Why do so many people call Donald Trump a liar? What exactly did Trump lie about? Do you think his lies are justified?
Many believed whatever Donald Trump said because he was the president. Of course, everything Trump said isn’t a lie, but much of it was. According to a Washington Post analysis, he made eleven thousand false claims in nine hundred days in office, which averaged about ten per day.
Let’s take a closer look at President Trump’s lies and other forms of deception.
A Divisive President
A president’s words are important because, not only do they speak for the nation, they set the tone of our national conversation. They influence how we participate in self-government, meet challenges, and solve problems. They foster unity or division.
The words of our presidents—their writings and speeches—are compiled in volumes called The Public Papers of the Presidents, which are on display near the official entrance to the White House. The words in these volumes shaped our nation and the world. For instance, Abraham Lincoln’s words helped heal the wounds of the Civil War. Rather than inspiring national unity, however, Trump’s words further polarized us and weakened democracy.
His presidential papers will begin with the gloomy portrait of the country—a scene of “American carnage”—painted in his inaugural address: of mothers and children trapped in poverty, factories decaying, our education system failing our children, and rampant crime. And while we hand out money to other countries, they steal our innovations and destroy our jobs.” Trump vowed that under his administration, Americans would start “winning again” and be “unstoppable.”
While these scripted remarks were aggrieved and gloomy in tone, they were far more articulate than most of what Trump says, which is unscripted, crude, and divisive.
Trump’s words encourage insult and animosity. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump memorably described his Democratic opponent as “a nasty woman”—however, he’s proven to be a truly nasty man as president.
Trump’s words are sowing division among Americans. His words migrate from his tweets to people’s conversations at home and at work. We’re more partisan than ever. Our divisions mean we don’t trust each other or our government and we’re pessimistic about the country’s future—looking ahead to 2050, we envision further economic disparity, decline, and division. A Pew Research survey found one thing we do agree on: that Trump has changed the tone of our national discourse for the worse.
Trump’s take-no-prisoners style gets in the way of accomplishing his goals—he’d can’t get agreement in Congress on even the most innocuous issues. There might be more hope for a spirit of bipartisanship if Trump didn’t treat Democrats as enemies to be destroyed. Many times, while Trump’s aides are making progress in negotiating an issue, Trump torpedoes the effort by public attacking those his aides are negotiating with.
For example, the issue of improving the nation’s crumbling infrastructure has widespread, bipartisan support and could have been a success for Trump. However, he jettisoned his talking points for a meeting with Democratic leaders and went on a diatribe because he’d seen something on cable that angered him. He stormed out of the meeting, saying he wouldn’t talk until they stopped investigating him.
Lies and More Lies
A worse trait than Trump’s desire to divide people and pick fights is his dishonesty. He constantly makes wild claims and spreads clearly false information.
President Trump’s lies range from white lies to big, obvious ones such as his insistence at times that he won the popular vote. More problematic are lies underlying policy—for instance, that he’s reduced crime or he’s building the wall—and lies that shape public attitudes. He damages our democratic institutions when he persuades people that, for instance, the FBI is corrupt, the media are the “enemy of the people,” or the judicial system or elections are rigged.
Nonetheless, Trump “spreads lies he hears. He makes up new lies to spread. He lies to our faces. He asks people around him to lie.” His spokespeople try to avoid admitting the president was wrong, which leads to more convoluted and misleading statements. Rather than trying to sort it out, it’s easier for the public to either believe everything he says or reject everything as a lie.
Changing Our Perceptions of Truth
Trump is distorting our perceptions of truth. To Trump, there’s no objective truth. If people believe something, then it’s true. “A tree is only a tree to him if we all agree it’s a tree. If he can convince us it’s a sheep, then it is a sheep.”
Senior advisor Kellyanne Conway memorably described this as presenting “alternative facts.” She argued, in effect, that whatever the White House says must be true. As a result, she and other spokespeople have become “reality contortionists” to please Trump.
Trump’s supporters believe his lies because of their confirmation bias, a human tendency, now abetted by social media, to interpret new information in a way that supports our existing views. Trump exploits this by reinforcing his supporters’ prejudices with false information. For instance, if you think government is corrupt, you’ll believe Trump’s conspiracy theories about a Deep State that’s out to destroy him.
It’s increasingly difficult for citizens to find common ground because they can’t agree on what’s true. We can’t solve problems when we can’t agree on the facts about the problems. Lies that are repeated often enough gradually change public perceptions of what’s true. This can create chaos in a free society. When we’ve lost our ability to reason and separate truth from falsehoods, we’ll have no defense against authoritarianism and other threats to democracy.
Our Last Hope for Truth
Our last hope for truth and our bulwark protecting democracy is a free press—which Trump also is working relentlessly to undermine.
He’s conducting an all-out battle against journalists. While many Republicans have no problem with what they see as retaliation for a longstanding media bias against their party, the media, despite their flaws, have a vital role in a democracy that’s constitutionally protected. As an entity that can’t be censored, they’re our defense against government overreach.
Since Trump can’t censor news organizations and journalists, he’s worked to discredit them by labeling their reporting as “fake news,” meaning lies. He applies it to inaccurate reporting, but more often to any reporting that criticizes him or makes him look bad—in other words, anything he doesn’t like. He’s seethed at the coverage he gets and considered ways to retaliate, from cutting off access for White House correspondents who displease him to suggesting federal investigations into reporting.
Trump has warped views on free speech. He contends that mainstream media coverage isn’t free speech. Rather, it’s “crooked” and “dishonest” for writing something “bad” about whatever Trump considers to be a good thing. However, freedom of speech includes, by definition, the freedom to criticize a president or say something the president doesn’t like.
As time went on, Trump escalated his anti-media rhetoric, branding journalists as “the enemy of the people”—a term the Soviet Union used when it jailed and tortured journalists who reported truthfully about the totalitarian state. When Trump first started using the phrase, the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution condemning it.
But Trump’s media-bashing is having the effect he wants—over half of the Republican voters polled in the spring of 2018 agreed with the president that the press is “the enemy of the people”; only 37% believed a free press is “an important part of democracy.”
This doesn’t bode well for our ability to recognize and accept the truth. Not long after the poll, a man sent pipe bombs to thirteen media organizations and personalities, whom Trump had attacked by name. It was “a chilling example” of how Trump’s words can lead to real-life consequences.
To guard against the danger of a mob mentality taking over government, incited by an unscrupulous leader, the Founders built in certain protections for rational debate. They created a representative government instead of a direct democracy and set elections every few years to avoid the passions of the moment.
However, elected leaders are no longer insulated from swings in the public mood. Digital communication via social media and email means people can harass their representatives around the clock, attacking every word or vote.
Under this pressure, members of Congress are cooperating less and are increasingly adopting the confrontational tone of their critics. Rather than working toward compromise, many try to browbeat opponents into silence.
Trump builds a mob mentality with his overheated rhetoric, then exploits it. Delighting in the way his followers rally to his causes, he uses social media to inflame them to attack anyone who criticizes him. Irrationality overcomes truth as Trump’s own “fake news” becomes instant reality to those who believe it. His lies are retweeted by tens of thousands of his followers before fact-checkers can mobilize. Digital mobs with Trump’s lies as their “pitchforks” know no limits.
Trump’s staff share responsibility when they egg him on, helping to start Twitter wars, disparage critics, and incite followers about a new cause. Trump and his team know they can easily make people angry and they do it. The craziness migrates from the digital to real world at Trump’s rallies, where he deliberately incites crowds with pre-tested incendiary one-liners and attacks on his enemies.
For instance, at a Florida rally, he expressed mounting frustration about illegal immigration, finally asking the crowd, “How do you stop these people?” “Shoot them,” someone shouted. Trump laughed: “That’s only in the panhandle you can get away with that statement.” He uses such “jokes” to signal approval. (At one time, Trump actually did propose shooting people at the border for rock-throwing. Defense Department officials had to convince him that the military’s rules of engagement didn’t allow opening fire on unarmed civilians.)
Feeding Hateful Groupthink
While it’s difficult for Republicans to acknowledge, there’s no escaping the fact that Trump’s words often carry a strong racial animus. During the campaign, fellow Republicans called Trump a “race-baiting xenophobic bigot.” Nothing in his attitude has changed—his views are ingrained. For example, when it comes to immigration, the people he wants to welcome are white, wealthy, and European, while those he wants to keep out are from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.
At a minimum, his language alienates people from each other and feeds into “hateful groupthink.” Extremists are adopting his language to promote their movements. The mass shooter at the El Paso Walmart wrote that he was “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion”—Trump constantly uses the word “invasion” when talking about immigration.
While Trump isn’t to blame for such reprehensible actions, he’s responsible for the tone he sets, for choosing words that inflame and divide, and for creating a hostile climate that can nurture violence.
Three-quarters of Americans think “elected officials should avoid using heated language because it could encourage violence.” The question is whether Trump’s incendiary rhetoric will bring about what the Founders feared: a mob mentality that brings down our democracy.