The Power of the Small Lie

The president has repeatedly “revealed” the same catchphrase as new, demonstrating how he uses minor untruths to confuse the public and destabilize facts.

President Donald Trump stands at a lectern during a campaign rally.
Leah Millis / Reuters

Early in his Thursday-night rally in Elkhart, Indiana, President Trump had a special treat for Hoosiers: He was going to make them the first to hear the tagline for his reelection campaign.

“By the way, this is the first, for Indiana,” he confided. “Our new slogan for 2020. You know what it is? ‘Keep America Great.’ Because we’re doing so well that in another two years when we start the heavy campaign, ‘Make America Great Again’ wouldn’t work out too well.”

The crowd cheered, and the press dutifully reported that the president had revealed the new slogan.

But wait a second—that’s not quite right. Didn’t Trump announce his new slogan exactly two months prior, on March 10, in Moon, Pennsylvania? Trump said he was revealing “Keep America Great” then, too, earning the same dutiful headlines. In its writeup, the Washington Examiner focused on how Trump had emphasized the exclamation mark at the end of the phrase.

But wait, that also sounds familiar. Days before his 2017 inauguration, Trump sat for an interview with Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post, in which he triumphantly described how he’d come up with the “Make America Great Again” line. (In reality, as Tumulty pointed out, he hadn’t—Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign first used the phrase, but the Gipper never trademarked it.) Then this happened, according to Tumulty:

Halfway through his interview with The Washington Post, Trump shared a bit of news: He already has decided on his slogan for a reelection bid in 2020.

“Are you ready?” he said. “‘Keep America Great,’ exclamation point.”

This is vintage Trump. He knows it’s not true that he’s really announcing something new, but he also figures that the people at the rally won’t know any better. They weren’t in Moon, and most of the press—no matter how much he maligns them—won’t realize it’s a retread either, leaving the claim largely unchallenged. You can’t make an untruth a truth simply by repeating it enough times, but you might get people to forget it’s not true.

The slogan was not the only example Thursday night of Trump’s tendency to repeat a lie until his audience is numb to it. For example, Trump keeps insisting that his border wall is under construction, although it is not. “We have to build a wall and we have already started the wall,” he said at the Indiana rally. This is not true. There is ongoing work on existing border fences, and the spending bill passed by Congress in March (and signed by a frustrated Trump) allocates $1.6 billion for that effort. But it explicitly prevents the construction of any of the new border-wall prototypes the president has ordered.

Now, one could argue that the fence is the wall—but the fence existed before the election, and Trump’s raison de courir was that a real wall, broad and deep and high, was needed. Claiming that this new wall is under construction is simply false, but the president keeps saying it, even tweeting pictures of a project that began in 2009 and claiming they show his wall.

To bolster the claim on Thursday, Trump delivered a strange bit about the border fence outside San Diego, which contained a dizzying series of claims. Congress appropriated $251 million for secondary fencing there, where a fence already exists. Echoing a tweet in April, Trump said the people of San Diego were eager for a wall, which may or may not be true, although its city council and Republican mayor have been less positive. Then he said that he should have refused to build the wall there, so that San Diegans would pressure California Governor Jerry Brown, a frequent Trump sparring partner, to back border-security measures. Finally, he claimed that—actually—he had asked his aides what it would cost to halt construction, so that San Diegans would pressure Brown.

“They got back to me and said it would cost approximately $7 million to stop. That is not big numbers when you hear about the numbers we talk about, $7 million to stop and restart at a later date,” Trump said. “I said, ‘I can’t do that to the American people, keep building the wall.’”

The whole thing is peculiar: Even if he decided against the plan in the end, the president is saying he considered punishing his own supporters to make a political point, and considered burning millions of taxpayer money to do it. As far as I can tell, these alleged internal discussions haven’t been reported anywhere previously, and it’s unclear whether they really happened. Customs and Border Patrol referred to the White House for comment, and a spokeswoman did not immediately reply.

Trump’s adventures in bogus claims extended overseas, too. He devoted a long section of his speech to a discussion of how he had supposedly saved millions of dollars on the construction of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. This time around, he didn’t really place a solid figure on what he claims the embassy will run, but he’s told this story several times before, with varying amounts. In March, he said it would cost $250,000. In April, he said it would be more like $400,000. In both cases, he was misleading. The six-figure price tag is for a temporary embassy in Jerusalem, while the U.S. is still working to build a new, permanent embassy, which will be more expensive. (The GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson has offered to chip in for the cost.)

Elsewhere in the speech, Trump claimed that the Obama administration “gave” Iran $150 billion as part of the nuclear deal, which is misleading both in terms of the size and what the monies were—Iranian funds that had been frozen. He also said, “We have a trade deficit with almost every country in the world. We are changing that around rapidly.” But the trade deficit actually grew during his first year in office.

Once listeners were snowed under with these claims, Trump laid the groundwork for other outlandish statements of the vaguer variety. “What we did was unprecedented in the history of our country and the history of the world, what we did with this election,” Trump said. Insofar as Donald Trump had never previously been elected president of the United States, this is true, though it’s hard to extract anything more meaningful. “We have delivered, one of the only times ever, more than we promised,” he said. “I have delivered more than I promised, if you think about it.” As I have written, Trump has pushed hard on his central promises, from the wall to Obamacare repeal to the travel ban, but many of them remain incomplete, and this claim isn’t remotely true.

Critics sometimes suggest that Trump is employing Adolf Hitler’s infamous “big lie” tactic. In fact, what Trump is using is the opposite: It’s the small lie. Through sheer repetition, Trump convinces the public and the press that what he’s saying is true, and his slogan really is new and being revealed for the first time. Piece by piece, objective reality corrodes, and facts give way to alternative facts.