think the media is overzealous in calling out Trump’s falsehoods, are all 10,000 of them made up? Did Trump really utter only 5,000 false or misleading claims in 27 months? Even if you severely relax the standards for what constitutes a false or misleading claim, we’re still talking about a president who would be setting land-speed records for dissembling.
And, yes, previous politicians have lied or said what wound up being major, consequential falsehoods, including Barack Obama’s “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep it.” But there is no real comparison with Trump. He’s an order of magnitude ahead of any recent politician.
People are, of course, entitled to prioritize things as they see fit. Perhaps Trump’s supporters think getting tough on immigration is that important or they really want conservative Supreme Court justices — and see Trump’s falsehoods as just window-dressing. Perhaps they view it as Trump goading the much-maligned media into overreaching, and they’re all in on the joke. Perhaps they think the falsehoods he’s uttering just aren’t that important in the scheme of things. There is evidence for all of these explanations.
But the practical effect of that is that Trump has shown how you can be successful without worrying about saying things that are accurate. I’ve noticed his opponents are increasingly tempted to disregard the importance of provable facts when it comes to combating him. If Trump is going to fight dirty, after all, they might as well, too, right?
It’s possible all of this is simply an aberration — that Trump has a unique ability to spew nonsense and ensure that the people who matter either don’t process it or don’t care. Maybe future GOP nominees for president or other offices simply won’t be able to don the same Teflon. But he has shown that it’s possible to make a large portion of the country disregard or de-prioritize actual facts in their political calculus. And he’s apparently intent on continuing to push the bounds of that tolerance.