Trump Discovers the Costs of Undermining Truth

At the same time that the president sows doubt and confusion to undermine his adversaries, he finds those forces depriving him of credit he believes he deserves.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

A long weekend with lots of executive time, simmering tensions with politicians of both parties, a looming government shutdown: It’s the most potent cocktail that Donald Trump, a teetotaler, could imbibe, and it produced a predictably jarring and erratic series of statements.

Over the course of several days, mostly in tweets, Trump tried to make three points. First, he sought to discredit the idea that he had referred to African nations as “shithole countries” and said, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” (Trump also declared to a reporter that he was “the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”) Second, he jockeyed for position in negotiations over funding the government, arguing Democrats were imperiling the military as he tried to preemptively shift blame to them. Finally, for good measure, he whined a little bit that he doesn’t get more credit for what he’s done:

What the president doesn’t seem to realize, or if he realizes cannot help, is that his goals are at cross-purposes. Trump, a historically prolific liar, has managed to stir up doubt in case after case, but this has rendered him incapable of convincing people of the importance of his constructive accomplishments. It’s another example of how Trump, notwithstanding his real-estate career, is more adept at demolition than construction. Seeking to deprive others of objective facts, he has deprived himself of their benefits as well.

The “shithole” showdown is a good case study for how Trump muddies the truth. When the first reports of the president’s words emerged on Thursday, the White House notably did not deny them. Later that evening, Senator Dick Durbin, a senior Democrat, confirmed news accounts.

On Friday, things got weird. Trump disputed the several accounts in media outlets, saying, “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used.” Senator Lindsey Graham, an enemy-turned-ally of Trump’s who was present at the meeting, confirmed the president’s comments, both indirectly (through his South Carolina colleague Tim Scott) and implicitly (in a statement). But GOP Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia flatly contradicted them. “In regards to Senator Durbin’s accusation, we do not recall the president saying these comments specifically,” they said in a statement, and repeated that denial in TV appearances.

Here, it would seem, was an intractable conflict over fact. Over the weekend, however, an explanation emerged. As The Washington Post explained,“Three White House officials said Perdue and Cotton told the White House that they heard ‘shithouse’ rather than ‘shithole,’ allowing them to deny the president’s comments on television over the weekend.” (Confusing matters further, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Sunday she did not recall him using the term; on Tuesday, she said, “I did not hear that word used.” Meanwhile, some White House official offered a new, incomprehensible excuse for his language.)

Consider the scenario: A pair of Republican senators took it upon themselves to cover for the president who made a racist comment and then brazenly lied about it to the American people. To do that, they used a misleading distinction between “shithole” and “shithouse”—and then the president’s own staff blew up their spot.

In such a peculiar exchange, it’s difficult to keep track of who said what, much less to sort truth from falsehood. To be clear: Given the pile of credible evidence supporting the idea that Trump made the comments, and given how little benefit of the doubt Trump has earned, it seems overwhelmingly clear that Trump made the remarks attributed to him, or said something extremely close. Trump knows this, Cotton and Perdue know this, and so, as the Post’s reporting makes clear, do Trump staffers. The point of the president’s protestation cannot be persuasion, but obfuscation. Throw up enough conflicting signals, and voters may throw up their hands and give up trying to determine the truth.

The same is true for Trump’s interview last week with The Wall Street Journal, in which the paper quoted the president as saying, “I probably have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea.” The statement was curious, since officially the president has not spoken with Kim. Again belatedly, the White House disputed that, saying Trump said “I’d” and releasing a recording that was disputable; the Journal released a clearer one that sounded like just “I.” Never mind that in the next moment of the interview, Trump refused to say whether he’d been speaking with Kim. The point isn’t refutation—it’s confusion and deniability, plausible or implausible.

What is distressing for anyone who believes that policy and democracy depend on facts is that this seems to work. A year ago, Pew found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the public was confused about facts because of fake news. There’s little reason to believe that things have gotten better over the last year. The discourse is rife with incorrect beliefs. Forty-four percent of Republicans say, incorrectly, that Trump has repealed Obamacare. Despite ample evidence that Trump aides colluded with Russia, including a former Trump aide’s admission and the Donald Trump Jr.’s own descriptions of his June 2016 meeting, many Americans are unsure or do not believe the Trump campaign colluded. Roughly two-thirds of Americans do not believe the president is honest, but nearly half also believe the press makes up stories to hurt Trump.

A striking Associated Press story Monday anecdotally illustrates the fog of untruth that surrounds politics today.

“Where is the truth?” a truck driver in North Carolina wondered plaintively.

“It has made me take every story with a large grain, a block of salt,” a conservative activist said. “Not just from liberal sources. I’ve seen conservative ‘fake news.’”

An Oklahoma man told the AP that whenever Trump labels something fake news, “I just have started assuming … whatever he’s talking about must be true,” adding, “I feel like that attitude didn’t start until he took office.”

These quotes go a long way toward understanding why Trump can’t get the credit he craves on the economy. The president is correct that by most standards, the economy has improved over the course of his presidency. There are caveats: The stock market, which he repeatedly invokes, does not directly affect most Americans; it’s not clear that Trump’s policies deserve much credit for the positive indicators. Still, most presidents get at least some dividend from a strong economy, and Trump has not. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll released Tuesday, just a quarter of Americans gave Trump an ‘A’ for his handling of the economy—his highest score on a report card of issues, and yet still less than the 26 percent who gave him an ‘F’ for handling the economy.

This is despite Trump loudly boasting about it any place he can. Or is it because he loudly boasts about it all the time? There are several reasons why Trump might not be getting credit. Voters might credit Barack Obama for economic growth. They might detest Trump so much that they refuse to give him credit for anything. But one explanation has to be that the president has created an atmosphere of such confusion and cynicism that, like the Oklahoman who spoke to the AP, people doubt something simply because the president says it.

In a newly released report, the RAND Corporation addresses a phenomenon it calls “Truth Decay.” Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich define it as “a set of four related trends: increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; an increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.” From their perspective, the current status quo is the result of a long-term trend, not the creation of any one individual. President Trump is simply its apotheosis. As his frustration this weekend shows, truth decay can be a potent weapon for a politician unconcerned with honesty, but it is a weapon that, once deployed, can hurt the man who wields it just as it does his foes.