Sean Spicer was the tell.
Three years ago this month, that flustered little man in his ill-fitting jacket didn’t just bark at White House reporters, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period,” even though numerous photos of President Trump’s comparatively sparse swearing-in showed no such thing. Spicer’s first comments as press secretary also put us on notice: This would be a presidency immune to facts.
During his tenure, Trump has “made more than 16,200 false or misleading claims,” according to The Washington Post, which has undertaken the noble (some would say insane) task of fact-checking the president’s epic mendacity. In 2019 alone, Trump reportedly uttered more than 22 lies a day.
Trump doesn’t just have a problem with the truth. He regards it with open contempt. And that has certainly had a devastating impact on Americans’ ability to discern fact from fiction.
In a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey, 59 percent of Americans say it’s become increasingly difficult to separate misleading information from the truth. That majority stretches across political lines with 58 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of independents, and 44 percent of Republicans admitting that determining truth has become more challenging in the past four years.
That period, of course, coincides with Trump’s candidacy, nomination, and “alternative facts” presidency. And even though Facebook now says it will ban “deep fake” videos, the company may not be as proactive in removing what’s already been posted.
Even before Spicer started his short White House tenure by making a fool of himself, we should have been better prepared for Trump’s Orwellian undertow. As the clown prince of the racist birthers who tried to delegitimize Barack Obama’s presidency, Trump already knew how to deliver a grandiose lie with a straight face.
And in a rare moment of candor in 2016, Trump told “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl why he felt compelled to brand certain media outlets as "fake news.”
As Stahl recalled, Trump said, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.” For Trump, the veracity of those stories was irrelevant. His aim is to take down the media, and the truth of their reporting right along with it.
“Truth,” journalist Barbara Grizzuti Harrison said, “is the first casualty of tyranny.”
Under the menacing shadow of the tyrant in the White House, facts are as battered as the Constitution and democracy. In this political moment, truth is no match for ideology and the will of a president (with full compliance from Republicans) beholden only to his own needs and desires. At this point, everyone should know that as soon as Trump parts his lips, a lie will inevitably follow. He hasn’t just blurred the lines between deception and fact; he has obliterated them.
That’s why the backlash was so immediate when The Washington Post first reported that the National Archives doctored photos of signs critical of Trump at the 2017 Women’s March. Though institution officials later apologized, calling the blurred photos a “mistake,” they have yet to explain why such a deliberate action was taken in the first place. For many, it was an attempt to edit and sanitize history, a favored tactic of murderous authoritarians like Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
On the Senate floor, neglect of the truth is on garish display during Trump’s impeachment trial. With the mountains of evidence presented by House impeachment managers, the impeached president’s guilt is a foregone conclusion. Yet so is this: Republicans will probably ignore every truth presented about Trump’s attempts to coerce a foreign government to interfere with the 2020 elections.
Said Senator Chuck Schumer: “I don’t see how any senator, Democrat or Republican, could sit on the floor, listen to [Representative] Adam Schiff and the House impeachment managers and not demand witnesses and documents. Unless, that is, they’re not interested in the truth; that they’re afraid of the truth.”
Republicans aren’t interested in the truth, and a majority of Americans can no longer easily recognize it when presented with it. Trump is altering, perhaps irreparably, our understanding of facts and truth as he reshapes the White House — the People’s House — into a house of lies.