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Our Tendency to Believe Comfortable Lies

Bill Dimmick / CC BY-ND 2.0

It’s easy — and not wrong — to think that truth is in dire danger in the era of Donald Trump.

His own record of issuing breathtaking falsehoods from the exalted platform of the White House is unprecedented in American history. So is his consistent refusal to back down when a statement is proven false. In Trump’s world, those who expose his lies are the liars and facts that show he was wrong are “fake news.”

In this war on truth, Trump has several important allies. One is the shameful silence of Republican politicians who don’t challenge his misstatements for fear of giving offense to his true-believing base. Another is a media environment far more cluttered and chaotic than in past decades, making it easier for people to find stories that fit their preconceived ideas and screen out those they prefer not to believe.

These trends come in the context of a more general loosening of the informal rules that once put some limits on the tone and content of political speech. American politicians have always done plenty of exaggerating, lying by omission, selecting misleading facts, and using slanted language. Typically, though,if not always, they tried to avoid outright, provable lies, which it was commonly assumed would be politically damaging if exposed.

Nowadays, the cost of being caught lying seems less obvious. Somepoliticians show no apparent embarrassment about lying. Take, for instance, Corey Stewart, the Republican candidate trying to unseat Virginia’s Democratic senator, Tim Kaine. Stewart unapologetically told the Washington Post about a doctored photograph his campaign distributed, “Of course it was Photoshopped.”

In the altered photo, an image of a much younger Kaine is spliced in to make it appear that he is sitting with a group of armed Central American guerrillas. The caption under the picture says, “Tim Kaine worked in Honduras to promote his radical socialist ideology,” suggesting the photo proves that he consorted with violent leftist revolutionaries while working at a Jesuit mission in Honduras at the start of the 1980s.

In reality, the guerrillas in the original photograph (which dates from well after Kaine’s time in Central America) were not leftists and not in Honduras, but right-wing Contra insurgents in Nicaragua. So the visual was a double fake, putting Kaine in a scene he wasn’t in and then falsely describing the scene. When I read the story, I wondered whether Stewart would think it legitimate if an opponent Photoshopped him into a picture of American Nazis brandishing swastika flags. (If anyone asked him that question, I have not found a record of it.)

It may still be uncommon for a politician to acknowledge a deception as forthrightly as Stewart did, but it does seem that politicians today feel — and probably are — freer to lie than they used to be.

So, yes, truth is facing a serious crisis in the present moment. But two things are worth remembering. First, that crisis did not begin with Donald Trump. It has a long history. Second, and possibly more sobering, truth may be more fragile and lies more powerful than most of us, journalists included, would like to believe. That means the wounds Trump and his allies have inflicted — on top of earlier ones — may prove harder to heal than we think.

An Early Lesson

I began learning about the fragility of truth many years ago.

George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, taught me an early lesson. In the spring of 1964, less than a year after his notorious “stand in the schoolhouse door” attempt to block two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama, he came to Maryland as a candidate in the Democratic presidential primary (not to be confused with his more widely remembered presidential runs in 1968 and 1972).

His real target wasn’t the presidential nomination but the 1964 Civil Rights Act, then being filibustered in the Senate. There were plenty of segregationist Democrats in Maryland then and Wallace calculated that scoring a significant vote there (as well as in a couple of other states) would send a message to Senate Democrats that supporting civil rights was politically perilous.

I was 23 that spring, barely halfway through my second year as a reporter, when I was assigned as the (very) junior half of the Baltimore Sun‘s two-man team covering the primary campaign. I was under the direction of the Sun‘s chief political reporter, an old-timer named Charlie Whiteford. But Charlie didn’t hog all the big stories, as would have happened on most newspapers. In an effort to show balanced and even-handed reporting — an appearance the Sun in those days went to extreme lengths to maintain — he switched off with me, so that his byline and mine would appear alternately over stories about each candidate. As a result, young and green as I was, I got to cover Wallace’s rallies on a roughly equal basis with my senior colleague.

From the start, I heard the governor saying things about the civil rights bill that weren’t just misleading or slanted in ways I was already accustomed to hearing, even that early in my reporting life, but unequivocally false. After the first rally I attended, I got a copy of the bill from the Sun‘s library and carried it with me for the rest of the campaign, so I could accurately cite Wallace’s misstatements as I was typing my stories.

The first time I nailed his lies in print, I was smug. Maybe he can get away with this stuff in Alabama, I remember thinking, but the Baltimore Sun will keep him straight in Maryland. Very soon, though, I found out that I couldn’t have been more wrong. The people Wallace was speaking to believed him, not the Sun, and Wallace knew that. He didn’t care in the least what I wrote about him and kept right on offering his untruths about the civil rights bill.

More than a half century has passed since I learned that lesson, and it’s still sobering: when people like a politician’s lies better than they like the truth, it’s tough to change their minds, and even after lies are proven false, they can remain a powerful force in public life.

Learning Another Lesson, Far from Home

Thirteen years later, in a factory on the other side of the Earth, I had anothermoment of truth that taught what might be an even more chilling lesson: lies can still have power even when we know they’re lies.

That moment came during my first trip to China in May 1977, eight months after the death of that country’s leader, Mao Zedong. As the Sun‘s correspondent in Hong Kong, still under British rule at the time, I had been writing about Chinese affairs for nearly four years. But that visit, seven days in and around the city of Guangzhou (then commonly called Canton), was the first time I was able to look with my own eyes at a country still largely closed to the outside world.

On one of those days, my minders took me to the Guangzhou Heavy Machinery Plant, which manufactured equipment for oil refineries, chemical and metallurgical factories, and other industrial facilities. Its walls were plastered with posters showing standard images of Chairman Mao and of soldiers, workers, and peasants heroically struggling to realize his socialist ideals. The scene I saw from a catwalk over the factory floor, however, looked nothing like those melodramatic images. A few workers were tending machines or trundling wheelbarrows across the floor, but most were standing around idly, sipping tea, chatting in small groups, or reading newspapers.

I was startled by that very unheroic scene and even more startled when it dawned on me why I was so surprised. It wasn’t discovering that those propaganda images were false. I knew that already. Instead, I realized that even knowing that, I had still unconsciously expected to see workers looking like the men and women shown on those posters, faces glowing with devotion while giving their all to carry out “Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line.”

Until that moment I would have said with absolute certainty that I was immune to such Chinese propaganda. I had seen too many of its crude falsifications, such as the doctored photographs of Mao’s funeral that had run only months earlier in the same publications that regularly showed those heroic workers. Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, and her three principal associates had been in the front row of mourners when the photos were taken. Only a couple of weeks later, they were arrested and denounced as counter-revolutionary criminals. The Chinese media kept on publishing those funeral photos, but with Jiang and her allies — now labeled the Gang of Four — airbrushed out. Blurred smudges or blank spots appeared where they had been shown in the originals, while vertical rows of x’s blotted out their names in the captions. (Had anyone asked about the retouching, it’s a safe bet that Chinese authorities would have answered with the 1976 equivalent of “Of course they were Photoshopped.”)

Having seen those and so many other transparently false words and images, I could not believe I would ever confuse any official Chinese lies with reality. Still, there I was on that factory catwalk, stunned to realize that those propaganda images had shaped what I expected to see, even though I knew perfectly well that they were unreal.

That moment, too, taught me a lasting lesson: that truth could be a fragile thing not just in the outside world but inside my own mind and memory.

An Immunodeficiency Disease?

By these recollections from four or five decades ago, I don’t mean to suggest that there’s nothing new about the immediate crisis. Quite the opposite. President Trump’s outlandish untruthfulness, an increasingly chaotic media landscape, and the decline of traditional habits of political speech unquestionably represent a new and deeply alarming threat to public discourse and the foundations of democratic government.

One element of that crisis might be considered analogous to what doctors call an immunodeficiency illness — a disease that destroys or weakens the body’s ability to cure or control its symptoms. The immunodeficiency disease in today’s political and cultural wars is the campaign to undermine public trust in journalists and other watchdogs, the very people who are supposed to counter fake facts with real ones.

That campaign isn’t new. Attacks on news organizations (most prominently from the right but also from the left) go back at least to the 1960s. Under Trump, however, that assault has become uglier, more intense — and more dangerous.

Calling journalists “enemies of the American people,” for example, doesn’t just raise echoes of past totalitarian regimesIt gives aid and comfort to present-day officials and lawmakers who want to avoid being held publicly accountable for their acts.That applies not just in the United States but internationally. Trump’s anti-media rhetoric abets repressive rulers across the world who suppress independent, critical reporting in their countries.

recent column by the Washington Post‘s Jackson Diehl documented the worldwide impact of Trump’s anti-media assault. He reported that his search for examples “turned up 28 countries where the terms ‘fake news’ or ‘false news’ have been used to attack legitimate journalists and truthful reporting” during Trump’s time in office. Around the world, Diehl found, authoritarian leaders like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Cambodia’s Hun Sen, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan have explicitly endorsed the American president’s attacks or echoed his exact words while cracking down on press freedom in their own countries.

Journalists have responded to Trump with an outpouring of indignant commentary — an understandable reaction, though it’s far from clear whether it helps or hurts their cause. A gesture like the Boston Globe‘s initiative last month that led more than 300 newspapers across the country to publish editorials on the same day calling for freedom of the press and attacking Trump’s stance on the media raised valid challenges to the president’s charges, but also may have cemented in place a kind of equivalency in the public mind: Trump is against journalists, journalists are against Trump.

Beyond reasonable doubt, that equivalency reinforces Trump’s side more than it defends good reporting or strengthens public knowledge. For his supporters, it validates his posturing as a president besieged by a hostile media — and his repeated insistence that stories he doesn’t like are “fake facts.” Pious editorials declaring journalists’ devotion to truth and fervently exalting the First Amendment may be justified, but as a practical matter, eloquent self-righteousness seems unlikely to be an effective weapon in the war against the war on truth.

It would be nice to think that tougher, more factual reporting would be more helpful, but as I learned covering the Wallace campaign all those years ago, that has its limits, too.

How to Be Right (Always)

I couldn’t read George Wallace’s mind in 1964 and can’t read Donald Trump’s 54 years later. So what follows is speculation, not verifiable fact. With that qualifier, my impression is that Trump’s falsehoods come from a different place and have a different character than Wallace’s. If there’s a Wallace reincarnation on the landscape today, it would be someone more like Corey Stewart. Wallace might not have said it to a reporter — though I did sometimes sense an unseen wink in our direction when he delivered some outrageous statement — but I strongly suspect that “of course it was Photoshopped,” adjusted for the different technology of that era, exactly reflected his attitude.

President Trump looks like a quite different case. He clearly lies consciously at times, but generally the style and content of his falsehoods give the impression that he has engaged in a kind of internal mental Photoshopping, reshaping facts inside his mind until they conform to something he wants to say at a given moment.

A recent report in the Daily Beast described an episode that fits remarkably well with that theory.

As told by the Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng, at a March 2017 White House meeting between the president and representatives of leading veterans organizations, Rick Weidman of Vietnam Veterans of America brought up the subject of Agent Orange, the widely used U.S. defoliant that has had long-term health effects on American soldiers and Vietnamese villagers.

As Suebsaeng reconstructed the discussion, Trump responded by asking if Agent Orange was “that stuff from that movie” — a reference evidently to the 1979 film Apocalypse Now. Several veterans in the room tried to explain to the president that the scene he remembered involved napalm, an incendiary agent, not Agent Orange. But Trump wouldn’t back down, Suebsaeng recounted, “and proceeded to say things like, ‘no, I think it’s that stuff from that movie.'” His comment directly to Weidman was, “Well, I think you just didn’t like the movie.”

What makes the Daily Beast report particularly revealing is not just that Trump was ignorant of the facts and would not listen to people who clearly knew better. That behavior is all too familiar to anyone even casually aware of Trump’s record. The argument with the veterans was different because his misstatement did not arise from any of the usual reasons. He was not answering a critic or tearing down someone who frustrated him or making an argument for a policy opinion or defending some past statement.

Sticking to his version of Agent Orange was purely a reflection of his personality. On a subject one can safely assume he had not thought about until that moment, he seized on a fragmentary memory of something he’d seen on a screen years earlier, jumped to a wrong conclusion, and was then immediately convinced that he was correct solely because he had heard himself saying it — not only certain that he was right, but oblivious to the fact that everyone he was talking to knew more about the subject than he did.

In effect, this story strongly suggests, Trump’s thought process (if you can call it that) boils down to: I am right because I am always right.

Lots of people absorb facts selectively and adapt them to fit opinions they already hold. That’s human nature. But the president’s ability to twist the truth, consciously or not, is extreme. So is his apparently unshakable conviction that no matter what the subject is, no one knows more than he does, which means he has no need to listen to anyone who tries to correct his misstatements. In a person with his power and responsibilities, those qualities are truly frightening.

As alarming as his record is, though, it would be a serious mistake to think of Trump as the only or even the principal enemy of truth and truth-tellers. There is a large army out there churning out false information, using technology that lets them spread their messages to a mass audience with minimal effort and expense. But the largest threat to truth, I fear, is not from the liars and truth twisters, but from deep in our collective and individual human nature. It’s the same threat I glimpsed all those years ago at George Wallace’s rallies in Maryland and on that factory floor in China: the tendency to believe comfortable lies instead of uncomfortable truths and to trust our own assumptions instead of looking at the evidence.

That widespread and deep-rooted failure of critical thinking in American society today has helped make Trump and his enablers, like other liars before them, successful in the war against truth. In the words of the mid-twentieth-century cartoonist Walt Kelly’s comic-strip character, Pogo the Possum, “We have met the enemy and it is us.” That’s a powerful enemy. Whether there’s an effective way for the forces of truth to oppose it is far from clear.

Arnold Isaacs / TomDispatch

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