“Truth will ultimately prevail where pains is taken to bring it to light.” George Washington’s letter to Charles Mynn Thruston | Sunday, August 10, 1794
Washington is replying to Frederick County, Va., delegate Charles Mynn Thruston’s 21 June 1794 letter in which Thruston warned Washington of “a powerful faction” in Kentucky that wanted to separate from the United States and join Britain. Washington’s response blamed groups who were concealing or misrepresenting facts and “spreading mischief far & wide either from real ignorance of the measures pursuing by the government, or from a wish to bring it, as much as they are able, into discredit.” Washington believed that when the people of Kentucky learned the truth they would discredit the faction.
Liar in Chief
Speaking to members of the military during his surprise trip overseas in 2018, President Donald Trump spoke about the pay raises they received. “You haven’t gotten one in more than 10 years – more than 10 years,” he said. “And we got you a big one. I got you a big one. I got you a big one. “I got you a big one. I got you a big one.” He continued, “They said: ‘You know, we could make it smaller. We could make it 3 per cent. We could make it 2 per cent. We could make it 4 per cent.’ I said: ‘No. Make it 10 per cent. Make it more than 10 per cent’.” In fact, the future pay rise was actually 2.6 per cent. And the troops had received a pay raise every year for decades.
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker estimates that during two years of his presidency, Trump told some 7,600 lies. Yet despite that over 73 million people voted for Trump in the recent presidential election. And since the election Trump has been in complete denial over the outcome and has maintained a constant stream of accusations of fraud, in contrast to officials and independent observers who maintain “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”
From the FT: We all lie, but we don’t lie like President Trump. He is the most extravagant, reckless, inexhaustible fibber of our era — the panjandrum of porky pies. Because we all lie, we may be tempted to think we understand why Donald Trump does, or even that he lies for the same reasons we do. He doesn’t. Most of us lie to avoid causing painful feelings in others, and ourselves. Sometimes we lie to protect some sense of self. Trump’s lying is different. It’s not just a departure from the norms of the presidency — it’s a departure from the norm . . . . his greatest ambitions are neither financial nor political — they’re psychological. Trump abuses the truth so we take notice of him!
From the Guardian: Donald Trump lies like he tweets: erratically, at all hours, sometimes in malice and sometimes in self-contradiction, and sometimes without any apparent purpose at all. The Guardian has catalogued more than 100 falsehoods made by the Republican nominee over the last 150 days and sorted them according to theme.
In Trump’s world, crime is always rising (the national rate fell for decades), and African Americans are “living in hell” (they are not). Migrants are flooding in (more Mexicans are leaving than arriving), and they bring violence (there is no evidence that they do). Civilian and military leaders are always clueless (Trump received five deferments from Vietnam), except when they love him. We have no idea who refugees or undocumented migrants are, and they take our jobs (we know very well who they are; they include his wife).
Trump’s vision of the US has been, for decades, one of dystopia – he even described the 1990s as a crisis worse than the Great Depression. But amid all this desolation Trump gains three things. He fuels doubt and fear, leaving people vulnerable; he denigrates his opposition en masse, blaming the world on them; and he raises himself up above the non-existent wreckage.
His aim is to degrade others and destroy them.
Whenever in doubt, Trump attacks what he calls “the dishonest media”, accusing reporters (without evidence) of bias, inaccuracy and a failure to show the size of his rallies. He ignores that reporters quote him extensively, call his campaign for comment, interview his supporters, his rival’s campaign and independent voters and experts. He often cites news stories about Clinton, and even praised fact-checkers in a presidential debate for catching her in a falsehood.
Trump’s scorched earth insults, like his attacks on other institutions, try to delegitimize authority and leave only himself in its place.
Initially most Americans still respected institutions that Trump demeaned. But the press was vulnerable after decades of cable news punditry had diminished opinion of the press, and the internet has sapped major newspapers of their powers to compete with openly partisan sites, fake news and social media networks. Trump tried to fill the vacuum. But more recently Trump has been attacking institutions and their leaders such as Chris Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and Anthony S. Fauci at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Think about what is happening here. Lies – easily discredited are made, with complete shamelessness, about people and institutions most of us would regard as highly professional and competent, by a man that is patently uninformed and ignorant. At the same time Trump is continually reinforcing the lie that there was “widespread nationwide voter fraud” especially in “big cities controlled by Democrats. And the more this is repeated the more he is reinforcing the idea that Democrats have won the election fraudulently and at best he is dividing the country and undermining the integrity of the election and at worst setting the stage for his next act – either some form of coup or a media led takeover of the Republican party.
A worldwide problem
The problem is that the prime casualty from the last four years is the truth. Most of us don’t tell lies, not big ones anyway, and think we know when someone is lying. But Trump has clearly found ways to command unquestioning support from a significant proportion of the population even while he has tenuous links with truth or reality. The same syndrome has happened elsewhere. In the UK the electorate were led to believe that Brexit would be easy and a huge benefit to the country. Four years on from the vote to leave the EU, it’s clear that even though the truth has been exposed, a significant minority still believe the lies. Further until very recently, the Conservative government has been effectively captured by the fundamentally anarchist Vote Leave group. We can see parallels between the US and the UK where truth becomes the casualty of aggressive, conflict led campaigns.
In these and other countries it’s clear that these influences have coarsened the public space, encouraged division, reduced respect for government, media, institutions and experts.
As I write this post, I read that Trump is using the weight of his office to attempt to persuade election workers and officials to subvert the will of the electorate. And this is happening because Trump has created the ability to distort the truth, to persuade ordinary people that black is white and that the office of the presidency is omnipotent.
The role of technology
Much of this has been facilitated by technology. Twitter alone enabled Trump to be in peoples’ heads all the time. That was the way he did business. He grasped the fact that he could control the agenda. He realised that he could create events on a literally continuous basis where he controlled the agenda. When he said an individual was a terrible person huge numbers of people believed him. Sadly, he politicised the Coronavirus pandemic and encouraged 50% of the US population to reject mask wearing, even though experts have said masks are actually more effective than a vaccine, and they are already here and available. As a direct result hundreds of thousands have died and many, many more will follow.
In today’s world we have just a very few giant tech companies that have extraordinary and ungoverned influence on how we live. Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook, Alibaba and Tencent. Over the past 30 years we have seen waves of technology affecting how we live, communicate, transact, and crucially how we manage data. While there have been relatively small actions by governments to influence the tech giants, mostly in the areas of data and security, there has been no effort whatsoever to exert meaningful governance to protect society. The ability of a national leader or political campaign to use platforms to abuse, bully, lie and also commercially prosper has been demonstrated beyond doubt. The key question for civilization now is how do we bring the tech companies and their users under some level of practical governance.
I will address this issue of governance in my next post.