Trump is hardly the first serial liar in the White House. But his deceptions are different
“Do you regret at all, all the lying you’ve done to the American people?”
When a HuffPost reporter posed that query to former President Trump last year, Trump briefly asked for clarification, then, without answering — or showing much concern — moved to a different question.
Trump’s deceit, with all its variety and compulsiveness, is a shocking element of his time in office, shocking in its regularity and in its seeming lack of political consequences. The Washington Post has catalogued more than 20,000 Trump falsehoods, and multiple volumes with ominous titles such as “The Death of Truth” and “Gaslighting America” have chronicled the phenomenon. CNN even ran a special report with Watergate undertones: “All the President’s Lies.”
So, to gaze upon the extended dance mix of mendacity that is the Trump presidency and counter but all presidents lie would seem the high point of whataboutism, an indefensible deflection of a practice that is corrosive to public trust and democracy. Except that, well, all presidents do lie.
In “Lying in State,” Eric Alterman, an English professor at Brooklyn College and media columnist for the Nation, surveys the history of presidential falsehood from Washington to Trump and finds plenty of misinformation, disinformation, bald-faced lying and plain nonsense past presidents have lied mainly for reasons of national security or to justify ideological or expansionist ambitions, he writes, and they showed some shame when caught. In Trump, however, the public encountered a president “who was an unapologetic, pathological liar and did not care who knew it,” a president who lied about his own biography, his election results, his policies, his wealth, his infidelities, even his golf game.
Trump’s lies may surpass those of previous presidents in numbers and shamelessness, but he still owes much to his predecessors. Past presidential falsehood has conditioned the public and the news media to expect, accept and in some cases enable White House duplicity, Alterman argues. Trump, he explains, “is the Frankenstein monster of a political system that has not merely tolerated lies from our leaders but has come to demand them.” This book is an attack on Trump specifically, but also a broader critique of a press that Alterman sees as complicit, and of past presidents whose legacies give Oval Office dishonesty an aggregate force.
Alterman dwells on President Andrew Jackson, whose Indian removal policy was predicated on the falsehood that outlying territories were largely unpopulated or that their inhabitants were less than fully human. While Alterman notes that most of the beliefs Jackson and his supporters held about the Native American population “would not have been judged lies by their contemporaries,” he stresses that Jackson was frequently duplicitous about the details of the policy itself, such as his insistence that the relocation from tribal lands was voluntary. And he highlights how the one-term James Polk vastly exaggerated the security threats posed by Mexico to launch the Mexican-American War.
Soon, continental expansionism came to be seen less as a policy choice than as a divinely ordained national imperative — and dishonesty a minor transgression required to achieve it. “Lying on behalf of a successful war of expansion, however aggressively pursued, came to be viewed as an expression of ‘leadership,’ ” Alterman writes. “In this young, self-confident nation, results were what counted.”
Presidents would lie for more self-serving reasons — Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy constantly misled voters about their health, Alterman reminds — but much of the presidential lying in the 20th century centered on matters of war. Wilson created the nation’s first propaganda agency to drum up support for World War I. Harry Truman described Hiroshima as a military base, even though 90 percent of those killed in the bombing were civilians. Dwight Eisenhower’s administration lied about the prospects of a communist takeover in Guatemala to justify support for a coup, Alterman writes, and the president himself even created “a fully fictional account” of the coup in his subsequent memoir. (There should be a special punishment for bound, hardcover lies.) And, of course, Ike was caught in his “most personally painful lie,” Alterman writes, when he insisted that an American U-2 spy plane shot down by the Soviets was just a weather research aircraft — only for the Soviets to reveal evidence (including the surviving pilot) that it was indeed on an espionage mission.
But to Alterman, not all lies are created equal, nor are they equally harmful. FDR prepared for America’s entry into World War II even while publicly insisting that he wouldn’t, a decision Alterman deems “awfully perspicacious.” Lyndon Johnson’s lies during the Vietnam War, by contrast, “poisoned not only his presidency and his war but American political life itself.” LBJ and his top aides “felt compelled to lie virtually every time” they discussed the war, claiming progress when none existed, until the distance between spin and reality became unbearable. Journalists employed a memorable phrase to describe the president’s lies without calling him a liar. The Johnson administration, they explained, suffered from a “credibility gap.”
Such euphemisms get to the heart of Alterman’s media critique. Journalists give government officials a wide berth on matters of national security, “lest they appear unpatriotic, or somehow find themselves responsible for undermining the nation’s safety,” he writes. They also tend to show inordinate respect for the office of the presidency, even if that respect declined with the Nixon White House, where lying, Alterman recalls, “was standard operating procedure.” But worst of all, in his estimation, is the “ideology of journalistic objectivity,” which supposedly dictates that every issue has two sides and that both must be aired, even if one is untrue. A growing conservative media establishment has long taken advantage of this practice, promoting the lies of favored politicians and accusing thin-skinned journalists of liberal bias should they dare point them out.
This working-the-refs strategy became prevalent in the 1980s, Alterman writes (he calls it “the primary legacy” of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, with its incessant lies about the Iran-contra scandal). But it was in the Obama years that Republicans realized “they would rarely pay a price” for lying about President Barack Obama, whether his policies, his politics or even his birth. Which brings us, inevitably, to Trump.
Trump has lied not just about his predecessor’s origins and legitimacy, but also about his own initiatives (“it would be difficult to identify a single policy of the Trump White House that was not in some way based on a lie,” Alterman asserts) and about his origin story as a self-made businessman. Wed to the ideology of objectivity, the author complains, the press has “normalized” Trump’s lies. “They were so intent on insisting they were not in a fight with the president that they were failing to inform the public of just how serious a threat he posed to its freedoms.”
It is by now a widely held criticism — normalizing Trump is the mortal sin of our time. Yet one should not forget how the same news media has remade the Trump story through major revelations. The most eviscerating attack on the president’s businessman narrative came through a New York Times investigation of his family’s finances, for instance, while The Washington Post dismantled Trump’s pretensions to philanthropic generosity. And multiple news organizations have tackled what Alterman calls Trump’s most successful lies, “those told in the service of hiding his 2016 presidential campaign’s exploitation of Russian interference on his behalf.” Journalists hardly need declare themselves members of the resistance to produce reporting that reveals the threats this president poses.
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Journalistically, truth is not simply a declaration of unassailable facts but a painstaking process of inquiry. Journalism’s practices and principles merit ongoing scrutiny and rethinking; merely dismissing them as pernicious ideologies does not go far enough. Even so, Alterman’s survey is instructive, showing how, in Trump’s dishonesty, there is both a stunning break and a cumulative continuity. Alterman also offers the most incisive answer I’ve read to a running debate of this era: when journalists should call Trump’s falsehoods actual lies.
Some news organizations are quite free with the word “lie,” whereas others use it only sparingly. Some say the term requires knowledge of a person’s individual intent and mind-set. “I am less interested in intent than responsibility,” Alterman writes. A lie occurs whenever the president or someone authorized to speak for him purposely misleads the public, and a misstatement revealed as false becomes a lie when not promptly corrected. “If it was the president’s professional responsibility to know the truth about something and he did not bother to learn it, or he and his subordinates purposely avoided sharing information in order to establish ‘plausible deniability,’ I still call it a lie,” Alterman writes.
Under this most reasonable yardstick, all the president’s lies add up, even if the president’s regrets never do.
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The girl with the louding voice