Wednesday, March 23, 2016
White Lies Matter
The planned GOP debate on March 21 did not come off, but that did not deter Steve, who is back with a big picture look at the role of lies in the "new rules/no rules" era of Donald Trump (and with a big assist by editor Debbie)...
No one was more relieved than I when Donald Trump blew off -- and Fox News cancelled -- the debate that was supposed to have taken place on Monday night. There are only so many synonyms for smarmy to use for Cruz; only so many ways you say Trump is bloviating. After 12 Republican debates, my thesaurus needed a total body detox at a juice-cleanse spa in Palm Springs.
It’s just as well: it’s a good time to step back and take a measure of this most astonishing election cycle.
I suspect we’ve all experienced the sudden surge of conversations centered on one theme: “How did this country get in this situation?”
Some of those conversations may have been triggered by The New York Times editorial noting that never have the presumptive candidates of both major parties been held in such low esteem. Others might center on the frightening violence at Trump rallies, in some instances seemingly egged on by the candidate himself. And then there is the disquieting drama of Republican Party leaders so concerned about the potential damage of a Trump nomination that they now openly scheme to undermine the will of their voters by trying to force a brokered convention.
But I have also heard of conversations at cocktail parties and lacrosse games in pleasant suburban towns where Republicans are heard to say things like “Trump only says all that crazy stuff to get attention -- he’s shrewd and he’s just playing the media.” “You have to give the guy credit for having the balls to say out loud what everyone is just thinking.” Often followed by: “When you look at the lousy options we’ve got, I’m open to the idea of voting for Trump.”
In essence, an emerging narrative is that Trump’s super-sized exaggerations, egotistical assertions, and full-on untruths are somehow to be forgiven as “Donald being Donald;” that he is to be excused because there is always a “method in his madness.” You’ve probably heard about Politico’s extensive analysis of Trump’s public oratory, which concludes that Trump lies, on average, once every five minutes.
The real question, to my mind, is why is he getting away with it?
The core apologia that he is shrewdly “playing the media;” that he makes baseless claims, inaccurate assertions, or simply outrageous statements because they are certain to generate big headlines, dominate the 24 hour news cycle, and provide free media coverage. A fine example: Donald Trump recently said, “I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote.” Whether he could actually shoot someone and not lose a vote is Donald Trump’s problem; the fact that he could utter that sentence and not lose a vote is actually all of our problem.
There is a more elaborate rationale enabling his behavior: that his exaggerations and lies are justifiable because he is forcing important dialog that somehow would never surface in our “politically correct” world. It goes like this: “When Trump said Mexico sends us their drug dealers and rapists, he got the whole country focused on the issue of immigration and what to do about the 11 million illegal immigrants who are living off our economy. He finally got the country talking about the crisis of illegal immigration. In the end, whether he was exaggerating or not is beside the point.”
This, of course, is wholly separate from yet a third justification; the “he tells it like it is” rationale, which goes “you really have to admire a guy who has the guts to say out loud what other people are thinking.” In this rationale, Trump’s assertion that we should ban Muslims is justified because he had the guts to publicly take an extreme position that many Americans believe is a perfectly valid given their perception of an imminent and ubiquitous danger of terrorism by radical jihadhists.
Then there is the way Trump innocently peeks out from behind the phrase, “I’ve heard that…” The use of this phrase enables him to factually state that he has, indeed, heard or read something, and he is merely reporting what he has heard. “I’ve heard that the real unemployment number is 42 percent,” is one such statement, which refers not to any traditional measure of unemployment, but to a hypothetical new way of measuring productivity recently offered by Reagan budget head David Stockman. Most candidates who traffic in falsehoods retreat; Donald Trump retweets.
But instead of Trump suffering from inhabiting an alternative fact-lite universe, he is winning. Note to Politico: disband the army of fact-checkers … it does not seem to make a bit of difference.
In the world of rationalization and apologia chronicled above, the endless stream of falsehood is just hype and bravado that Trumpettes would merely dismiss as “white lies.” You know, the kind of lie that is supposedly harmless.
But they do matter. White lies matter.
Let’s start by being clarifying that these are not “white lies” in the sense of “I didn’t want to hurt Susie’s feelings, so I never told her I bought that necklace for six bucks on e-Bay.”
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say these are white lies in the sense of Trump’s Caucasian male base. They prey on the ignorance, fears, and bigotry of Trump’s white, high-school-educated core.
Indeed, the most defining components of Trump’s candidacy – deporting illegal immigrants, banning Muslims, unflinching support for police, and assertions of the failures of the current administration – are all perched upon allegedly supporting rationale that is largely illusory.
Let’s examine perhaps his most famous campaign statement closely… in its entirety.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
This is the exact quote. Note carefully how Trump says that “some” – a word that clearly means “less than a majority” – are “good people.” It is the implication that a majority of Mexicans are drug dealers and rapists – utterly unsupported, but offered as fact – that provides Trump’s rationale for why eleven million illegal immigrants should be deported.
In the context of his urging that Muslims be banned from entering the United States, Trump recalled that he saw a video of “thousands of Muslims cheering as the World Trade Center came down.” The problem is that no video of this nature has ever been produced. Trump would later claim that “Islam hates us.” He was afforded the opportunity to walk this back when asked if he literally meant that each and every one of the planet’s 1.6 billion Muslims hate the U.S. His response, and we quote:
“I mean a lot of them. I mean a lot of them. There’s tremendous hatred, and I will stick with exactly what I said.”
In response to imagery of violence at one of his rallies, Donald Trump tweeted that “81 percent of white murder victims are killed by blacks.” The actual FBI statistic is precisely the opposite: that 15 percent of white murder victims are killed by blacks.
Black lives matter. White lies matter.
Yes, how, indeed, did this country get into a situation in which the presumptive nominee of a major national party is being allowed to lie, exaggerate, and make unsubstantiated allegations without being thoroughly called to task?
Donald Trump is skipping over that annoying, challenging step of examining data and finding literal facts to support his positions, instead finding it infinitely more convenient to conjure imaginary notions that would be terrific support for his arguments -- if only they had any basis in reality. The end, it seems, justifies the means, which happens to be a nice shorthand definition of Machiavellianism.
His followers would have us believe that he is a gutsy oracle who has the guts to “tell it like it is,” who will “say out loud what everyone is thinking.” But it is actually the other way around. By saying that Mexicans are rapists, he plants the notion that this is reality; he provides the aura of rationale for racism. When his followers applaud him for articulating what they believe, the self-fulfilling loop is complete.
The part of Trump’s loose use of fact that is supposedly justified by the idea that he gives voice to the rage against the establishment? Well, now we see the disturbing corollary: it is equally likely that his lies are now fanning and exacerbating the flames of rage and violence.
The notion that truth is optional is new terrain for the United States of America.
There was once a time in this country when lies were a very big deal and had very big consequences.
In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy was a scourge on the American landscape; a shameless man who casually ruined the careers of countless honorable public servants by accusing them of communist leanings. Only when Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly committed the resources of CBS News to confronting McCarthy’s outrageous venom and character assassination did the tide turn against his vicious witch hunts.
Walter Cronkite challenged LBJ’s continued overstatement of our prospects for success in Vietnam and brought down a sitting President. Drawing from his own direct observation and diligent investigative reporting, Cronkite concluded that despite assurances of success and progress from the U.S. government, an unwinnable stalemate was playing out in Southeast Asia. Cronkite never had to actually say the word “lie;” he was far too deft to risk overplaying his hand.
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – backed by Ben Bradlee and the Washington Post – forced the resignation of Richard Nixon by “following the money” to the Oval Office in the face of Nixon’s constant and categorical denial of involvement in the cover-up.
Back then, sooner or later, the lies mattered. People paid the price of deceit.
In my next piece, I will reflect on why it is that McCarthy, Johnson, and Nixon ultimately paid the price, but Candidate Trump seems to be sailing to the Republican nomination carrying a get-out-of-facts-free card.
For present purposes, I think it unwise to hope that a Cronkite-ex-machina will appear to solve this problem.
This morning, The New York Times reported on Wolf Blitzer’s interview with Trump of earlier this week, which focused on the new television commercial in which a series of women simply say out loud for the camera a series of misogynist insults that Trump has said over the years.
Incredible as it may seem, when Trump was asked if “his words were coming back to haunt him,” Trump said:
“No, I think people understand. I think people – first of all, half of this was show business.”
Well, there we have it, from the reality star’s mouth. Half of this is show business.
Pretty soon the American electorate needs to figure out which half.
My bet? I think it is the half comprised of gross exaggerations to “prove” a point, the unexamined or unsubstantiated assertions that are re-tweeted to absolve personal responsibility, and the information manufactured to advance a narrative that cannot be supported on fact and truth. I think that’s the show business, the growing triumph of entertainment over substance, the notion that white lies are merely means justified in support of the bigger narrative.
In the end, it’s not up to Donald Trump to determine whether whites lies matter.
It’s up to us.