Donald Trump's War on Truth

The Republican front-runner’s repetition of a blatantly ridiculous story about Ted Cruz’s father shows his symbiotic relationship with the press.

Joel Page / Reuters

Brace yourselves for shock, but Donald Trump said something ridiculous and baseless Tuesday morning. The subject was Rafael Cruz, Cuban-born father of his primary remaining rival, Senator Ted Cruz.

“His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald's being—you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Trump said during a phone interview with Fox News. “What is this, right prior to his being shot, and nobody even brings it up. I mean, they don't even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it.”

Let’s clear a few things up: It has been reported, which is why Trump knows about it, but it was reported in the National Enquirer. Also there is no evidence for it; it’s bogus. Yes, the National Enquirer has been right about some things in the past, most notably John Edwards’s affair; no, that does not prove that it is right about this.

(Here’s a thought experiment: If there was a story this damaging about Rafael Cruz, would the mainstream and liberal media protect Ted Cruz by leaving such a juicy scoop alone? And if Rafael Cruz were involved in the Kennedy assassination, perhaps the most scrutinized and studied event in the last century of American history, why would the evidence only appear now, in a grainy photo, on the cover of a supermarket tabloid?)

But although patently absurd, the incident is interesting as an example of how Trump manipulates false stories from unreliable sources. The entertainer has no hesitations about spreading blatant falsehoods—just take a look at his Politifact track record—but this case is interesting because it shows the symbiotic relationship between Trump and the National Enquirer.

It turns out that Trump is close friends with the immaculately named David Pecker, CEO of the National Enquirer. And the Enquirer has run a whole slate of stories that are awfully unflattering for Trump’s Republican rivals. The one that got the most attention—in part because Trump’s surrogates eagerly talked about it in the national media—was a claim that Ted Cruz had several mistresses. (Like the JFK story, that one appears to be entirely baseless.) But Slate rounded up a few more of the many stories the tabloid has run, from the vaguely truth-adjacent (a claim that Ben Carson left a sponge in a patient’s brain was traced to actual lawsuits, but an allegation in a lawsuit is far different from a claim being proven true) to the bogus (love children, hookers, etc.).

A cynic might even speculate that these stories were published simply so that Trump could bring them up on the stump. New York’s Gabriel Sherman did the cynics one better in October, reporting that in fact the stories had been placed in the rag by the Trump campaign. Sherman relied on anonymous sources; both the newspaper and the Trump campaign flatly denied the claim.

But as Trump knows better than anyone, the New York report was convincing simply because it seems very plausible. Would you believe that Trump is pals with the boss of a tabloid and is feeding him fake oppo on his rivals? Sure you would! Do you really care whether or not a reporter can prove it? Of course you don’t! New York is a reputable publication and the Enquirer is not, but the important thing in this particular case is that this report is truthy and fits your political priors.

Trump grasps that this is a moment in which, as Jill Lepore recently wrote, the notion of empirical truth is destabilized and under attack, and one in which trust in the media is at an all-time low. He also grasps the fundamental accuracy of the label “the media”: Each one is just a medium for him to get a message out. As I’ve noted before, his constant attacks on the media, performed for the benefit of his audiences of press-detesting citizens, are especially pernicious because they’re so cynical and hypocritical.

Trump doesn’t really hate the media. He loves the media. He’s been using it for decades to get across what he wants. As a businessman, he was more eager to reply to reporters and get on the phone than any other mogul of comparable worth, and as a presidential candidate he gives more interviews than any politician of comparable status. He’s happy to bash The New York Times when the paper runs a story that’s unflattering and happy to praise it when it’s favorable. It’s not personal—it’s strictly business. Or politics. Whatever.

On Monday, Trump ate lunch in Indianapolis with Ed Klein, the author of bombshell books about the Clintons, in what’s widely viewed as a prelude to Trump rolling out attacks on Hillary Clinton heading into the general election. Klein is an intriguing character: He was once foreign editor of Newsweek and editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine. But his books today are widely derided as fact-free dreck—at least by the chattering classes, if not by the thousands of people who drive the volumes up the bestseller charts. (Remember, empirical truth is destabilized.)

Klein is a unicorn: He appears willing to say outlandish things, perhaps regardless of whether they’re true, but his establishment pedigree means those things get special attention. Klein’s supporters dismiss criticism of him as the anger of an establishment scorned, which places the mainstream media on the defensive and requires them to debunk falsehoods they’d just ignore from a different source, while readers who would otherwise scoff at the Times or Newsweek take his time at those publications as reason to give more heft to what he says now.

Trump must be delighted by the prospect of teaming up with someone with credentials (because as we know, Trump is a raging credentialist, always eager to tout his Wharton degree) and yet perfectly suited to Trump’s project of undermining empirical truth and sliming his opponents. But when there’s not a former New York Times staffer around to do the dirty work for him, a National Enquirer story about Rafael Cruz and Lee Harvey Oswald will always work in a pinch.

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