Trump’s Absurd Lies Driven by Raw Emotion, Not Cunning


Historians looking back at this time in our nation’s history will most certainly vector around one major theme: disinformation. It’s at the forefront of a lot of what’s happening in our politics today and is easily a Top 3 contender for decoding the 2016 election result.

As Russia’s contributions continue to be unpacked, more screen space is being dedicated to the subject. One piece published this week in The Washington Post articulates the mechanics of disinformation particularly beautifully. We’re reminded of several of 45’s past denials and patently false claims — including that his inaugural crowd size surpassed that of Obama’s and that his predecessor was born in Kenya — as well as some fresh out the oven, such as recent reports that he is now challenging the authenticity of the infamous Access Hollywood tape despite his pre-election apology for that very same video. “Even when presented with irrefutable evidence, Trump finds a way to question unflattering facts,” writes The Post.

The piece discusses 45 and James O’Keefe in tandem, but it’s important to note the differences. Of O’Keefe, whose ironically named Project Veritas swung and missed when it approached WaPo to publish a phony story about Roy Moore, the author writes: “He isn’t trying to win an argument. The goal is to render fact- and evidence-based inquiry itself a cause for suspicion.” While it makes sense to describe O’Keefe’s role in tactical, premeditated and goal-directed terms, that isn’t necessarily the case with 45. (Indeed, I doubt Trump could even spell disinformation, much less utter one coherent sentence on the topic.) No, he’s merely an unwitting contributor to this rising tide of attacks on the very essence of fact-based inquiry and journalistic integrity — more instinct than strategy, per the author’s formulation.

“In any given case, Trump is not trying to persuade anyone of anything as much as he is trying to render reality irrelevant, and reduce the pursuit of agreement on it to just another part of the circus. He’s asserting a species of power — the power to evade constraints normally imposed by empirically verifiable facts, by expectations of consistency, and even by what reasoned inquiry deems merely credible. The more brazen or shameless, the more potent is the assertion of power.

In many cases the attacks on the media are outlandishly ridiculous, dating back to the tone-setting assertion that the media deliberately diminished his inaugural crowd sizes, even though the evidence was decisive to the contrary. Here again, the absurdity is the whole point: In both the volume and outsize defiance of his lies, Trump is asserting the power to declare the irrelevance of verifiable, contradictory facts, and with them, the legitimate institutional role of the free press, which at its best brings us within striking distance of the truth.”

I even think the word “trying” above is giving Trump too much credit. It implies conscious intent, and it remains unclear whether any of Trump’s decisions are calculated to produce any result beyond appeasing his fragile ego. The way he deals with negative press — the only way he knows how — is to rattle off whatever assuages the emotions he’s feeling in the moment, which often entails inventing falsehoods out of thin air or doubling down on previous statements. He’s more fabulist than serial disinformer on this score, the consequences of his actions more attendant than purposive.

Naturally, then, Trump’s routine attacks on the press and haphazard retorts about “fake news” are hardly motivated by a plenary understanding of Russian-esque dezinformatsiya, but are rather a byproduct of his capricious personality and compromising relationship with fact-constructed and self-consistent reality. He doesn’t so much care about the difference between what’s fake and what isn’t as much as navigating around disagreement and criticism using the most direct route possible.

The haste with which the president bats away unfavorable disclosures and charges reporters with peddling “fake news” is not only distinctly authoritarian behavior. It also papers over the important difference between media with a partisan slant on the one hand and actual fake news on the other. Take perhaps the most consistent object of Trumpian scorn: CNN. CNN is a mainstream media network that conducts original reporting around the world. Do they have a discernible leftward bias? Absolutely. Are they fake news? Absolutely not.

Fake news is literally fabricating stories that have no basis in evidence. It refers to stories and headlines untethered from set conventions for fact-based reporting, detached from any semblance of journalistic standards. Its raison d’etre, or motivating force, lies in misinforming its audience about the state of things — à la the active measures Russia employs around the world to influence foreign elections.

As much flak as CNN gets, it is fake news purveyors who are the most ideologically driven of all, who wish to spur you over to a certain way of thinking so strongly that they’re willing to egregiously lie, day after day. Yournewswire and RealFarmacy are robust examples of fake news/conspiracy websites, not CNN and MSNBC. One values objectivity, even if they come up short in the execution; the other laughs at the very concept. One of these is not like the other. But it’s not a distinction Trump seems to recognize.

We can table the question of intent, and we are still left with the societal fallout that occurs in the wake of truth-challenged governance. A public coached to disregard verifiable facts is liable to be misled by disinformation, be it of domestic or foreign origin. Sustained indefinitely, the search for honest reporting evanesces, until the ability to parse reality from falsehood is lost altogether. This is what’s at stake with the “alternative fact,” propaganda-friendly philosophy issuing from the White House.

Disinformation and its close companion, dismediation, serve to undermine truth as an entity by sowing widespread mistrust in civic institutions, in particular those tasked with the process of gathering and reporting the facts. The point is not to lie so people then believe the lies, but to make it impossibly difficult to ascertain the difference between the lies and what qualifies as truthful information. And the more polarized and partisan a society, the more susceptible it becomes to influence campaigns — a rubric Russia knows all too well and continues to utilize to great effect.

The problem isn’t isolated to Trump, who’s aided and abetted by bad faith media and partisan abusers with a long record of preying on and exploiting uninitiated Americans. As The Post’s Greg Sargent closes: “Trump has been doing it for so long that the separation between instinct and conscious technique has probably disappeared. But one thing is clear: Terms like “lying” or “delusional” don’t do justice to what we’re seeing here, and we have not yet seriously reckoned with its true nature and what it really means.”


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Feature image credit: Damon Winter/The New York Times