Probably the most sustained of these arguments is that of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial writer Bret Stephens, last week in his Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA (as reprinted full-length in Time). He develops at length, and very well, the point I am suggesting here. It’s fair to disclose that in the pre-Trump era I disagreed with Stephens’s views pretty much across the board on international and domestic policy. He was for the Iraq war and against the Iran nuclear deal; my views were the reverse. Similar, and on the same issues, I took a different view of the pre-Trump world from the Washington Post’s editorial writer Jennifer Rubin. I assume I’ll disagree with Stephens and Rubin again whenever Trump has gone. But in the year and a half since Trump appeared on the horizon, these two have distinguished themselves in standing up for conservative principles, and the underpinnings of small-l liberal democracy, rather than partisan accommodationism. People looking back on this era will contrast them and their clarity with the party leaders who have been so busily averting their eyes.
Back to Stephens’s address. He starts by contrasting Trump’s media complaints with those of other politicians (emphasis added):
But the question of what Mr. Trump might yet do by political methods against the media matters a great deal less than what he is attempting to do by ideological and philosophical methods.
Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes—Breitbart News and the rest…
His objection to, say, The New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt—so long as it’s on his side.
And then Stephens extends the argument to one of the traits that most strikingly distinguishes Trump from most other politicians: that he does not care if he is shown to be telling obvious, easily disprovable lies. The inner power of the norm against lying is such that even people later renowned for high-stakes falsehoods—Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Mark Sanford—tried to avoid telling lies until it was “useful” or “necessary,” and betrayed their discomfort when they were caught. As I argued just after the election, the unsettling novelty of Trump is that he tells lies when they’re not useful, he tells lies when he knows they can be disproven, he lies and shows less remorse than a lizard when the lie is exposed.
Stephens describes a recent exchange Trump had with Bill O’Reilly, in which O’Reilly asked him about his unconnected-to-reality claims that there had been millions of illegal votes. From Stephens’s speech:
The president replies [to O’Reilly’s challenge]: “Many people have come out and said I’m right.”…
I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant—if not in intention than certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument.
He isn’t telling O’Reilly that he’s got his facts wrong. He’s saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter: That they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them—or, in his case, both….
If I had to sum it up [this view] in a single sentence, it would be this: Truth is what you can get away with.