Notes
First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
Trump Nation
Show Description +

An ongoing reader discussion led by James Fallows regarding Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. (For a related series, see “Trump Time Capsule,” as well as “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?”) To sound off in a substantive way, especially if you disagree with us, please send a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

Show None Newer Notes

How to Deal With the Lies of Donald Trump: Guidelines for the Media

The Washington Post on November 27. Headlines like this are a step toward recognizing the plain reality of today’s politics.

A man who will literally have life and death power over much of humanity seems not to understand or care about the difference between truth and lies. Is there any way for democratic institutions to cope? This is our topic in the post-Thanksgiving week.

***

Being back in China in the U.S.-election aftermath naturally leads to thoughts about how societies function when there is no agreed-on version of “reality,” public knowledge, or news.

We take for granted that this was a challenge for Soviet citizens back in the Cold War days, when they relied on samizdat for non-government-authorized reports and criticisms. Obviously it’s a big issue for China’s public now. But its most consequential effects could be those the United States is undergoing, which have led to the elevation of the least prepared, most temperamentally unfit, least public-spirited person ever to assume the powers of the U.S. presidency.

The United States is seeing both a chronic and an acute new version of this public-information problem. The chronic version, recognized but nowhere close to being solved, is the rise of separate fact-universes into which different segments of society silo themselves—occurring at the same time as the “normal” news media are struggling against economic and other pressures.

The acute version is the emergence as president-elect of a man whose nature as a liar is outside what our institutions are designed to deal with. Donald Trump either cannot tell the difference between truth and lies, or he knows the difference but does not care. Tiniest example: On a single day during the campaign, Trump claimed that the National Football League had sent him a letter complaining that the presidential-debate schedule conflicted with NFL games (which the NFL immediately denied), and then he said the Koch brothers had begged him to accept their donations (which they also flat-out denied).

Most people would hesitate before telling easily disprovable lies like these, much as shoplifters would hesitate if the store owner is looking at them. Most people are fazed if caught in an outright lie. But in these cases and others, Trump never blinked. As part of his indispensable campaign coverage this summer, David Fahrenthold (and Robert O’Harrow) of The Washington Post offered astonishing documentation of Trump being caught in a long string of business-related lies and simply not caring.

The news media are not built for someone like this.

I have seen this portrait, at Mar a Lago, with my own eyes, and took this photo.  (It was years ago, during an entirely non-Trump-related event that happened to be held there.)

Yesterday from China, I did a long item on the utter inadequacy of standard press practices in the face of a person like Donald Trump. Everything about “balance” and “objectivity” as news standards rests on a benefit-of-the-doubt assumption about public figures, and about the public audience. For the public figures, the assumption is that they’re at least trying not to lie, and that they’d rather not get caught. For the public audience, the assumption is that they’ll care about an ongoing record of honesty or deception. But those assumptions do not match the reality of Trump.

You can read the whole thing here. The summary is:

  • Unlike other public figures we’ve encountered, Donald Trump appears not even to register the difference between truth and lies. He lies when it’s not “necessary” or even useful. He lies when disproof is immediately at hand. He shows no flicker in the eye, or “tell” of any kind, when he is caught in a flat-out lie. Richard Nixon looked tense and sweaty when saying “I am not a crook.” Bill Clinton went into his tortured “it depends what the meaning of is is” answer precisely because he was trying to avoid a direct lie.
    Trump doesn’t care. Watching his face for discomfort or “tells” is like looking at an alligator for signs of remorse.
  • Thus the media have to start out with the assumption that anything Trump says is at least as likely to be false as true. He has forfeited any right to an “accurate until proven to be inaccurate” presumption of honesty. Thus a headline or framing that says “Trump claims, without evidence, [his latest fantasy]” does more violence to the truth than “Trump falsely claims...”

Now, two readers write in with detailed practical tips. The first, from a reader outside the U.S. with experience in publishing, is mainly about journalistic practices. This reader correctly refers to Trump’s behavior as narcissistic, without assuming any underlying medical diagnosis. The reader’s predictions and advice:

  • The mania for reporting every false or outrageous tweet as major news will eventually fade as everyone, including the public, gets tired of it. Smart people also know it’s a diversionary tactic and most people will eventually catch on. Smart people also know they’re lies, even if those persons are too partisan or embarrassed to admit it. Most  people will eventually catch up on that front too. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. There will be some settling down around the time of the inauguration, followed by a steady slide. People only have so much patience for temper tantrums. Narcissists get old and ugly, especially when overexposed to sunlight.
  • In the meantime, less scrupulous members of Congress and appointed officials will use the diversions for their own ends. There must be continuous vigilance directed at these people as well and it might be up to the hometown media to be vigilant. It’s a great opportunity for ambitious young journalists to make a name for themselves, even if it’s stories about how Congressman Whosit rolled over and played dead. It is necessary to keep them honest. The hometown reporters will be the first to notice when someone is living beyond their expected means.
  • Pressure on members of Congress will help to keep pressure on the president, in turn ensuring that they act as a check and balance. The media can then report White House news indirectly from that angle, even if they can’t get a direct angle.

Fallows is on a plane once again, this time back from China, so he asked me to help compile and edit all the most insightful and varied emails among the tsunami sent to him directly and sent to our hello@ inbox. This first reader dissents over Jim’s mega-popular note, “How to Deal With the Lies of Donald Trump: Guidelines for the Media” (follow-up note here):

Public trust in institutions is very low (all-time low?), and trust in the media is particularly low. Following the advice of James Fallows will make your core readership feel righteous and satisfied and dare I say smug, but it will further erode everyone else’s trust in you. To Trump supporters, it will look like a partisan attack by the liberal media, but there’s probably no hope of winning them over anyway, so let’s put them aside for now. To many other people—regular folks who simply don’t have time or skills to weigh evidence and evaluate sources—it will just look like opposing assertions.

Instead, what if instead of making this “illegal votes” episode a story about a “tweet” or a “lie” or even a liar, the media made it a story about a serious and dangerous claim by our president-elect? What if you actually doubled-down on the “normalizing” and gave Trump every opportunity to back up his claims with evidence? What if you refused to move on from this very serious issue and instead demanded that he explain seriously and at length why he believes that three million illegal votes were cast, and why they were cast only for Clinton?

What if you refused to move on from this one tweet for several weeks? What if the media did that for every dangerous claim made by this (elected) administration, baseless or otherwise? Don’t accuse him of lying. Instead, force him to use his platform to either back it up or back down. Don’t try to shoot him; give him a rope to hang himself with.

This next reader favors the opposite approach—ignore Trump’s antics and conspiracy theories whenever possible:

One major problem not being addressed is why any news media needs to put something like Trump’s tweet reaction to the recount on the front-page or at the head of their news feed? If the claim has no evidence, then what’s news here? What is there to report? I can read the damn tweet on my own; what do I need you or the NY Times to add to it? If Trump’s claim has “no evidence,” then go ask the guy if he has evidence—and then come back to me, the reader, and report some news on that.

Another reader favors the “go ask the guy” approach but dialed way up to 11:

While reading the Ned Resnikoff quote (and essay) that Fallows linked to, here’s a scenario that played out in my mind. In an interview or press conference, an exasperated reporter says something like, “Why should the American people believe anything you have to say, given the kind of outrageous lies you’ve told over and over again? Ted Cruz’s dad was involved with the JFK assassination? Obama is the founder of ISIS? These are baseless and absurd claims. Why should any foreign leader take you seriously? Why should we in the press take your words seriously? Your outrageous lies are very similar to the type employed by autocratic rulers, who try to cause confusion, infecting people with the feeling that the truth cannot be known. We in the press reject that notion, and we see your lying as an assault on facts and reality, and we're not going to put up with it!” I’m not a good dramatist, but you get the idea.

My hope is that the moment could be something that would reverberate through the press corps and maybe through the entire body politic. It would be an emperor-has-no-clothes moment. Perhaps, this is wishful thinking, but I feel the press and the larger American public need this type of jolt.  

That reader continues:

The current overall approach from the media seems to gloss over Trump’s BS approach, moving on to things like his policy positions. But who cares about his policy positions if you can’t really believe what he says?  If he really is lying to cause confusion, rather than communicate, then his words about policy or almost anything else don’t matter. This is a do-not-pass-go situation. At this point, Trump has to prove his good faith—that he actually wants to use words to communicate ideas, not to attack the notion that we can know reality in a shared and meaningful way. If he doesn’t, some kind of consequence has to occur— maybe really hostile coverage. I’m not sure what the answer is, but to proceed with covering him as if he were a normal president would be a dangerous charade, normalizing his BS.

By the way, I also think that the press should aggressively confront the Trump transition team and Congressional supporters about Trump’s conspiracy theories and outrageous lying. What do Pence, Ryan, McConnell, et al., think about his conspiracy theories and outrageous lies? Do they believe that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents can actually agree upon facts and reality? Do they believe that this is important to our democracy? Do they not think that Trump’s lies are undermining these important beliefs? If they continue to support his lying, there should some consequence for them as well.

I feel like a line has to be drawn—a line dividing those who support a reality-based community versus those who are hostile to it. The Fourth Estate should be an ardent defender of reality-based communication and decision-making. It is essential to what they do, and without it, they and our democracy die.

Along those lines, a retired Foreign Service officer is “deeply concerned about the international implications of Trump’s allegations of widespread voter fraud”:

Embassy staff in China or Russia are bound to be told, “It doesn’t look like your governmental system is doing so well, does it?  See, your future President is saying that your elections are rotten with fraud.” What could our people then say? For the sake of truth and the honor of the country, they can’t agree; but to disagree is to call their future boss a flagrant public liar. That he is in fact such a liar is, in that situation, beside the point. Our ability to advocate for our country is being recklessly endangered simply to satisfy Trump’s vanity.  

Speaking of that vanity, here’s reader Nate:

Population-adjusted county-by-county cartogram of the 2016 presidential vote. M.E.J. Newman at the University of Michigan

This morning, straight off the plane from Shanghai, I was on The Diane Rehm Show with Margaret Sullivan, much-missed former Public Editor of the NYT who is now with the WaPo, and Glenn Thrush of Politico. We were talking about how to deal with the unprecedented phenomenon that is Donald Trump, related to the “Trump’s Lies” item I did two days ago.

You can listen to the whole segment here, but I direct your attention to the part starting at time 14:40. That is when Scottie Nell Hughes, Trump stalwart, joins the show to assert that “this is all a matter of opinion” and “there are no such things as facts.”

You can listen again starting at around time 18:30, when I point out one of the specific, small lies of the Trump campaign—that the NFL had joined him in complaining about debate dates, which the NFL immediately denied—and Hughes says: Well, this is also just a matter of opinion. Hughes mentions at time 21:45 that she is a “classically studied journalist,” an assertion that left Glenn Thrush, Margaret Sullivan, Diane Rehm, and me staring at one another in puzzlement, this not being a normal claim in our field.

It’s worth listening in full. This is the world we are now dealing with.

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a news conference in a packed White House press briefing room on November 14, 2016. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

In the four weeks since the election, which seem like four centuries, Donald Trump has dominated the news and done real strategic and economic damage with his stream of intemperate tweets. For a reckoning of the chaos that his tweets about Taiwan and China have already induced, please see these Atlantic items: by Uri Friedman with Shen Dengli, by David Graham, by Chris Bodenner, and by Isaac Stone Fish, with links to many other analyses. The harm he petulantly inflicted today on Boeing, a company that is perennially the United States’s leading exporter and one of its most important high-tech manufacturing employers and standard-setters, is only the latest and most flagrant illustration.

This is not responsible behavior. This is not normal. This is not something the United States, or for that matter the world, can really withstand from a commander in chief. But this ungoverned, thin-skinned impetuosity is something the “responsible” GOP has decided, to its enduring shame, that it dare not criticize.

One other thing is true of Trump’s destructive outbursts. They come from a person who does not yet exercise any official power. The American-democratic principle of peaceful transfer of power includes the tenet that the United States has only one president at a time. And for the next 44-plus days, that president is Barack Obama.

As president, Obama has often been at his best in moments of national trauma, stress, or confidence-destroying emergency. I am thinking, for example, of one of  his very greatest speeches: his “Amazing Grace” eulogy and exhortation after the gun massacre last year in Charleston, South Carolina.

Our current exposure to Donald Trump is a moment that even experienced Republicans will say—carefully off the record—represents a confidence-destroying emergency. (How do I know this? Like most reporters, I have heard first-hand—but of course not from anyone willing to be quoted. This is the party of Lincoln.) A man whose temperament makes him manifestly unfit to command the vast military, surveillance, investigative, and enforcement powers of the U.S. government stands mere weeks away from assuming that command.

There is nothing Barack Obama can do about the transition scheduled for January 20. But in the meantime he is the president, and he needs to be present— and visible, and heard from. So far he has been deferential to a fault, letting the chaos emanating from Trump’s Android phone disrupt markets and alliances. His latest major press conference was on November 14, more than three weeks ago. (Trump, of course, has not held a press conference since the election, and none at all since July.)

Obama’s lowkey approach is no doubt an extension of his statesmanlike invitation to meet Trump just after the election, and their strained handshake at the White House. It’s in keeping with “no drama Obama.” He has never been known for seeking confrontations.

But if he thinks that America stands for values different from Trump’s daily outbursts, if he thinks the institutions of the country can survive the tantrums of the man scheduled to control them, if he thinks democratic norms and limits deserve defense, if he thinks the United States can find a steady path in the world despite a most unsteady leader—and we assume that Obama believes all these things, and may even have thoughts about the path forward—then let’s start hearing from him. Why not another press conference tomorrow? And then one a week after that. And then maybe we’ll all take a week off for Christmas and Hanukkah—but other presidents have given post-holiday greetings, and he could too. And remember hearing about Dwight Eisenhower’s greatest speech, his farewell address, three days before John Kennedy was sworn in? As his next rhetorical target, Obama could set for himself the goal of topping that to give the most-influential ever farewell address.

Everything Barack Obama has stood for, Donald Trump—not yet in office—is doing his best to discredit. For the next 44 days, Obama will still be the most powerful person on Earth, so he might as well sound that way. Remind us of what the country is, what it should stand for, how it can find a steady path ahead.

As the current saying goes: What the hell does he have to lose?

That quote comes from an Atlantic reader referring to the blistering roast that President Obama gave Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner in response to The Donald’s deplorable Birther campaign deployed a few months earlier. That devastating mockery of the reality TV host was wholly satisfying to watch (and just as skilled as Colbert’s professional takedown of Bush in 2006), but was it wise? Did Obama’s public humiliation of a vengeful narcissist set the ball in motion for Trump’s presidential campaign—a campaign less about the presidency and more about proving Obama and the laughing media elites wrong?

That’s the premise of The Choice 2016, Frontline’s superb documentary. The key portion:

With that in mind, here are three reader emails that Fallows forwarded me to post in his stead. (Accordingly I’ve changed them from second-person to third-person.) The first reader writes:

I’m a huge fan of Fallows, but I disagree with his latest note, pushing President Obama to denounce President-elect Trump. Fallows wrote, “What the hell does [Obama] have to lose?” I think the answer is clear.

As many commentators have noted, Donald Trump’s principal principle is to listen to people who flatter him and reject people who offend him. Barack Obama, it seems clear, has decided that his best influence on the next four years is to stay on Donald’s good side—to convince him, as Obama apparently did in their Oval Office meeting, that Obamacare needs reform, not repeal; and perhaps to convince Trump to maintain other positive aspects of the Obama legacy.

Obama attacking Trump at this point will cause Trump to attack Obama and the policies of the Obama administration. It would feel good for liberals (including me!), but the real-world consequences could be terrible. All of the attacks on Trump from mainstream media and politicians did not keep him from the presidency. Now that Trump will be president, Obama is trying to maintain a relationship and thereby some sway in Trump’s decision-making.

So what does Obama have to lose? His policies, his legacy, and his chance at influencing the next president.

This next reader is on the same page:

I have to disagree with the notion that Obama should do more and be more visible right now.

Kellyanne Conway, on Donald Trump’s “blowout” win

As I mentioned in this post in late November, and in this followup, and also in a discussion with Diane Rehm on her new podcast series yesterday, Donald Trump’s lies differ from those we have encountered from other national figures, even Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton during their respective impeachments. The difference is that Trump seemingly does not care that evidence is immediately at hand to disprove what he says. If he believes what he’s saying, at least in that moment, why shouldn’t we?

For the record, the latest entry of this sort is the repeated insistence by Trump and his associates that he won a “landslide” or “major” victory. For instance, this was his transition team’s response to reports of Russian attempts to swing the election in his favor:

“Now time to move on.”

Translation: “A long time ago” is actually one month, and “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history” is actually one of the least impressive. Here are the facts:

  • In terms of his Electoral College margin, which will probably end up at 306 to 232, Trump will rank #46 among the 58 presidential elections that have been held.
  • In terms of his popular vote margin, Trump will probably end up with the third-worst popular vote result, or if you prefer 56th ranked of the 58 winning candidates in history. (Obviously the 58 elections have produced 45 presidents, some of them winning two terms and FDR winning four.) This ranking is based on his losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a little more than 2 percent, or a little less than 3 million votes. John Quincy Adams lost the popular vote by 10 percent in 1824 to Andrew Jackson, and also came in second in the electoral vote—but became president when the race went to the House, since none of the four candidates had an Electoral College majority. He is #58 out of 58, in terms of popular-vote mandate for winners. Rutherford B. Hayes, who won the electoral college while losing the popular vote by 3 percent to Samuel Tilden in 1876, is #57. Donald Trump, losing by 2 percent, is #56. Every president except J.Q. Adams and Hayes came to office with a stronger popular-vote mandate than Trump.

None of this changes the fact that Trump ended up ahead in this year’s electoral vote. But the next time you hear Trump, his campaign managers, his transition team, or anyone else call this a “landslide” or “one of the biggest victories ever,” remember the numbers. This is 46th out of 58 in electoral college terms, and 56th out of 58 in the popular vote.

***

Here is the embed for my discussion yesterday with Diane Rehm: