“Long before Donald Trump began his political career, he explained his attitude toward truth with characteristic brazenness. In a 2004 television interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, he marveled at the Republicans’ successful attacks on the wartime heroism of Senator John Kerry, the Democrats’ presidential candidate. “[I]t’s almost coming out that [George W.] Bush is a war hero and Kerry isn’t,” Trump said, admiringly. “I think that could be the greatest spin I’ve ever seen.” Matthews then asked about Vice President Dick Cheney’s insinuations that Kerry’s election would lead to a devastating attack on the United States. “Well,” replied Trump, “it’s a terrible statement unless he gets away with it.” With that extraordinary declaration, Trump showed himself to be an attentive student of disinformation and its operative principle: Reality is what you can get away with.
Trump’s command of the basic concept of disinformation offers some insight into how he approaches the truth as president. The fact is that President Trump lies not only prolifically and shamelessly, but in a different way than previous presidents and national politicians. They may spin the truth, bend it, or break it, but they pay homage to it and regard it as a boundary. Trump’s approach is entirely different. It was no coincidence that one of his first actions after taking the oath of office was to force his press secretary to tell a preposterous lie about the size of the inaugural crowd. The intention was not to deceive anyone on the particular question of crowd size. The president sought to put the press and public on notice that he intended to bully his staff, bully the media, and bully the truth.
In case anyone missed the point, Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, made it clear a few weeks later when he announced favorable employment statistics. In the Obama years, Trump had been fond of describing monthly jobs reports as “phony” and “totally fiction.” But now? “I talked to the president prior to this and he said to quote him very clearly,” Spicer said. “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” The president was not saying that the Bureau of Labor Statistics had improved its methodology. He was asserting that truth and falsehood were subject to his will.
Since then, such lies have only multiplied. Fact checkers say that, if anything, the rate has increased. For the president and his enablers, the lying reflects a strategy, not merely a character flaw or pathology.
America has faced many challenges to its political culture, but this is the first time we have seen a national-level epistemic attack: a systematic attack, emanating from the very highest reaches of power, on our collective ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. “These are truly uncharted waters for the country,” wrote Michael Hayden, former CIA director, in the Washington Post in April. “We have in the past argued over the values to be applied to objective reality, or occasionally over what constituted objective reality, but never the existence or relevance of objective reality itself.” To make the point another way: Trump and his troll armies seek to undermine the constitution of knowledge.” . . . .