Deceptions in the time of the ‘alternative facts’ president
In service of his ego, his nature and his reelection prospects, the president said things that were not only wrong, but the precise opposite of right
Truth caught up with Donald Trump after years of giving chase.
The twice-impeached president painted a fantasy world in office, starring himself. In this world, he did things bigger, better, more boldly than all who came before him while facing enemies more pernicious than any in creation.
In service of his ego, his nature and his reelection prospects, he said things that were not only wrong, but the precise opposite of right. He said them over and over, in leaps and bounds, and no less so when the deceptions were exposed.
We’re rounding the corner on the virus, he said repeatedly, when the obvious reality was that the most lethal stage of the pandemic was just picking up. On the cusp of this danger, he spread the suspicion that masks make you more vulnerable to COVID-19, not less.
Then came his election defeat and a menacing twist in his life history of assaulting the facts.
That’s when Trump, primed for months to declare the election stolen from him, spun a web of deception and denialism in an effort to overturn the will of voters, pairing his words with furious action in the courts and intimidation of election officials. This all exploded in violent insurrection at the Capitol by followers inflamed by his sustained and flamboyant lie.
The United States, that self-described beacon of democracy, that supposed shining city on a hill, came under the flickering shadow of his gaslight.
“Who’s the banana republic now?” asked newspaper headlines an ocean apart in Kenya and Colombia.
Trump leaves Joe Biden with repair work to do on the government’s credibility in a country where millions went along with their president’s fantastical ride — believing his persistent falsehoods about masks, election fraud, socialists in the halls of power, antifa rampant in the streets, his tormenters at every turn.
It’s a legacy of “magical thinking,” said Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland. “They have a full-blown independent reality, totally cut apart from the world of facts.” He said that is the road to fascism.
Wherever that road goes, it’s up to Biden to try to lead the way back.
Two of Trump’s legacies collided with each other while he was still in power.
One was his success in reshaping federal courts and the Supreme Court along conservative lines, an achievement bound to affect the direction of the country for years. The other was his signature capacity for disinformation, also for the history books.
In psychology, gaslighting means manipulating people to question their own perceptions, memories or even sanity. It tends not to work so well on judges.
The courts proved to be the bulwark against Trump’s machinations. The three justices he placed on the high court did nothing to help him when they had the chance. Dozens of federal judges — Trump nominees among them — blocked his course, finding no merit in his complaints of voting and counting fraud.
Yet he had waged the fight with the support of legions of his voters and more than 100 Republican members of Congress who supported his challenge of Biden’s election certification on the same false pretenses peddled by Trump.
“It really matters that the president of the United States is an arsonist of radicalization,” Kori Schake, a senior national security and State Department aide in the George W. Bush administration, told a postelection conference. She dared hope “it will really help when that’s no longer the case.”
By being so determinedly loose with the truth, Trump stayed true to character in the White House.
The arc of his life reveals insistent fabrication and exaggeration, as well as one vast understatement, attributed to him in his memoir and singular in its audacity: “A little hyperbole never hurts.”
In his days as a publicity hungry real estate developer in New York, he would pretend to be a publicist named John Miller as he got on the phone with the press and planted flattering secrets about Donald Trump, such as “actresses just call to see if they can go out with him and things.”
His deceptions would start to take on much larger dimensions with deeper consequences, as when he tried to perpetuate the lie that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and thus was an illegitimate president. The lie so seeped into the public consciousness that Obama’s White House felt compelled to issue a copy of his birth certificate to counter it.
Then in office, Trump used the extraordinary reach and power of the presidency to tell Americans not to believe what they could see with their own eyes.
Trump underplayed the threat the coronavirus posed while admitting he knew better. For weeks in the fall he spoke of the U.S. “rounding the corner” on the pandemic even as infections rose across the country. He further encouraged his believers to let down their guard by telling them that most people who wear masks get COVID-19, which is far from the truth.
Throughout his term, to go with Trump’s flow was to suspend logic, to disdain arithmetic, to ignore that his latest statement contradicted what he said days before. It meant buying into “alternative facts” — a phrase that spurred sales of George Orwell’s dystopian book “1984” when it was coined by a Trump aide.
He hailed make-believe economic numbers. He misrepresented his conversations with foreign leaders. He claimed to have saved Christmas from the anti-Christians, declared “the vaccine is me,” and bookended his term with baseless claims that both elections were “rigged,” even the one he won. (He was sore about losing the popular vote in 2016.)
“It’s simply gotten to the point where Donald Trump has told so many lies in so many different ways … it just makes you wonder if we’re living in a post-truth world,” said Richard Waterman, a University of Kentucky political science professor who studies the presidency.
Surveys consistently found that Trump’s supporters believed him more than objective sources, even when he was clearly and demonstrably wrong. Huge numbers of Americans said they believed the election was fraudulent when Trump told them so, in the face of judges, state and federal election officials, Republican governors and his own attorney general who said it wasn’t.
Trump’s fabrications were the racing heartbeat of his rallies. The counterfeit fed the charisma.
At a postelection rally in Georgia, Trump railed for nearly two hours in a speech where it was easier to suss out the true statements than the false ones because there were so few true ones.
The Democrats, he said, “want to rip down buildings and rebuild them with no windows. I like windows.”
“They even want to take away your beautiful Christmas that we just got back,” he went on, inexplicably.
“We know the Democrats will have dead people voting and you got to watch it — dead people. You wouldn’t believe how many illegal aliens from out of the state and they’ll be filing out and filling out ballots for people who don’t even exist.” No such behavior was uncovered in the dozens of courtrooms where Trump’s postelection lawsuits went to die.
No matter. Whether his core supporters believed he was speaking the whole truth or not, they believed he was speaking their truth. Never more so than when he went after the elites.
“They beat you down, shut you up and make you retreat,” he said in Georgia. “That’s what they do.”
Sitting atop a sophisticated information-gathering apparatus — the U.S. government — Trump was a sponge for fevered speculations on Twitter or from his favorite right-wing talk shows.
One day on Twitter, someone tweeted a screenshot of a streaming video of Biden’s Thanksgiving address, showing the video was being watched at that one moment on one site by about 1,000 people. Someone on Instagram seized on the number, questioning in a popular video post how Biden could possibly get more than 80 million honest votes when only 1,000 people bothered to watch his holiday remarks.
It was amateur hour in the world of conspiracy theories.
Biden’s remarks were watched by millions, as a check of just a sampling of other streaming sources by The Associated Press quickly made clear. But the theory wasn’t too silly for the president to put in his quiver.
“I’m shocked to hear that,” Trump told his crowd. “They say he had less than a thousand people. How do you have 80 million votes and you have a thousand people?”
The remark captured one of Trump’s traits when he was saying something dishonest. He might attribute the claim to an unidentified someone else: “They say.”
He would often speak of things he claimed to have seen or heard — somewhere. He saw Muslims in New Jersey dancing in the streets after the 2001 terrorist attacks, he said, citing TV footage no one found.
In October, Trump several times botched the findings of a federal study on masks and the virus. “Just the other day they came out with a statement that 85% of the people that wear masks catch it,” he said in an NBC forum in Miami.
“They” didn’t say that at all.
“Well that’s what I heard and that’s what I saw,” he said when challenged by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.
He told his Georgia rally last month, as he’s told many before, that someone in the Army confided to him, “Sir, we have no ammunition.”
So he rushed into the breach, he said, giving soldiers not only bullets and a pay raise but missiles 17 times faster than anything the world had seen. Or four or seven times faster; the number varied by the telling.
“And we now have the greatest, most modern military in the history of our country,” Trump told his Georgia crowd. “We have … hypersonic missiles. We have hypersonic and hydrosonic. You know what hydrosonic is? Water. We have them all.”
We don’t. Hydrosonic isn’t a missile. It’s an expensive toothbrush.
Trump’s fraught relationship with the facts extended beyond his own words. Officials who fell under the umbrella of truth-telling or truth-finding ended up in tough spots in his presidency.
He fired or demoted nearly a half dozen inspectors general responsible for calling out waste and fraud in federal departments. The nonpartisan public health scientists who would not echo his rosy take about the pandemic with sufficient enthusiasm, or at all, earned his ire or were sidelined or both.
Among them, Dr. Anthony Fauci took on a security detail for his family because of threats. Some election and state officials did the same when Trump came hard after them with his tweets for refusing to validate his election falsehoods. Innocent, low-level election workers identified by Trump in public forums had to go into hiding.
Intelligence analysts who saw Russian meddling that Trump didn’t want to see, disinterested public servants who witnessed and accurately described the pressure campaign on Ukraine that got Trump impeached the first time — these and more were subject to hair-trigger accusations of disloyalty, with consequences.
Mark K. Updegrove, presidential historian and CEO of the LBJ Foundation, said the presidents held highest in the pantheon have been the ones known for their integrity. The converse, he said, “will be a major part of the Trump presidency when we look back at it, his absolute inability to tell the truth consistently.”
To be sure, volumes of books are filled with the varied ways presidents of the past disgraced themselves, fought secret wars, undermined their opponents with sketchy tactics, lied about sex, broke big promises or dodged inconvenient truths.
But the systematic deceptions of the “alternative facts” president were unlike anything before.
Attempting to explain her phrase, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said there are alternative ways of arriving at the truth. Two plus two equals four, she noted, but so does three plus one.
That’s not, though, how Trump rolled. Two plus two would equal an astronomical number in his reckoning. Maybe the biggest number ever. At least that’s what they say.
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