Finally, Trump’s refusal to accept critical information as true—from his denial of Russian interference in the 2016 election to the “alternative facts” about his inauguration size—has demolished the right’s faith and trust in a free press. Three-quarters of the GOP now say that news organizations make up anti-Trump stories. Even worse, a January study found that nearly half of Republicans believe that accurate stories that “cast a politician or political group in a negative light” are “always” fake news. Trump, along with Fox News, has given his supporters the license to self-deport from reality.
Trump’s obsession with building and broadcasting an alternative ledger of facts has made epistemology the fundamental crisis of his term. In its first month, the administration invented or mainstreamed a new vocabulary of mendacity—e.g., fake news, alternative facts—and within 10 months, Trump made more than 1,500 false or misleading claims, according to The Washington Post. That’s roughly six lies, exaggerations, or omissions per day. Trump and Fox News have together formed an axis of epistemic insanity, encouraging base voters who crave conspiracy theories and dismiss all negative news stories. No legislation, no executive order, and no official speech has caused this shift. It is the president’s words, delivered often via Twitter and amplified on Fox News, that have exploded the very notion of a shared political truth.
Republican legislators will continue to insist that the president’s indecorous words don’t matter. This is a convenient argument. Trump has outsourced the work of his presidency to other Republicans, who are happy to accept the responsibility of running the country: Budget and economic policy has gone to Mick Mulvaney and Paul Ryan; immigration and criminal-justice policy to John Kelly, Jeff Sessions, and Stephen Miller. The insistence that Trump’s words don’t matter isn’t incidental to the GOP’s broader strategy. It is the strategy—to quarantine Trump’s most noxious rhetoric and proceed apace with traditional Republican governance.
It’s rich for Republicans to all of a sudden feign such ambivalence about the power of words. As Jacob Levy notes in his essay, Fox News devotes about approximately one-sixth of the year to demonizing a harmless phrase, “happy holidays,” and Republicans have long attached talismanic power to the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” The idea that a president’s words don’t matter is a deeply ahistorical position. And that’s particularly true for the GOP, whose three previous presidents distinguished themselves through phraseology: “morning in America,” “city on a hill,” “tear down this wall,” “new world order,” “thousand points of light,” “axis of evil,” “bigotry of low expectations.”
Perhaps Republicans don’t treat Trump as a typical Republican president because, in a very real sense, Trump is not really the president. Instead, he has become a kind of nationalist identity guru for the new American right. On Monday, an anonymous White House source all but acknowledged this strategy, telling Axios that the president would spend 2018 seeking “unexpected cultural flashpoints,” like the NFL’s kneeling controversy. The White House sees Trump’s principle talent as the ability to activate cultural resentment among his supporters, encouraging them to redefine their identity and values around a nativist anger. And Republicans benefit doubly: The president plays the part he knows best—hype man for the nativist base—and voters come away energized.
Politics is downstream from persuasion, and law is downstream from language. Trump has failed to perform the role of a diligent executive, reserving much of his day for television, personal calls, and cultural encyclicals on Twitter. But it would be a mistake to conflate Trump’s indolence for ineffectiveness. No matter how often journalists and politicians dismiss Trump’s words, the words matter.