We've endured presidents who told big lies before. Ronald Reagan said he didn't trade arms for hostages. Bill Clinton said he didn't have sexual relations with that woman. George W. Bush said Iraq had huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Sometimes those lies were disproved quickly, sometimes it took a while, but in every case the president and those around him not only worked to convince us that the lie was true, they never questioned the presumption that it was not a good thing for the president of the United States to lie to the public.
Well that's just one more norm that Donald Trump is going to tear down.
While Trump told hundreds and hundreds of lies over the course of the campaign, the most striking thing about them wasn't the sheer volume, it was the unapologetic way he told them, without even the barest attempt to be honest. He didn't care how quickly or how often he was corrected, and in many cases he went on telling a lie long after it had been debunked. For his supporters, this willingness to say anything was the heart of his appeal—he "tells it like it is," they said over and over, which actually meant not that he accurately described something real about the world, but that he said whatever he wanted. When the snooty know-it-all fact checkers explained his deceptions, that only made them more sure he was on to something.
And of course, they were marinating in their own stew of tales from an alternate universe. Not only would they accept anything Trump told them, they seemed to delight in believing the most lunatic conspiracy theories they could find. As Michael Grunwald reported, "At an event in Pensacola, a member of Bikers 4 Trump told me Obama had made it illegal for anyone who isn't an immigrant or a minority to open a Dunkin' Donuts."
Granted, as far as I know Trump has not publicly delved into the details of the federal government's egregiously invasive actions on donut franchise ownership. But if you work for Trump and actually have to defend his more outlandish statements, what do you do? One way to handle it is to say that his lies are actually true. But another way is to undermine the very idea of truth, to claim that reality is unknowable, there's no such thing as fact, and when Donald Trump says something, it transmutes into a kind of truth as it passes out his mouth, whether the material universe might tell you otherwise or not.
Last week, at a post-election forum at Harvard that got attention mostly for the nasty squabbles between Trump and Clinton aides, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said this:
This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn't. They understood it. They understood that sometimes, when you have a conversation with people, whether it's around the dinner table or at a bar, you're going to say things, and sometimes you don't have all the facts to back it up.
In its way, this is quite refreshing. Lewandowski isn't saying that Trump is an honest man, just that lying is no big deal in a president, because hey, everybody does it, right? And the truly sophisticated voter understands not to expect anything different.
Other of Trump's people have taken a slightly different tack. Sometimes it's easier to focus in on one lie than to deal with a whole mountain of them, so some in the media have begun pressing Trump's aides on his tweeted claim that "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." Trump apparently got this idea from Alex Jones, the conspiracy-mongering radio host who believes that the children at Sandy Hook were actors and 9/11 was an inside job—and who is a great favorite of the president-elect's. Here's how Mike Pence defended the statement on ABC's This Week:
STEPHANPOULOS: But can you provide any evidence—can you provide any evidence to back up that statement?
PENCE; Well, look, I think he's expressed his opinion on that. And he's entitled to express his opinion on that. And I think the American people — I think the American people find it very refreshing that they have a president who will tell them what's on his mind. And I think the connection that he made in the course...
STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether it's true or not?
PENCE: Well, they're going to tell them—he's going to say what he believes to be true and I know that he's always going to speak in that way as president.
Or look at how Reince Priebus answered a similar question on Face the Nation:
DICKERSON: But you think millions of people voted illegally?
PRIEBUS: It's possible.
DICKERSON: There is no evidence that it happened in millions of votes in California. I guess the question is, when you're president, can you just offer a theory that has no evidence behind it, or does he have to tighten up his standard of proof?
PRIEBUS: I think he's done a great job. I think the president-elect is someone who has pushed the envelope and caused people to think in this country, has not taken conventional thought on every single issue.
So according to his closest advisors, Donald Trump can make up anything he wants, because "he's going to say what he believes to be true" and he "has pushed the envelope and caused people to think."
This kind of thing makes rational people want to tear their hair out. You may have seen this video of CNN host Alisyn Camerota literally smacking herself in the head in frustration as she talks to Trump supporters who insist that President Obama publicly encouraged undocumented people to vote, and the state of California allows them to do so by the millions. No matter what she tells them, they will not be dissuaded. Mr. Trump said it, so it's true.
The eagerness of his supporters to believe whatever ridiculous thing he tells them helps assure Trump that he can get away with anything. And what's truly depressing is that he probably can. Not that he won't be criticized for his endless lies, because he will. But as his aides and allies continue to insist that there's no such thing as truth and nothing wrong with lying when Trump does it, more and more Republicans will adopt those views, until they become utterly mainstream.
So it is that conservatives are on their way to becoming the ultimate postmodernists, convinced that there's no such thing as objective truth and each one of us exists in our own subjective reality. Donald Trump hasn't even become president yet, and he's already refashioning them in his image.
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