Columnist William Newman: The dangers of accepting presidential lies

  • President Donald Trump speaks as he welcomes members of the Baylor women’s basketball team, who are the 2019 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball National Champions, to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 29, 2019. AP photo

Published: 5/3/2019 8:36:58 PM
Modified: 5/3/2019 8:36:46 PM

I have a question: When did lying by a president of the United States become accepted and acceptable, routine and unremarkable?

Not long ago (though it feels like an eternity) if a president misspoke, the White House would rush to minimize, retract, clarify or correct the error (sometimes all of the foregoing). Now the White House doubles down on deceit.

The Washington Post ran a news story this week that was extraordinary both for its substance as well as the lack of outrage that greeted it. The Post reported that Donald Trump had spoken his 10,000th lie while president.

The phenomenon of American politicians, including presidents, engaging in fabrication, of course, is nothing new. But Trump’s enshrinement of prevarication is different.

He has no compunctions about lying. He is not constrained by any need or desire to even appear truthful. Rather, he has lied in plain sight all the time — ever since he took over the government — from the magnitude of his Electoral College victory to the size of the crowds at his inauguration, to the number of legislative accomplishments. There are 9,997 additional examples.

Some lies are, of course, more pernicious than others. Selling his base, which constitutes about 40 percent of America, on the notion that a free press constitutes “the enemy of the people,” tops the list. Trump’s denigrating science, knowledge and facts is equally dangerous.

At the beginning of his administration, news organizations would call out Trump and his spokespeople for their lies. But no longer. Another Trump lie will register about as much interest as a newspaper headline that reads “Sun came up this morning.”

There is, of course, no provable answer to the question with which we began — when did this behavior become accepted? What was the tipping point?

Nor should we expect one. As Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write in “How Democracies Die,” “Democracies may die at the hand . . . of elected leaders, Presidents or Prime Ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power . . . [S]ome of these leaders dismantle democracies quickly as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire . . . [M]ore often, though, democracies die slowly in barely visible steps.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt lay out the four key indicators of an authoritarian leader: (1) a rejection of, or a weak commitment to, traditional democratic rules; (2) denial of legitimacy of political opponents; (3) tolerating or encouraging violence; (4) readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media. Donald Trump checks all these boxes, a fact that perhaps Trump detractors and adherents can agree on.

Fabrication, a disdain for facts and truth, is at the core of Trump’s dismantling of democracy. As Levitsky and Ziblatt put it, “Trump’s most notorious norm-breaking behavior has been lying . . . [but Trump hasn’t paid] much of a price for his lies.” This presents great danger. Lying and despotic rule are intrinsically linked.

Which brings us to consideration of 2020. Let’s start with an indisputable fact. Only one of the 20 or so Democratic candidates will win the nomination, which means that 19 candidates and their supporters will feel defeated. If the Democrats can unite behind a candidate, they can defeat Trump. If they leave their convention, bruised, battered and busted, they probably won’t.

Trump will have Putin in his bed and by his side, the Koch brothers paying his bills and polluting our earth, and Republican state officials and Russian bots effectuating voter suppression and election hacking. These are formidable forces that could allow Trump to anoint himself leader for four more years — or as he has said, for even longer, notwithstanding his proposed usurpation of the two-term presidential limits set forth in the Twenty-Second Amendment.

“How Democracies Die” makes the point that the electoral road to a breakdown of a democracy is dangerously deceptive. “Constitutional and other normally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Trump has made the abnormal normal. He has lowered the bar for deviant governance. He has made acceptable bullying, lying, cheating and destroying of democratic norms — behavior that we previously considered abhorrent and scandalous. We underestimate the sophistication, reach and success of his propaganda apparatus at our own peril.

Democrats, Independents and actual Republicans (not Trumpistas) need a process and ultimately a candidate in 2020 who can restore dignity and honesty to the office and democracy and liberty to the country. If Trump is reelected, we may never have that chance again. That’s a truth we need to look in the eye.

Bill Newman is a civil rights lawyer, the host of a weekday radio show on WHMP and the author and voice of The Civil Liberties Minute podcast. His column appears the first Saturday of the month.

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