In his final speech to his colleagues, Senator Al Franken expressed his concern “that it feels like we’re losing the war for truth. And maybe it’s already lost.” The measure of our defeat may be seen in the fact that we have a president who, according to The Washington Post’s lowball estimate, tells an average of 5.6 falsehoods per day.
Lying presidents are nothing new. I coined the term “post-truth presidency” back in October 2004 to refer to the George W. Bush administration. What’s novel about Donald Trump, however, is that he does not lie in pursuit of some larger political goal or to hide a potentially damaging secret. He just likes to lie, often for no discernible reason. But while Trump is a moron in most respects, he is an instinctive genius at media manipulation. And here, his apparently purposeless mendacity achieves two significant goals: First, he overwhelms traditional journalism, which cannot keep up and does not even wish to try. Second, his shamelessness inspires others to revise and expand his lies until they become “true,” at least in the right-wing universe of cable-news-driven political discussion.
A textbook example of the first phenomenon can be found in the recent impromptu presidential interview granted to The New York Times’ Michael Schmidt at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where the reporter—crouched, literally and symbolically, in a “catcher’s squat”—invited Trump to lie to him without interruption. If you think I exaggerate, here are Schmidt’s own words: “Some readers criticized my approach, saying I should have asked more follow-up questions. I believed it was more important to continue to allow the president to speak and let people make their own judgments about his statements.”
Thus was Trump given the Times megaphone to say whatever he wished, regardless of whether it had any basis in reality. The following day, the Times found 10 occasions in which the president uttered falsehoods in those 30 minutes—a decidedly conservative estimate compared with The Washington Post’s tally of 24 and the Toronto Star’s 25 (with only some overlap), which comes out to just under one per minute. What’s more, Schmidt’s (and the Times’) idea of letting readers “make their own judgments about his statements” is a fundamental abdication of the journalist’s purpose and profession. How can the average citizen be expected to know that Trump “exaggerated the trade deficit with other countries,” as the Times later pointed out? Do people walk around with accurate estimates of individual US trade deficits in their heads? Needless to say, a next-day article questioning a few of the president’s falsehoods does not undo the damage done by acting as a stenographer for Trump’s lies.