Lies, Legitimacy and Democratic Truths

The first weeks of the Trump presidency have demonstrated that several hypotheses analysts and apologists had advanced during the campaign to suggest that his constant lies, anti-democratic rhetoric and narcissistic temperament were not an issue were deeply mistaken. Among those were the following arguments:

  • Some analysts claimed Trump really was not at “war” with the truth and the press as well as government institutions and would behave reasonably once in office.
  • His dark Inaugural address, full of needless and heedless lies, his strange behavior concerning attendance at his Inaugural and the nation’s popular vote total, and his persistent and continuing untruths about immigration and massive illegal voting have demonstrated that those offering this canard had matters very wrong. Trump daily has worked as President, and his aides have also pressed assiduously as well, to convince broad swathes of the American citizenry that truth, other government institutions and a free press are their enemy, while what the President says should simply be accepted without analysis or debate. He has, for example attacked the federal courts and argued that the judiciary does not possess a right to question his judgments as expressed in executive orders, despite the Constitution’s embrace of separation of powers and more than 200 years of precedent to the contrary. In this view, offered repeatedly in recent days by key White House officials, Trump’s perspective, however fantastical, should be accepted unquestioningly for no other reason than that he said it. As for the President, he simply repeats his lies and attacks, ad nauseum, apparently aiming to press those he is addressing to accept his version of events out of sheer fatigue, or because they are weary of feeling besieged with invective should they dare continue to question his pronouncements.  If this tactic sounds chillingly familiar, it should, and it should also raise alarm bells, as every modern autocratic demagogue has pursued a like strategy.
  • Some suggested Trump was not serious when he offered broad denunciations during the campaign aimed at scapegoating multiple groups, including individuals with disabilities, Latinos and those of the Islamic faith.
  • His behavior once in office concerning his now infamous proposed border wall with Mexico and his cruel and ill-advised executive order banning travel and immigration from seven predominately Muslim nations and barring refugees from entering this country, have demonstrated these arguments were also patently false. To date in his presidency, Trump has behaved as an isolationist xenophobe who is willing to risk the civil rights and freedom as well as prosperity of his nation’s citizens as he pursues his bleak vision of a country that must arm belligerently, build walls and hunker down in the face of global complexities.
  • Some argued Trump did not “really” mean what he said when he spoke in angry and dystopian tones concerning the military (and overall) decline of America during the campaign, since that vision was verifiably false.
  • Once President, Trump soon proved this claim wrong, too. In office, he has repeated those same false assertions and is proposing massive increases in spending for the Pentagon, which already receives more than $600 billion per year, more than the total such expenditures of the next eight highest nations defense spending combined, and which had not sought large increases previously or argued the U.S. had fallen into strategic peril.
  • Some contended during the campaign that even though he was not a blue-collar person of the sort to whom he sought to appeal, Trump would work to represent the interests of that constituency once in office, since his success would depend on their continued support.
  • In fact, the President’s mercantilism, erratic behavior and attack on the Dodd-Frank protections against market actor chicanery indicate he either does not care about the potentially very negative implications of these stands for those who voted for him, or is too uninformed to understand how badly his actions will hurt those who placed their faith in him. Neither of these possibilities inspires confidence or serves the needs of those who elected him.
  • Trump’s repeated embrace of torture, given the ignominy that now taints the George W. Bush administration’s adoption of such illegal and immoral techniques, was all bluster to show his “toughness” in light of his complete lack of government or military experience.
  • The President has not disavowed torture and, in fact, supported it three separate times at an event with his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, (who opposes it), while saying that he would nonetheless defer to his subordinate on the question.[1] Meanwhile, Trump appointed Gina Haspel—one-time director of a CIA black site prison in Thailand during the George W. Bush administration, where she oversaw torture of prisoners—to serve as the Deputy Director of the CIA.[2] This turn is strongly discomfiting, given Haspel’s history.  As John Kiriakou has recently noted,

    It is a travesty that somebody like Haspel would be rewarded with the second-most-important position at the CIA. But what is worse is the message that Trump is sending to the CIA workforce: Engage in war crimes, in crimes against humanity, and you’ll still get ahead. Don’t worry about the law. Don’t worry about ethics. Don’t worry about morality. We’ll take care of you. You can still make it to the top.

    Haspel’s appointment is also an insult to the likes of Defense Secretary James Mattis, the retired four-star general who told Trump to his face that torture doesn’t work, and to [former Congressman Mike] Pompeo himself (now, CIA Director), who said in his confirmation hearings that he was opposed to the torture program and would not reinstate it, even if ordered to do so by the president.[3]

This list serves to point up three broader trends already apparent in the new Trump administration. First, the President and his immediate staff and many of his appointees appear to be embarked on an effort to destroy the credibility and legitimacy of any citizens, officials or institutions that argue for any perspective other than that pressed by the White House. As one-time conservative radio talk show host Charles Sykes has observed,

Discrediting independent sources of information also has two major advantages for Mr. Trump: It helps insulate him from criticism and it allows him to create his own narratives, metrics and ‘alternative facts.’

All administrations lie, but what we are seeing here is an attack on credibility itself.

The Russian dissident and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov drew upon long familiarity with that process when he tweeted: ‘The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.’

Mr. Kasparov grasps that the real threat is not merely that a large number of Americans have become accustomed to rejecting factual information, or even that they have become habituated to believing hoaxes. The real danger is that, inundated with ‘alternative facts,’ many voters will simply shrug, asking, ‘What is truth?’ — and not wait for an answer.

In that world, the leader becomes the only reliable source of truth; a familiar phenomenon in an authoritarian state, but a radical departure from the norms of a democratic society. The battle over truth is now central to our politics.[4]

Given this unremitting reality of the early days of Trump’s presidency, the press, the courts and all Americans who wish to preserve their human and civil rights and desire that their nation continue to be known for such aspirations at home and around the world, must stand up to the President’s nearly constant bullying and lies concerning immigrants and other groups and positions he has singled out for opprobrium. Those protesting the White House directives at the local level, including new and established grass roots organizations, and also via calls and letters to legislators and mass gatherings, such as the Women’s March, which included people from across the nation and the globe, should press their perspectives by all available means. They should do so too as calmly and clearly as possible in direct contradistinction to the President’s often ill-considered and overwrought rhetoric. Trump cannot be allowed to gain complete control of the public conversation. Instead, people of good will must challenge him at every turn, if the truth is to have a chance to emerge.

A second and related urgent imperative, already clear, is linked to the fact that Trump and his advisors are willing to lie continuously to serve the President’s ego and to obscure the implications of the actions they have taken. Democracy ultimately cannot function when its officials routinely conceal or deny the truth and systematically mislead their constituents and take actions inimical to their interests, even while suggesting how much they care about those same groups. Trump has already initiated several actions that fit this description and together, his steps imply that he believes he may proceed with impunity since his followers will accept all he says at face value, however obfuscating, heinous or uninformed those contentions may be.

That fact raises a third concern, and one must hope that the press’s efforts to inform, in tandem with millions arguing against Trump’s willingness to trample democratic rights and norms, will break through the rhetorical fog the Conservative entertainment complex has created among many of the President’s supporters, who, indeed, appear willing to believe anything he says. Indeed, this challenge—the crying need for those now backing Trump’s demagoguery to begin to count the costs of that support, rather than embracing a quest for power, or radical partisanship or his hucksterism—is the chief concern now facing the nation. Autocrats cannot gain their aims without followers, and Trump’s apologists must begin to question him and to see his wholesale hypocrisy and pursuit of power for what they are, and soon, if worse is not to befall the Republic in coming months and years. The question now confronting the American citizenry is, as Sykes commented, whether it is already too late to hope that truth can prevail.

Notes

[1] Kristina Wong, “Trump: Mattis’s View on Torture will ‘Override,’” The Hill, January 27, 2017. http://thehill.com/policy/defense/316542-trump-mattis-will-override-on-torture, Accessed January 27, 2017.

[2] Reuters, “Trump Names ‘Black Site’ Operator CIA Deputy Chief,” New York Times, February 2, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2017/02/02/us/politics/02reuters-usa-trump-cia.html?_r=1 Accessed February 2, 2017.

[3] John Kiriakou, “With Haspel, Trump’s Infrastructure for Torture in Place,” Reader’s Supported News, February 5, 2017.  http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/41784-with-haspel-trumps-infrastructure-for-torture-is-in-place Accessed February 5, 2017.

[4] Charles Sykes, “Why Nobody Cares the President is Lying,” New York Times, February 4, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/04/opinion/sunday/why-nobody-cares-the-president-is-lying.html?emc=edit_th_20170205&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=14836095&_r=0 Accessed February 4, 2017.