“What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
When the history of the Trump era is written, this quotation from our president will play a prominent role in explaining the distemper of our moment and the dysfunction of his administration. Trump was talking about media coverage of his trade war, but he was also describing his genuinely novel approach to governing: He believes that reality itself can be denied and that big lies can sow enough confusion to keep the truth from taking hold.
This has advantages for Trump, because it dulls the impact of any new revelation. Old falsehoods simply get buried under new ones. Take the recording of his September 2016 conversation with his one-time lawyer Michael Cohen that was released Tuesday night.
Cohen’s attorney put out the tape, which, as The Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig and Robert Costa reported, shows that Trump “appeared familiar with a deal that a Playboy model made to sell the rights to her story of an alleged affair with him.” Karen McDougal sold her tale to the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc. The tabloid never ran her account, which clearly protected Trump from this embarrassing tale before the election, although its management has denied that this was its intention.
Trump’s lawyer and battering ram Rudy Giuliani insisted that the recording portrayed a Trump who “doesn’t seem that familiar with anything” that was discussed. This was, shall we say, an eccentric way of hearing the conversation.
Obfuscated in this back-and-forth is the fact that four days before the 2016 election, Hope Hicks, Trump’s campaign spokeswoman, denied the affair altogether and said that the campaign had “no knowledge” of any payoff.
Trump’s behavior would be bad enough if it were only about his personal life and his treatment of women. But the big lie strategy extends to policy and national security as well.
For example, the Commerce Department, which runs the census, claimed earlier this year that it added a question asking if respondents were citizens in response to the Justice Department’s desire to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The question is a terrible idea. Six former Census Bureau directors under both Republican and Democratic presidents urged Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross not to include it. They warned that doing so “will considerably increase the risks to the 2020 enumeration.”
The fear is that many immigrants, documented and especially undocumented, would be reluctant to answer the census if the question were part of it, leading to an undercounting of places with substantial foreign-born populations.
But for the Trump administration, this is not a problem. It’s the goal. Undercounting immigrants would have the effect of shifting political power — as well as federal money — largely to Republican areas that have lower immigrant populations.
And documents turned over this week in response to a lawsuit against the addition of the citizenship question showed that Ross lobbied for its inclusion much earlier and more actively than his later sworn testimony had indicated. “Lying to Congress is a serious criminal offense, and Secretary Ross must be held accountable,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon had also pushed for the question when he was in the White House.
The Justice Department acted months later, a clear sign that the department’s alleged concern for civil rights was simply a pretext for a politically motivated skewing of valuable public information. Distorting data collection is an attack on the truth, too.
And when it comes to creating new and unhinged narratives to displace those rooted in fact, Trump has no equal. Thus did the man who stood next to Vladimir Putin when the Russian leader said he wanted Trump to win in 2016 declare this week— with no evidence whatsoever — that Russia “will be pushing very hard for the Democrats” in this fall’s election.
Contrary to liberal fears, most of the country doesn’t believe him. Trump’s core support, measured by the proportion in Wednesday’s NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist Poll who strongly approve of him, is down to 25 percent.
The bad news is that among Republicans his strong approval number stands at 62 percent. Trump’s hope of clinging to power rests on the assumption that he can continue inventing enough false story lines to keep his party at bay. His theory seems to be that a lie is as good as the truth as long as the right people believe it.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com.