Just before the 2016 election, and then again after its results became clear, I did a series of Atlantic items on a challenge I thought the press was not prepared for.
The challenge was dealing with a major political figure—Donald Trump—who fit no previous pattern of how presidents or other major figures conceived of “truth” versus “lies.”
All politicians, like all people, will lie about matters large and small. But most politicians, like most people, usually lie for a reason. They want to avoid blame or embarrassment. They want someone to like or treat them better. They want to paint themselves in a better light. They’ve talked themselves into “believing” a more comfortable version of perhaps-painful truths.
We all know examples from daily life. In the life of public figures, it means things like: Richard Nixon lying about Watergate (in hopes of not getting caught). Bill Clinton lying about his affairs (ditto). Lyndon Johnson concealing what he knew about the worsening situation in Vietnam (so as not to complicate his re-election chances). FDR concealing his physical limitations (so as not to have them complicate his political and policy goals).
So in dealing with the political universe as of the summer of 2015—the time when Donald Trump entered the presidential race—the press could start by asking: What’s the reason a certain statement might be a lie? What would a president — a mayor, a senator— have to gain by shading the truth? The related assumption was that people wouldn’t go to the trouble of crafting a lie without a reason to do so. Lies are harder to remember than the truth; they involve more work in getting people to back up your story; they involve the risk that you’ll be caught.
What made Donald Trump different was not how much more frequently he lies — though he does so at a prodigious rate. (As Daniel Dale and the Washington Post’s fact-check team, among others, have tirelessly chronicled.)
Rather the difference was that Trump so plainly recognized no distinction between true and false—between what the “facts” showed and what he wanted them to be, between what he wanted people to think and what they could see for themselves. Some public figures are unusually “willing” to lie; Trump seemed not even to notice he was doing so. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s famous book “On Bullshit” bears on this phenomenon—people who just talk, in a slurry of “true” and “false,” with no concern or even awareness of the difference between the two.
In Trump’s case it became clear long ago that he lacked the mental filter that alerts most people to the boundary between true and false. He would probably sail through any lie-detector test. He does not care if his claim can be instantly disproved (eg, his “landslide” victory, actually one of the narrowest in history). He does not care if his lies contradict one another, as when he attributes the same “someone told me” story to different sources from one day to the next, or rolls out his ludicrous “Sir” anecdotes. He does not care if a lie does him any good—who believes, or cares, whether his uncle was “a great super genius” as a professor at MIT? He does not care that the Adonis-like heroic portrait that has hung for years at Mar-a-Lago would be a source of mirth for most viewers.
“The news media are not built for someone like this,” I wrote two months before Trump was sworn in:
[We have] as president-elect 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….
Our journalistic and political assumption is that each side to a debate will “try” to tell the truth—and will count it as a setback if they’re caught making things up. Until now the idea has been that if you can show a contrast between words and actions, claim and reality, it may not bring the politician down, but it will hurt. For instance: Bill Clinton survived “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but he was damaged then, and lastingly, when the truth came out. Knowledge of the risks of being caught has encouraged most politicians to minimize provable lies.
None of this works with Donald Trump. He doesn’t care, and at least so far the institutional GOP hasn’t either.
1) Call out lies as lies, not “controversies.” In covering Trump’s latest illegal-voting outburst [that “millions of people” had snuck into the polling places and voted, presumably for Democrats], The Washington Post and The LA Times took the lead in clearly labeling the claim as false, rather than “controversial” or “unsubstantiated.”...
By contrast.. the NYT takes a more “objective” tone—there’s “no evidence” for Trump’s claim, much as there was “no evidence” for his assertion that Ted Cruz’s dad played a part in the JFK assassination.
What’s the difference? The NYT said that the claim had “no evidence.” The Post said it was false. The Times’s is more conventional—but it is also “normalizing” in suggesting that Trump actually cared whether there was evidence for what he said. I think the Post’s is closer to calling things what they are.
It’s nearly three-and-a-half years later. Everything we saw about Trump on the campaign trail we have seen from him in the White House, including the limitless fantasy-lying.
I submit that these three-and-a-half years later, much of the press has still not rebuilt itself, to cope with a time or a person like this. Or with a political party like the subservient Trump-era GOP.
To choose only a small subset of examples, from only the past three days’ worth of history, here are some illustrations. These are words and deeds that, each on its own, would likely have been major black-mark news events in other eras. Now they are just part of the daily onrush.
1) Us, and them. Two days ago, on March 27, Donald Trump signed in the Oval Office the most expensive spending bill in American history. Getting it enacted required sustained, major efforts from Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, and from Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, who got every one of his fellow Democrats to vote for the bill.
After Lyndon Johnson relied on Republican support to get his civil-rights and Medicare legislation through the Congress, he made sure that the Republican leaders from the House and Senate were with him for the signing ceremonies, to receive some of the first pens he used. (When Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in the Oval Office, he had only Democratic legislators around him—but that was because of near-unanimous Republican opposition to the bill.)
Structurally Trump’s situation this week was like LBJ’s: he was signing a bill the other party had played a crucial role in passing. But when Trump signed the bill yesterday, not a single Democratic legislator was present. Pelosi said she had not been invited.
Every other president has tried, at some point, to expand his support beyond those who originally voted for him (which is why all others have at some point had popularity ratings of 60 percent or 70 percent). Every other one has at some point tried to express the interests of the entire public, not just “the base.” Trump has never done either—and that failure is so baked-in that it barely registers now.
Obama used precious months in his first year trying to get GOP support for his medical plan; he failed; and a running press critique thereafter was that he should have been doing more to “reach out” to the other side. (Recall the whole “Have a drink with Mitch McConnell” motif.) I haven’t seen any columns fretting about Trump’s failure to “reach out” to Pelosi or Schumer. “That’s just Trump.”
2) “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.” In this past Friday’s version of his marathon TV sessions—the supposed “health” briefings that have become daily hour-long substitutes for Trump’s campaign rallies—Trump said that most of the governors now requesting federal aid were friendly to him. But not all, and the ones who weren’t “appreciative” had better watch their step.
Trump was asked what he meant about being “appreciative.” His answer (as you can see starting at time 24:00 of this C-SPAN video):
“Q. You say the governors are not appreciate of what the federal government has done. What more—
“A: [breaking in}: I think the governor of Washington [Jay Inslee] is a failed presidential candidate. He leveled out at zero in the polls. He’s constantly tripping and—I guess ‘complaining’ would be a nice way of saying it…
In Michigan, all she does is—she has no idea what’s going on. All she does is saying [whining voice] ‘Oh, it’s the federal government’s fault…’
“I want them to be appreciative. We’ve done a great job…
“Mike Pence, I don’t think he sleeps any more. He calls all the governors. I tell him—I’m a different kind of guy—I tell him, Don’t call the governor of Washington. You’re wasting your time with him.
“Don’t call the woman in Michigan….
“You know what I say, If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”
What would have made news about this passage in any other era?
- First, the naked favor-trading: What Trump is saying about the states of Washington and Michigan is more or less what led the House to impeach him last year, regarding Ukraine. That is: threatened use of federal power and favors, to reward political friends and punish political enemies—and in this case for unconcealed, openly stated political reasons.
- Second, the crassness and cruelty, to leaders coping with life-and-death emergencies in their home states. “A failed presidential candidate.” “She has no idea what’s doing on.”
- Third, the misogyny: Repeatedly avoiding the name of Gretchen Whitmer, elected last year as governor of Michigan, and calling her “the woman in Michigan.” Check the C-SPAN video if you’re in doubt about the dismissive tone of these remarks, and recall Trump’s frequent references to “Crooked Hillary” and “Crazy Nancy Pelosi.”
There was some brief press followup on all these points, but mainly it was again normalized as Trump being Trump.
3) Lies, lies, lies. I’ll leave to the other chroniclers a complete list of the several dozen lies in Trump’s live-broadcast appearances in the past few days. On Thursday, he went on at length about the bounty of tariff payments that the U.S. was receiving “from China”—which revealed either a black-is-white misunderstanding of how tariffs work, or a Harry Frankfurt-style indifference to the bullshit of what he was saying. (None of the White House reporters challenged him about his tariff claim.)
Here is just one consequential lie to stand for the rest: Trump repeatedly claims, and has done so every day this past week, that no one possibly could have seen this pandemic coming, and that everything was great until just a few weeks ago.
Of the countless reasons to know this is false, consider this Politico story on the detailed, 69-page playbook the National Security Council had prepared for coping with just this kind of emergency. The exact timing, origin, and biology of this new disease of course came as surprises. But the consequences and choices are ones any competent government would have foreseen.
Just a month before the 9/11 attacks, in which more than 3,000 people were killed, George W. Bush received a memo famously titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Many years later, press analyses still pointed this out. For years after the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which four Americans died, congressional Republicans held several dozen hearings, to determine whether the Obama administration should have been more prepared.
In the past few days’ papers, I see no followup on this NSC report. Press standards for covering Trump have already factored in, and thus implicitly forgiven, the corruption and incompetence.
4) Repeating the mistakes of 2015. Starting in the summer of 2015, cable channels began running live Trump rallies, because they were so “interesting.” People watched. Ratings went up. And by Election Day, Trump had received billions of dollars’ worth of free airtime. One calculation of the value was $5 billion; another, $2 billion. In either case, a lot.
Without this coverage—this decision by TV outlets, to improve their ratings by giving limitless free, live airtime to Trump—he could never have become the Republican nominee, let alone the president.
Trump himself clearly views the “briefings” about the “virus” — really, rallies about his greatness—as this year’s substitute for the live rallies he can no longer hold. But the cable and broadcast outlets, as if 2015 and 2016 had never occurred, are covering his daily briefings as they did the rallies of days gone by. For more on why this is a mistake, please see this suggestion from Jay Rosen of PressThink, about how the media could shift to “emergency setting”, and this from the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple on the problem of nonstop live coverage of Trump telling lies.
The media were not built for someone like this. That someone has not changed. The media must change.