U.S. President Donald Trump is a serial liar who appears to exult, if not take pride, in every petty deceit, particularly if it casts him into the glare of publicity.
With Trump preparing to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore in a highly anticipated summit this week, it’s worth a reminder: Not unlike Kim, Trump lies to hide the brutality of his cruel policies. He lies to discredit reliable sources of information and to discredit those public institutions that educate a public to create informed citizens who are able to distinguish between the truth and falsehoods.
He will lie about the summit. He can’t help himself.
The Washington Post reports that in his first 466 days in office, Trump has made more than “3,001 false or misleading statements,” averaging “about nine claims a day.”
Trump has lied, along with a tsunami of other fabrications, about former president Barack Obama’s birthplace, he’s made false claims about why he did not win the popular vote, he’s stated he knew nothing about payments prior to his election to the porn star Stormy Daniels, and he’s wrongly declared that the U.S. is the highest taxed nation in the world.
Most recently, the New York Times reported that Trump’s lawyers have admitted that the president drafted a misleading statement about a meeting his son had with a lawyer associated with the Kremlin in Trump Tower, though for months he denied it.
He has falsely claimed 72 times that he passed the biggest tax cut in history; incorrectly states that he has eliminated Obamacare; and fallaciously argues that the Democrats were responsible for eliminating DACA (the Deferred Action for Child arrivals that he terminated).
‘The truth is dangerous’
In Trump’s Orwellian world, the truth is dangerous, thinking is a liability, and the sanctity of free speech is treated with disdain, if not the threat of censorship.
Trump uses an endless stream of tweets in which the truth is distorted for ideological, political or commercial reasons. Under the Trump administration, lying and the spectacle of fakery have become an industry and tool of power.
All administrations and governments lie at times, but under Trump, lying has become normalized, a calling card for corruption and lawlessness that provides the foundation for authoritarianism.
As in any dictatorship, the Trump regime dismisses words, concepts and news sources that address crucial social problems such as climate change, police violence and corporate malfeasance.
In Trump’s dystopian world, words such as a “nation of immigrants,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “diversity,” “entitlement,” “climate change,” “democratic,” “peaceful,” “just” and “vulnerable” disappear into a “memory hole.” Under the Trump regime, language has become a political tool and operates in the service of violence, unchecked power and lawlessness.
For Trump, lying has become a toxic policy for legitimizing ignorance and civic illiteracy. Not only does he relish lying repeatedly, he has also attacked the critical media, claimed journalists are enemies of the American people and argued that the media is the opposition party. His rallying cry, “fake news,” is used to dismiss any critic or criticism of his policies, however misleading, wrong or dangerous they are.
Facts are erased
There is more at stake here than the threat of censorship, there is also an attack on traditional sources of information and the public spheres that produce them. Trump’s government has become a powerful disimagination and distraction machine in which the distinction between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy are erased.
Under Trump, language operates in the service of civic violence because it infantilizes and depoliticizes the wider public, creating what Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has called, in a different context, “the mask of nihilism.”
Trump’s attacks on any criticism of his policies and the truth go far beyond the public deploying of personal insults. In the case of his attack on the FBI and Department of Justice, his penchant for relentless lying constitutes both a possible obstruction of justice and an egregious attempt to discredit criticism and corrode democracy.
What happens when a government excludes language that addresses social problems, provides resources for the vulnerable and dismisses all information related to climate change?
Reminiscent of book-burning
Trump’s politics of erasure is more than a page out of the dystopian novels of George Orwell or Ray Bradbury, it also echoes an earlier historical period when censorship and book burning was the currency of fascist regimes. As American historian Karen J. Greenberg warns, the suppression of language opens the doorway to fascism.
The president’s fabricating Twitter machine is about more than lying, it is also about using all of the tools and resources to create a dystopia in which authoritarianism emerges through the raw power of ignorance, control and police-state repression.
Of course, Trump does not lie in isolation. He is encouraged by a right-wing disimagination machine that American sociologist Todd Gitlin rightly calls “an interlocking ecology of falsification that has driven the country around the bend” and into the abyss of authoritarianism.
Trump’s endless fabrications echo the propaganda machines made famous in the fascist regimes of the 1930s. He values loyalty over integrity, and he lies in part to test the loyalty of those who both follow him and align themselves with his power.
Trump’s lying must be understood within a broader attack on the fundamentals of education and democracy itself. This is especially important at a time when the U.S. is no longer a functioning democracy and is in the presence of what sociologists Leonidas Donskis and the late Zygmunt Bauman referred to as a form “of modern barbarity.”
Trump’s lying undermines the public’s grip on language, evidence, facts and informed judgement, and in doing so promotes a form of civic illiteracy in which words and meaning no longer matter. Depriving the public of the capacity for critical analysis and discerning the truth from lies does more than empty politics of any meaning, it also undermines democracy.
As ethics wither, people become prisoners of their own experiences, indifferent to an ignorance and brutishness in which they become complicit.
As the theatre of lies, insults, and childish petulance triumphs over measured arguments, a world emerges in which the only real choices are among competing fictions — a world in which nothing is true and everything begins to look like a lie.
If the spirit and promise of a sustainable democracy is to survive, it’s crucial to make truth-telling virtuous again. If we are going to fight for and with the powerless, we have to understand their needs, speak to and with them in a language that is mutually understandable as well as honest.
There is also a need to reinvent politics through alternative narratives in which the American public can both identify themselves and the conditions through which power and oppression bear down on their lives.
This is not an easy task, but nothing less than justice, democracy and the planet itself are at risk.
Authoritarianism creates a predatory class of unethical zombies who produce dead zones of the imagination that even Orwell could not have envisioned, while using an unchecked language of lying to wage a fierce fight against the possibilities of a democratic future.
The time has come for progressives and others to develop a political language in which civic values, social responsibility and the institutions that support them become central to invigorating and fortifying a new era of civic imagination.
There must be a renewed sense of social agency, and an impassioned international social movement with a vision, organization and set of strategies to challenge the dystopian nightmare engulfing the United States, and a growing number of illiberal democracies all over the globe.
Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, wrote after Franco destroyed the Spanish Republic: “I swear to defend until my death what has been murdered in Spain: The right to happiness.”
This tribute to justice, the public imagination, dignity and the right to be free from the curse of those who use their power to lie and malign the crucial institutions of democracy must once again be defended in the spirit of urgency and the “right to happiness” — not to mention the right to truth.