Notorious presidential lies stud the annals of the history of the American presidency: Franklin D. Roosevelt hiding his disability from public sight. Dwight Eisenhower denying spy planes over Russia. John F. Kennedy denying plans for invading Cuba. Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam. Richard Nixon on Watergate. Ronald Reagan on arms for hostages. Bill Clinton on Monica Lewinsky. George W. Bush on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. For some presidents the lie is simply a means to maintain control of situations spinning out of control. For others, the lie is a means to keep news quiet that might otherwise enrage or terrify the general public. For others, the lie is all about self-preservation. For some — those that have the most authoritarian tendencies — lies are all about consolidating and enlarging political power.
While we can find many instances of presidential lies on both sides of the aisle, no president in American history comes close to the volume, frequency and sheer audacity of the lies of Donald J. Trump. An analysis by the Washington Post fact checkers reveals that over 497 days of his presidency, President Trump has made 3,251 false or misleading claims. President Trump is a study in a leader shaping reality according to his own intentions. Some reporters equivocate on whether his statements should be called ‘lies’ because he may really believe what he is saying. Some media outlets prefer to use terms like “falsehood” or “untrue.”
I say call it what it is when the statement is clearly not true and he should know it’s not true: it’s a lie. And let’s be clear: Trump lies to gain political advantage, to enlarge and consolidate his power, to bully the opposition into silence.
Among his many lies, none are quite so devastating as the lies he tells repeatedly about immigrants. I have written about this previously on this blog, see “On Lies and the Truths We Must Tell.” Demagogues and authoritarians use fear of “the other” to manipulate the electorate and win political support among people who are vulnerable to the fear of a “takeover” by hostile, violent forces. Trump campaigned on the lie about “Mexican rapists.” He is imprisoning children in cages at the border based on lies about violent immigrants, associating all immigrants and refugees with the MS-13 gang, using words like “animals” and “infest” and “invade” to conjure a viral horde swarming across the border. During his campaign he even deceptively used an old video clip of migrants crossing a border in Morocco to claim it showed Mexicans storming the US border. He repeats an incessant, wrong statement that Democrats are in favor of “open borders” and even that they speak favorably about gang violence. Not true, but the statements are published often without challenge, or news readers on radio and television simply read Trump’s tweets without correction.
Trump’s lies about immigrants shape a political position that appeals to his “base” — a segment of the American population that responds enthusiastically to racial and ethnic hatred, to slurs against people of color, to the non-white populations who are fast becoming the American majority. Numerous commentators are pointing out that much of the current deeply racist reaction in our country is the last gasp of the old white majority. “America First” is a slogan that has treacherous echoes of anti-semitism and support for Hitler in the 1930’s, and a similar ideology seems to fuel the current right turn in the United States. But sociology is inexorable, and despite today’s ugly battles, the demographic transformation of the nation is inevitable.
Does it matter how much a president lies, since all of them apparently do it at one time or another? In a blog posted on the Brookings Institution website, Presidential Scholar James Pfiffiner observed, “…when a president continues to insist that his previous false statements are true, the institutions of government become corroded and democracy is undermined.”
Pfiffiner goes on to say,
“Trump’s refusal to admit the truth of widely accepted facts corrodes political discourse and is consistent with the practice of many authoritarian leaders. The assertion of the power to define reality is destructive of democratic governance, in part because many people believe him and are not amenable to contrary evidence.
“Even though his narcissistic lies are detrimental to the democratic process, Trump’s continued adherence to demonstrably false statements about politics and policy strikes at the very heart of democracy and the whole project of enlightenment epistemology. If there are no agreed upon facts, then it becomes impossible for people to make judgments about their government or hold it accountable.” (April 13, 2018, “Trump’s Lies Corrode Democracy”)
We are in a political moment that appears devastating for principles of truth and honor, justice and fairness. Students of history know that this kind of cycle will eventually run its course, but we don’t know for how long, nor do we know the consequences, though by all that we are seeing right now, the consequences are already horrific for many people.
What can everyday citizens do about any of this? First and foremost, we need to agree that truth is neither a Republican nor Democratic quality, but a human quality that we must insist upon in all of our leaders. We must resist the urge to cast all of the current debate in political terms; much of what is happening is first and foremost a question of core moral values — how people are treated, how we understand participation in democracy, what we mean by freedom and justice, what kind of society we want to create.
Catholics and many people of faith would articulate these core values as tenets of social justice, starting with the care and concern for human life and dignity. We can debate the politics of a good immigration policy, but we should never be silent when human beings are being treated in appalling ways by our own government. Separating children from parents, putting babies in cages, calling immigrants “animals” and turning our backs on the genuine humanitarian crises that cause people to become refugees are all moral problems; political solutions are necessary, but cannot be devoid of conscience.
At Trinity, principles of honor and integrity remain central to our educational philosophy, and our mission is deeply rooted in Catholic teachings on social justice. We aim to develop leadership abilities among our students, and we teach that being truthful and caring for other people is central to the whole idea of good leadership.
In an ironic way, Donald Trump is the perfect example for teaching about leadership — his words and actions daily are the exact opposite of what a good leader should do. Watch him, do the opposite. Oh, yes, he is a master at the art of whipping up a fervid crowd. And he has cowed members of Congress who seem to have lost their voices and maybe their spines when it comes to exercising leadership on behalf of We the People, the majority of whom want good solutions to our current challenges.
But a bully is not a leader, a demagogue is not our destiny. We must study this moment carefully, and use its painful lessons to develop a new generation of leaders who can be stronger, bolder, more truthful and more value-centered to reclaim the center of American life, to reclaim the idea of the Good Society, to move our nation forward again, striving toward a place of greater peace and more justice for all.