Many call Donald Trump a liar because he’s made it so obvious and easy to do so. But the reality is even worse than lying. What Trump & Co. have done is attack the very existence of fact and truth.
The victims of those repeated actions: decency, business, governance, justice, public discourse, our Constitution and democracy itself.
Documenting the torrent of Trumpian falsity has become a cottage industry in journalism. One recent tally totaled 18,000 false or misleading claims in 1,170 days. That’s more than 15 a day.
Putting the ‘BS’ in Repubs
To understand the nature of what Trump has been doing, it helps to understand the term “bullshit” analytically.
Harry Frankfurt, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton, wrote a short volume titled “On Bullshit” 15 years ago. It’s an engaging and wonderful read. He makes two of the critical points that bear on Trump and the people who work for him.
One is that both honest people and liars orient to truth—one to communicate it, the other deny it.
When slinging bullshit, however, practitioners have no such relationship. Instead, they say whatever might suit their purpose—facts and truth be damned.
The bullshitter will say anything. When one line fails, they switch to another because they have no allegiance to anything other than what they want at the moment.
Get caught making things up? Then attack critics, blame the press or set off some outrage to distract from facts and truth.
Or else, keep repeating what you want others to believe, using the same approach as the endlessly repetitive television commercials for everything from auto insurance to pizza. It doesn’t matter so long as it sells.
I use “truth” here with a small “t,” meaning reality as best we can determine the facts. Trump tries to sell us a Big-T Truth, meaning it is supposedly right because he said it. That’s bullshit.
Destroying the Public Mind
The second point is that years of spinning disinformation have degraded respect for truth, for empirical reality. Neither political party has completely clean hands, but the GOP has been the most egregious abuser.
Human thought depends on the structure of language and a general agreement about what words mean. Distort that, and over time people can get confused, losing respect for fact in public discourse. The founders of our country and the framers of our Constitution believed in the ideals of research, reasoned debate, and rational thought—sadly forgotten by too many of us.
The GOP chose over decades to weaponize institutional bullshit, starting in earnest with Newt Gingrich. That mendacious Georgia politician and one-time speaker of the House of Representatives cut the path that Trump now marches down. The awful result is the current vicious effort to discredit fact, principle, thought and constitutionalism.
Trump Hit the Ground Running
Trump, dragging his appointees along, has spewed BS throughout his long career. You could point to the early days, after being set up with a huge financial stake by his father, when Trump pretended to be far wealthier and more successful than was true. He also claimed to be a self-made man, helped only by a single million-dollar loan from Daddy, another outrageous lie.
His willingness to say and do anything had a special highlight when he used a false PR persona for self-promotion. Trump would call reporters and pretend to be his own press agent before his distinctive voice became so well known that People Magazine outed him in 1990.
You could call it sad, but the results grew worse. There was the flagrant use of bankruptcies to offload the cost of his own reckless choices and bad management onto investors large and small while he pocketed tens of millions of dollars.
Then there were his full-page newspaper ads demanding the execution of five young men in the 1989 Central Park jogger case. Eventually, after years in jail, they were shown to be innocent, but Trump insisted he got it right, showing he has no orientation to truth, only to BS.
Following that came Trump’s baseless claim that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. We’re still waiting for the report from investigators he claimed found proof in Hawaii.
With Trump, there’s never an apology or even consideration that he might have erred, advice he got from the notorious lawyer Roy Cohn. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t matter. Trump ignores his transgressions and then moves on to another line of BS.
Playing President on TV
Anyone who thought this pattern would ever change—that anything but more of the C-list heavily-edited reality TV star would come forth on election as president—should just stop.
Of course, he continued to make up one thing and another on the campaign trail. And, as night follows day, that would be his approach in office.
The establishment of institutional BS saw its official presidential genesis on Inauguration Day, when Trump denied reality to claim a demonstrably modest crowd of onlookers was actually “a massive amount of people.”
Even then, Trump and his minions immediately began to preside over a wearying pile of mendacity that would only grow, heaped out day upon day.
Trump’s visceral hatred for Barack Obama—likely an issue of racism, jealousy, and Trump’s personal sense of inferiority—led him to claim, through then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, that the turnout for his inauguration was larger than any other.
Photos and rapid fact-checking made short work from a factual view. Spicer was clearly slinging BS on the command of his master. But the administration kept insisting that it should have the right to redefine reality.
White House Website
That opening salvo was followed by persistent underhanded and subtle attacks on fact. The White House on Jan. 20, 2017—day one—scrubbed critical national issues from its website.
Topics that would affect income inequality for example—an essential problem facing the country—suddenly vanished from view. Searches at whitehouse.gov for such terms as “LGBT,” “Lesbian,” “Gay,” “Bisexual,” and “Transgender” turned up little or nothing.
“Alternative facts,” Kellyanne Conway called this process of insisting that blue was red. More accurate would have been the establishment of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, American-style.
Twisting language wasn’t Trump’s invention. Previous administrations at times created vast coverups and massive compendiums of lies. But their actions still oriented to truth and how to avoid confronting it. The press and the American people had a fighting chance.
The Pentagon Papers in 1971 laid bare the vicious and ugly farce of the Vietnam War. Watergate showed how a president’s administration could exercise power to crush political opponents.
The Reagan administration ran the illegal Iran Contra affair, subverting the authority and directions of Congress and, not incidentally, enriching narco-traffickers, a bizarre action for a president who proclaimed himself Mr. Law and Order.
In all these cases, reality remained. Truth eventually prevailed, however imperfectly. People went to jail. Nixon rightly resigned in disgrace.
On a lighter note, Reagan’s administration wanted to call ketchup and relish vegetables on school lunch menus, as well as call doughnuts bread, in the early 1980s.
Back then, those running our government still retained a sense of shame. Reagan era Budget Director David Stockman, for example, called the school lunch move a “bureaucratic goof” and reversed the decision.
But to have shame, first there must be facts. Never until Trump had political history so completely and brutally cut its tethers to reality using a dull knife.
Trump’s mastery of BS includes his lack of remorse, no matter how serious the action.
When information and data are no longer sacrosanct—when there may not be an accurate record kept anywhere—dangers multiply exponentially. Under Trump, the destruction of fact is relentless.
Climate Change Swept Away
From the get-go, the Trump administration removed references to climate change, greenhouse gases, and clean energy from the records of the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and State Department. This, at a time when the impact of climate change—droughts, fires, floods, glacial melting—hit like body blows from a heavyweight contender called Mother Earth.
The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative found that between 2016 and 2018, U.S. government website use of such terms as “climate change,” “clean energy” and “adaptation” dropped by 26%. Replacing them were fuzzy terms like “energy independence,” “resilience” and “sustainability.”
“Over half of all pages where ‘climate change’ was completely removed (73 / 136) were U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pages,” the report noted.
Heather Zichal, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center and former energy and climate change advisor to Barack Obama, told Time magazine that the heavily changed webpages of the EPA were “unprecedented attempt to delete or bury credible scientific information they find politically inconvenient.”
Trump’s orientation to BS was never limited to climate change. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year launched a plan to examine and redefine what can be considered a human right.
In its State Department Country Reports on Human Rights, the administration cut reporting on women’s rights and issues outside the U.S. by almost a third, according to an Oxfam America analysis. LGBTI rights and issues reporting plummeted 21%.
The critical area of immigration asylum decisions is another hotbed of disregard and ineptitude in which Immigration Court data goes missing, month after month, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University.
An April 2020 release of data was missing 68,282 relief applications that had been present at the end of March 2020. That represents tens of thousands of immigrants applying for asylum who have now been legally and informationally disappeared.
“We request that you take immediate action to prevent any possible further loss of data,” the organization wrote James McHenry, the director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review. “TRAC is greatly concerned that failure to do so could irreparably harm the integrity of the Immigration Court’s data.”
This is only part of redefining reality into meaninglessness. When there’s less information available from our government, informed public debate narrower and shallower until fact and truth evaporate.
When the press points out any of this, Trump shouts “fake news.”
The latest and perhaps most important example of out-of-control spinning is the administration’s response to the coronavirus. The story has been one of continuous downplaying of the serious nature of the pandemic and robust lying about what the government has done. This includes:
- Promotion of dangerous medical treatments.
- Lies about how long it may take to develop a vaccine—years, if ever, not weeks or months.
- Blaming state governments for the complete national failure to have enough protective equipment and ventilators although it was the Trump administration that presided over inadequate national stockpiles and forced states to bid against each other and the federal government for critical materials.
- Removal of warnings about how religious choirs can further spread the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control provided a particularly outrageous example by combining and confusing results from very different types of coronavirus tests. The impact is an ongoing inaccurate picture of the pandemic—and a blunder that should have been unthinkable to anyone versed in science and public health.
As the November election approaches—and the importance of a gutted economy becomes clearer—the White House won’t release traditional formal economic projections this summer. Officials blame volatility, which certainly makes accurate projections much more difficult to achieve.
But this seems to be a first since at least the 1970s. That includes such periods as the banking crisis in the 1980s, the dot com implosion, and the Great Recession. All times with significant volatility.
“It gets them off the hook for having to say what the economic outlook looks like,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former Congressional Budget Office director, told the Washington Post.
And then, the Office of Financial Research—an independent research bureau within the Treasury that is supposed to promote financial stability “by delivering high-quality financial data, standards, and analysis”—hasn’t published anything in months, according to Center for American Progress senior policy analyst Gregg Gelzinis.
These projections and analyses are critical to state and local governments, federal agencies, and businesses across the country.
And that’s just what people have noticed. Given the rate at which the administration is firing inspectors general, there is likely far more that will go unseen.
But then, for this administration, reality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway.