All politicians lie, right? So what’s another 20,000 or more lies among friends?
From the size of his inaugural crowds nearly four years ago to the claim in last week’s debate that he has made insulin as cheap as water, President Trump lies reflexively, making little distinction between petty fibs and grave deceptions. He has defined dishonesty down so much that it’s tempting to dismiss the clamor of distortions as so much background noise.
But Trump’s lies matter. They have eroded public trust in bedrock institutions — public health and environmental agencies, the US Postal Service, the press, the courts. They threaten our lives, our planet, and our democracy. We can no longer treat them like some kind of national parlor game.
A dangerous contagion
A recent study by Cornell University of 38 million articles in traditional and online media about the coronavirus found that Trump is the major driver of misinformation about the pandemic. The review of the “info-demic” found that Trump was responsible for 38 percent of the media mentions that advanced falsehoods about the disease. He has touted quack cures and made wild promises about the rapid availability of a COVID-19 vaccine. Even as Trump was brought low last week by the virus he has dismissed, despite it having killed more than 211,000 Americans, he and his aides continue to produce opaque and contradictory information, rashly telling Americans not to worry about the disease.
Is it any wonder that only about half of all Americans now say they would be willing to get a coronavirus vaccine, down from 72 percent in May? According to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent believe it is likely the vaccine will be rushed into production before it is fully known to be safe and effective. Trump’s lies matter because if large numbers of people refuse a vaccine, so-called herd immunity will be harder to achieve. The sickness, death, and economic dislocations of the pandemic will linger on.
Because claiming a rigged game is the only way he can justify losing, Trump is undermining confidence in the November election with utterly unfounded claims of voter fraud and manipulated ballots. He predicts “mayhem” and “massive chaos and confusion,” trying to discourage a rattled electorate from voting.
Trump told his Twitter followers last month that the results of the Nov. 3 election “MAY NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED.” In fact, most states have vastly improved fail-safe mechanisms for vote tallying. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 97 percent of voters this year will cast ballots on paper or with paper backups.
The worst evasion, of course, is Trump’s refusal to say he will accept the outcome of the vote. His lies matter because they aim straight at the heart of democracy. Without free, fair, and trusted elections, America ceases to be.
Race and racism
Last week the Trump administration toughened its September ban on racial sensitivity training in federal agencies, threatening retaliation against those who buck the new restrictions. Trump called these employee workshops in diversity and inclusion part of “a radical revolution,” falsely claiming that they teach participants “to hate our country.” To be on the safe side of Trump’s irrational crusade, the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency have also suspended workshops on sexual harassment, environmental justice, and accommodating people with disabilities.
Trump’s lies matter because this nation’s history and practice of oppressing those outside the dominant culture can never be repaired unless it is faced. Until then, injustice and unrest will continue.
They haven’t dominated the news lately, but Trump’s flat-earth lies about climate change matter perhaps more gravely than any others. Last month, as a record 4 million acres of California burned, Trump attended a briefing with state officials, saying “I don’t think science knows” whether the earth is warming. Yes, science does know.
Trump’s steady stream of disinformation hasn’t substantially eroded the American public’s belief that government should be doing more for the environment. But his lie that global warming is a hoax has stalled or reversed progress in critical areas, from abandoning the Paris climate accords to rolling back over one hundred regulatory protections.
Meanwhile, climate alarms are tolling.
Trump’s unhinged whoppers are not amusing anymore, if they ever were. His ceaseless discharge of lies and confusion recklessly endangers us all. If he were driving a car instead of the presidency, his license would have been suspended long ago. Only by decisively taking away his keys can the country be safe and prosperous again. And that’s the truth.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.