Retiring Republican US senator Jeff Flake isn’t the first person to critique US president Donald Trump’s rocky relationship with the truth. But he’s the most prominent person within his own party to – and that he chose to make his speech in the Senate chamber gives his words special resonance. While many members of the Republican leadership – and even rank and file – have their misgivings about the veracity of many of the president’s statements, they have mostly been communicated in off-the-record briefings.
The fact that Flake is retiring has given him a unique opportunity to speak truth to power and put into words what many in Congress have been thinking. But some of his comments attacking Trump were problematic. His assertion at the beginning that the US Declaration of Independence was predicated on “truth” is an obvious example.
While Flake quotes Thomas Jefferson when he states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident …”, he neglects to mention the next line “… that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
Jefferson and many of the Founding Fathers were slave owners who certainly didn’t believe that all men were created equally. As Dr Johnson noted at the time: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps of liberty among the drivers of negroes.”
The US was arguably founded on as many lies and myths as truths. George Washington never did cut down his father’s cherry tree, let alone refuse to lie about it.
Over the past 200 years, presidents have happily dissembled when it suited their purpose – and the media has often been complicit in this process, either directly, or via lies of omission. Equally, academics should not escape blame here. How many 20th-century French postmodernist philosophers promoted the idea that there was no objective truth or facts and everything was open to subjective opinion. While I doubt that Trump has read much of their work, intellectually he is putting their ideas into practise on a scale they could never have dreamt of.
But Flake is fundamentally correct in his main argument that Trump and his administration have taken this to a whole new level. Not only in terms of their relationship with truths and facts, but in terms of the language they use to describe the press, such as “traitors” and “enemies of the people”. As a colleague of mine recently noted:
All politicians lie, but most lie in ways you’d expect, about events open to interpretation, or difficult to verify statistics. Trump lies about things that anyone could check within a minute on Google.
It’s certainly difficult to imagine any previous occupant of the White House hosting a Fake News awards in a continuing quest to completely discredit the American news media – no matter how much they much have wished the press corps would leave them alone.
But Trump did, awarding Fake News mentions to CNN, the New York Times and an array of liberal news media outlets. A key difference between Trump and the media he despises is that the press are normally willing to admit publicly when they’re wrong, and print corrections (in some cases with journalists being sanctioned). Trump and his administration have been noticeably reluctant to clarify or correct their errors.
Failure of trust
The first and most obvious problem caused by Trump’s behaviour is the impact this has on the US’s civic culture and social capital. Trust in the institutions and processes of government is vital for democracies to prosper. Every time Trump suggests that the electoral system is corrupt, or that most journalists are liars, he chips away at that. Social media has already created echo chambers where voters have their own views endless recycled and magnified back. Trump has validated a whole army of conspiracy theorists some of whom believe their own government is lying to them, while the rest believe the media – whose job is to speak truth to power – is deliberately printing falsehoods about their president. Hardly a recipe for social tranquility.
Another problem is that – for better or worse – the US is the most powerful country in the world and many look to it for moral leadership. Equally, many still regard the president of the US as the leader of the free world (a title that has become increasingly tarnished over the past 30 or so years). The US’s soft power is largely based on this moral leadership.
But Trump’s untruths have alienated friends and allies alike and created a vacuum for global leadership which newer powers, including China, would be happy to fill. A recent survey suggests that the US plunged in terms of global approval of its leadership to the point that it is now behind China. Germany now leads the world in this respect, while last year France was ranked the world’s top practitioner of soft power (a fact my French wife was very pleased to point out to me).
Comfort to enemies
Flake’s argument that Trump’s crusade against the press is encouraging and validating the behaviour of dictators around the world also holds water. Leaders who rule based on a mixture of propaganda and lies will have been delighted by his savaging of networks such as CNN. When news agencies run stories on abuses or corruption in their countries they now use Trump’s comments to discredit them. As Flake pointed out:
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has complained of being ‘demonised’ by ‘fake news’. Last month, the report continues, with our president, quote ‘laughing by his side’ Duterte called reporters ‘spies’.
In July, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro complained to the Russian propaganda outlet that the world media had ‘spread lots of false versions, lots of lies’ about his country, adding: ‘This is what we call “fake news” today, isn’t it?’
Flake’s arguments were powerful and have made headlines around the world. But despite their being essentially correct, it seems unlikely it will change anything. There have been many supposedly “watershed” moments before when the press thought Trump was finished where it turned out not to be the case. America has become so polarised that those who believe Trump are likely to continue to do so, and nothing except the complete economic and political failure of the Trump “project” is likely to change that.