Soundings July 2: An “Infestation” of Lies [1]

While Donald Trump is now well known for persistently lying to the American people about matters large and small, I was nonetheless surprised to read that he had sought to defend his ruinous and cruel immigration and border policy by declaring that the Democratic Party had at once created his approach and was preventing its realization.[2] These claims were fabrications. And, tellingly, in his many statements during a week in which his administration’s treatment of migrant children was the target of outrage around the world, he said nothing substantive about his policy of separating infants and youngsters from their families at the border and retaining them in makeshift cage-like environments. Instead, he compounded his bald-faced untruth concerning the provenance of his policy with several more wild lies during an appearance at the Nevada state GOP convention. As The Independent has reported:

Having changed gears since signing the executive order over ending separations on Wednesday, Mr. Trump is now using the type of hardline language that was central to his election campaign.     

‘We will have millions and millions of people pouring through our country with all of the problems that would cause. … If they see any weakness, they will come by the millions.’   He compared the two main parties’ immigration stances and called Democrats “weak” on border issues. 

‘Our issue is: strong borders, no crime. Their issue is: open borders, let MS-13 [gang] all over our country.’[i]

Each of these statements was a complete falsehood. Trump and the GOP developed this nation’s current “zero tolerance” policies concerning the border and immigration, including the choice to separate children from their parents, in a clear violation of American values, international human rights principles and common decency. Any reasoned analysis would not confuse human rights violations with “strength,” as Trump did in his speech, and as he routinely does, contending that others are “weak” for not embracing wanton cruelty. Trump’s contention that “millions” will cross into the United States if this nation pursues a humane immigration policy likewise has no basis in fact. Nor, as Trump suggested, do the Democrats support the criminal gang, MS-13 or any other such entity. More, as a factual proposition, MS-13 represents only a tiny and profoundly unrepresentative fraction of the immigrant population. Additionally, as a matter of politics, it is the Republicans who are fractured on the immigration issue and Trump has contributed to his Party’s internal chaos by calling on House GOP members not to vote for an immigration bill before the November 2018 mid-term election, in the face of Republican congressional leaders’ attempts to do otherwise.                                                                                                                                                                                                  As exemplified by his recent statements concerning immigration, Trump’s lies are by now so commonplace and so often preposterous that it is wearisome to track them all. One is tempted thereby not to call him out when he denies reality or insists that his own fantasies, imagined conspiracies and unreality be adopted as accepted public narrative. But friends of freedom and self-governance cannot permit such a turn to occur among a majority, as such would ultimately signal the end of both liberty and democracy in our nation. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote in her examination of Nazi propagandizing in her native land:

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. ... Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.[4]

Trump is apparently well along in convincing millions of Americans that his version of events, no matter how false and self-serving, should always be believed against reality and the facts. In so far as immigration is concerned, this story is one of fear, imminent danger and “othering” and is completely antithetical to the truth and to our nation’s history. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has captured the tropes Trump employs and many of the possible reasons why his invented immigration claims, and others, play so well with a majority share of Republican partisan identifiers and roughly 40 percent of the U.S. electorate:       

Every utterance of Trump on immigration is meant to conflate immigration with danger. This is a direct repudiation of America’s distinguishing essence — its constant reinvention through immigrant churn.   The immigrant brings violence. The immigrant brings terror. The immigrant’s humanity is lesser or nonexistent. These are tropes about ‘the other’ whose capacity to galvanize mobs, and wreak havoc, was proved in the first half of the 20th century. Trump does not hesitate to use them. …                                  One may debate the reasons for the phenomenon: the destabilizing impact of globalization on Western democracies; stagnant middle-income wages; growing inequality; fear of an automated future; the sheer scale of current migration, with some 68.5 million refugees or internally displaced people in the world; the failure of the United States or Europe to enact coherent immigration policies; the sense of vulnerability that jihadist terrorism since 2001 has propagated; the resultant spread of phobia about Islam; the ease of mob mobilization through fear-mongering and scapegoating on social media.[5]

All of these factors merit careful analysis, as do Trump’s overt appeals to xenophobia and racism, enabled and spread by social media, conservative talk radio and Fox television propagandizing. His service to the ideological agenda of some groups (evangelicals in particular) and of key financial supporters of the GOP deserve investigation as well, especially his efforts to allow environmental degradation to reduce costs for certain firms and his willingness to sacrifice the interests of major portions of the overall citizenry (particularly the poor and vulnerable groups) and economy to the aims of a few individuals, as can be seen in his protectionist trade, budgetary and tax stances, for example. Finally, Trump has made a show of supporting the most brutal of dictators, including Duterte in the Philippines, Jong-un in North Korea and Putin in Russia, while picking fights with the leaders of closely allied democratic nations—Canada, Germany and France. The facts undergirding these stands and their implications also deserve study.

In sum, whatever weight one assigns these elements in an effort to ascertain why Trump’s supporters would set aside reality and choose to believe his lies and undermine their own freedoms and rights in so doing, each warrants careful consideration. In particular, Trump’s use of fear and his nearly continuous assaults on truth (e.g., contrary to his daily assertions to the contrary, the ongoing Russian investigation was not launched for partisan reasons; Russia did interfere with the 2016 U.S. election, as a matter of established fact) to serve his personal ends are classically demagogic and their relation to all of the above factors and how they work to encourage political support among the willing rates sustained attention.

All of this still begs Arendt’s central question of why those backing Trump are willing to tolerate policies that are undermining their regime as well as, very often, their personal interests as they support his scapegoating of an overwhelmingly innocent population. That fact in turn suggests at least two broader linked possibilities: a willful desire to be deceived, of the sort to which Arendt drew attention, or an inability to know better. The first alternative points to some form of mass hysteria predicated on fear of the type that enveloped much of the nation during the Red Scare of the 1950s. While Trump is much more dangerous than Senator Joseph McCarthy was, due to his position and persistent willingness to say anything to secure power, this possibility suggests that at some point the veil will fall from the eyes of millions, who will then repudiate Trump wholesale, as occurred with McCarthy. Whether such is occurring or will anytime soon is a matter of speculation. Esquire political columnist Charles Pierce has lately argued that Trump’s decision to incarcerate migrant children and infants apart from their parents may have constituted his Rubicon in these terms.[6] Only time will tell whether this latest Trumpian cruelty will persuade his partisans that enough is enough or whether, encouraged by his lies, they will call for still more draconian steps.  

Notably, however, this sort of argument raises a second possibility that depends on Trump supporters overcoming their fears, nativism and angst on their own to see the broader picture of what his policies and stance are actually doing to them and to their nation’s principles, long-term sustainability and standing abroad. Whether such is possible also remains to be seen. I will meanwhile choose to side with Pierce and hope that the polity writ large does indeed retain a capacity to make probative choices and that such a sea change in perspective among Trump’s adherents can and will occur.

 

Notes

[1]This title is a play on Donald Trump’s recent false and dehumanizing claim that Democrats want illegal immigrants to “infest our country.” Seipel, Brooke, “Trump: Dems want illegal immigrants to ‘infest our country,’” The Hill, June 19, 2018, http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/392977-trump-dems-want-illegal-immigrants-to-infest-our-country Accessed June 19, 2018.

[2] Kessler, Glenn, Fact Checker, “In 497 days, President Trump has made 3,251 false or misleading claims,” The Washington Post, May 31, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/trump-claims-database/?utm_term=.88618bcdc245 Accessed June 24, 2018.  He had tallied 3,251 lies in 497 days in office as of the end of May, according to a careful ongoing analysis by the Washington Post, and is lying in his public statements at an increasing rate.

[3] Stevenson, Chris, “Trump goes on offensive over immigration- but offers little over reunions of separated families,” The Independent, June 24, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-border-immigration-family-separations-migrant-nevada-heller-democrats-a8413906.html    Accessed June 24, 2018.

[4] Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Harcourt, Inc. (1951)1968, p. 382.

[5] Cohen, Roger, “Trump the European Nationalist Puts America Last,” The New York Times, June 24, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/opinion/trump-european-nationalists-viktor-orban.html?emc=edit_th_180624&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=400875340624 Accessed June 24, 2018.

[6] Pierce, Charles, “The Nation is Beginning to Realize the Full Extent of What It Did to Itself in November 2016,” Esquire, June 23, 2018, https://www.esquire.com/author/7884/charles-p-pierce/