All the President’s Lies (and How to Counter Them)
“What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” said President Donald Trump on Tuesday to a crowd of his supporters at a campaign-style rally in Kansas City, Mo. His Orwellian-sounding remarks urging Americans to not trust their own eyes and ears highlight Trump’s ongoing project of maintaining his supporters’ allegiance via a relentless barrage of mistruths, exaggerations and distractions.
The Washington Post has kept a record of Trump’s lies and found that as of the end of May 2018, the president had made 3,251 false claims. That figure is extraordinary. In just the last couple of weeks, he has contradicted himself so overtly on the intelligence community’s findings of Russian interference in the 2016 election that it is hard not to laugh. Cornered by members of both major parties after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, he explained last week, “I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,’ ” and that, “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ ”
One day this week, Trump sounded as if he woke up thinking it was “opposite day” when he tweeted, “I’m very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election. Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don’t want Trump!” One might think Trump imagines the entire nation forgets what has happened the day before.
Two days after Trump was inaugurated, Psychology Today published a telling list of the hallmarks of what is known in mental health circles as “gaslighting.” The article made no mention of Trump, but it is impossible to miss the relevance of the list to our president.
“Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. … It is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders,” wrote author Stephanie A. Sarkis. People who engage in such destructive behavior spew blatant lies in the face of evidence suggesting otherwise. “Gaslighters are masters at manipulating and finding the people they know will stand by them no matter what,” Sarkis adds in the article, which of course invokes Trump’s ardent supporters, for whom it seems as though no amount of lying and blatant manipulation constitutes a deal-breaker.
The celebrated author and historian James Loewen has published a timely new edition of his bestselling book “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” which sold 2 million copies worldwide since it was first published in 1995. In this new edition, Loewen has a new foreword that perhaps ought to be titled “Lies My President Told Me,” as it takes on the Trump presidency and the constant accusations of “fake news” alongside his actual lies.
In an interview about the new edition of his book, Loewen explained to me that “history and social studies are mistaught in our schools,” and that “what becomes important is a kind of numbing boosterism—we might call it nationalism,” of the sort seen from the president and his supporters. Loewen’s book has debunked the many historical myths taught in school textbooks that persist today and upon which Trump’s “Make America Great Again” claim is built.
All presidents lie, but the difference with Trump is that his lies are an integral part of his governing style. Simply exposing the lies seems to not matter. His approval ratings remain stuck stubbornly at from 40 percent to 49 percent—far too high considering his blatant flouting of so many ethical standards. Worse, some of his lies may be actually working.
For example, there is some indication that Trump’s constant drumbeat of words like “witch hunt” and “hoax” to describe the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election may be having an impact. Polls show that the public’s opinion of how Robert Mueller is handling the investigation hovers at about the same as the president’s approval rating—from 41 percent to 48 percent—far lower than it should be.
Rather than simply pointing out Trump’s lies, as many in the media do quite well, it may be more effective to understand why Trump lies and frame his behavior in familiar terms. He lies because he can, and his supporters continue to back him (even though they would deeply disapprove of other presidents’ dishonesty) in large part because Trump is blowing up the established world order. The lies are not an attempt to cover up his misdeeds—they are part of his deeds. Trump’s version of the world is one his supporters want to make real through sheer force of will (and lies), in which American might on the world stage is feared and reigns supreme, and white America retains a monopoly on power within the nation.
The word “propaganda” is defined as “ideas, facts or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.” If we cast Trump’s lies as propaganda, it becomes clearer what his end is. Propaganda can and should be exposed for what it is. But it is not enough to simply point out the president’s lies. They need to be countered—before we become so numb to his dishonesty that we accept it.
Recall that Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway offered the explanation of “alternative facts” to explain away the president’s lies about his inauguration attendance in January 2017. A year and a half later, administration officials and Trump supporters don’t even bother trying to justify Trump’s lies, no matter how obvious they are. “There still are such things as real facts,” said Loewen, adding, “our current administration being damned about this, and we have to make sure that people recognize that there are facts.” Factual countering of Trump’s propaganda may sound like a staid response, but it is a bare minimum of what is required of us.
We can, and should, go even further than presenting facts and into the realm of counterpropaganda. This can take the form of rapid-response messaging against Trump’s policies. Sarkis writes in Psychology Today, “When dealing with a person or entity that gaslights, look at what they are doing rather than what they are saying. What they are saying means nothing; it is just talk. What they are doing is the issue.”
That is precisely what recent protests against Trump’s immigration policies did. In using the phrase “Keep Families Together,” rather than something like “No to Zero Tolerance,” activists clearly identified the government was separating families and used an effective term to counter what Trump was doing rather than try to oppose what he said.
Counterpropaganda can also take more creative forms, such as comedian Sacha Baron Cohen‘s baiting of racist extremist right-wing lawmakers in segments of his new show, “Who Is America?” In shaming lawmakers for their ridiculous ideas, Cohen may be doing much to reverse the horrifying trend of overt racism upon which Trump campaigned. It is this type of cultural shift that can more effectively erode Trump’s support than simply pointing out his lies and racism.
Alluding to such a need for changing American culture as a whole, Loewen reminded me that, ultimately, “the most important thing we can do is to become less ethnocentric as a people—and it ties in with nationalism—this idea that ‘we’re always right.’ ”
Trump is both the cause of white nationalism and a symptom of it. When Trump lies, he does so to further the cause of white nationalism. Exposing his lies and countering them with facts and counterpropaganda is the bare minimum required of us in these dark times.