Responding to Trump’s Lies: Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t

Rebutting the President's routine prevarications merely spreads them. Is there an alternative?

The President of the United States is a serial liar. Daniel Dale, Washington Bureau Chief of the Toronto Star, claims “Donald Trump has said 1829 false things as U.S. president” (as of this writing) and has documented them all. PolitiFact also has an extensive file.

In a NYT piece titled “Here Is One Way Trump Spreads False Information Online,”  Liam Stack argues that trying to rebut these lies actually helps Trump. He uses a recent example:

On Monday, President Trump tweeted that Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, had encouraged liberals to “harm” supporters of “the Make America Great Again movement” and warned her to “be careful what you wish for.”

[…]

By Tuesday, the tweet was shared more than 40,000 times, and many users included comments critical of the president. Both critics and supporters of Mr. Trump said the tweet contained a veiled threat against the congresswoman, who called on people to confront Trump officials in public as a form of registering their disapproval.

This kind of Twitter outrage cycle has repeated itself countless times since Mr. Trump began his presidential campaign in 2015, and it is one of his tried and true methods for injecting disinformation into public discourse, experts said.

“What we’re seeing here is the standard process of Trump launching a series of lies into our media ecosystem and then watching it bounce around and amplify through the system,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at The University of Virginia. “So to respond with anything reasonable to the fact that the president basically made stuff up is to extend the message and to throw a bomb” into the political debate.

The president’s tweet about Ms. Waters contained a false statement, an insult and what sounds like a threat. But each time it was shared — even, and perhaps especially, by critics who wanted to vent their anger — the message was amplified and spread.

[…]

By retweeting Mr. Trump, many of his critics in turn spread false statements and an insult (“an extraordinarily low IQ person”) rather than correcting them. But even when they do correct the president, Mr. Vaidhyanathan said, it does not make much difference.

“He can make a statement about a member of Congress and her I.Q. and completely lie about what that member of Congress said,” Mr. Vaidhyanathan said of Mr. Trump. “And what will occur is consistent repetition of that message. And most of the repetition of that message will be in the form of criticism, not correction.”

Neither Stack nor Vaidhyanathan offers an alternative, however. They seem to imply that Trump’s outrageous statements ought simply to be ignored. But leaving lies, particularly by someone with the bully pulpit of the presidency, unchallenged is effectively to concede them as truths.

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen argues “It’s time for the press to suspend normal relations with the Trump presidency.”

It sometimes happens in diplomacy that one country has to say to another: “This is extreme. We cannot accept this. You have gone too far.” And so it suspends diplomatic relations.

In 2012 the government of Canada announced that it would suspend diplomatic relations with Iran. “Canada views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today,” said the foreign minister.

Journalists charged with covering him should suspend normal relations with the presidency of Donald Trump, which is the most significant threat to an informed public in the United States today.

In the first days of the Trump presidency, he argued that news organizations should send interns instead of their premier journalists to cover White House press briefings. He notes Rachel Maddow’s practice of seldom quoting Trump at all and points to Chris Wallace’s counter that whatever the President says is, by definition, news. Rosen then offers this:

A middle-ground would be this: what the president says is neither automatically newsworthy nor automatically suspect. Rather, it has to be judged in context. Which sounds super-reasonable. Who can be against “context” and case-by-case judgment? But here’s the context: bad actor, cannot be given the benefit of the doubt, no matter what the case is.

“How,” asked Chuck Todd on Meet the Press June 17, “can we believe a president who routinely says things that are provably false?” Instead of treating these questions as unsolvable riddles, Chuck Todd could… suspend normal relations. For Meet the Press, that might mean: don’t accept as guests the people the White House sends out as defenders of the provably false (especially Kellyanne Conway.) If Trump himself is willing to sit down with Chuck Todd, fine. Take him on over his many falsehoods. But no surrogates or fog machines unless they are willing to correct the president.

The American press corps is not like the government of Canada, which can speak with a single voice. Thousands of people working for hundreds of newsrooms cannot change their practices in synch with one another. But they can all decide, “This is extreme. We cannot accept this. This has gone too far.” And then make a break with normal practice.

For the Washington Post it might be declining to participate in so-called background briefings. For NPR, it might be refusing to report false claims by the President unless they are served as a “truth sandwich,” a suggestion recently made by Brian Stelter and Margaret Sullivan, interpreting the work of George Lakoff. For CNN, never going live to a Trump event — on the grounds that you will inevitably broadcast falsehoods if you do — would be a good start.

Suspend normal relations. It’s up to the journalists who cover Trump to decide how they will do it. The important thing is that they do it. And then announce what they did, to get others thinking about their own steps. In this way the sovereign state of journalism can take action, and show, as the Canadian prime minister said recently, that it will “not be pushed around.”

This sounds quite reasonable: journalists and media outlets should exercise news judgment. It would have been terrific advice if this were the 1970s, maybe even the 199os. But the people most susceptible to Trump’s lies about Maxine Waters aren’t listening to NPR or viewing CNN, much less watching Rachel Maddow. The press outlets which sided with Trump in 2016 are still siding with him, serving as his propaganda outlets.

I suppose it’s possible that the disaffected blue-collar workers who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 would be better off in the news environment Rosen describes. But one gathers they’re mostly getting their news from Facebook and Twitter, not traditional outlets with an editorial voice.

It may just be that, in a fact-free world, there’s no viable response to a shameless liar. People may well just believe whatever they want to believe.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Donald Trump, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    The real point is that the Trumpkins believe Trump. Nothing, including incontrovertible evidence that Trump is lying, will change their minds. And, in any case, they don’t care if he’s lying, or if the undeniable facts contradict him.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    People may well just believe whatever they want to believe.

    As it ever was.

    @CSK:

    The real point is that the Trumpkins believe Trump.

    No. They believe IN trump, he is their savior. as you yourself point out:

    they don’t care if he’s lying, or if the undeniable facts contradict him.

    It’s a cult. He is mixing the Kool-aid, letting them see all the toxic ingredients he is adding to it, and then saying “Here, drink this deal, I make the best deals!” So they drink it, then they dismiss their worsening symptoms as “fake news”.

  3. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I’m not altogether sure if they recognize the ingredients of the Kool-Aid as toxic.

  4. teve tory says:

    Trump’s now claiming Harley Davidson lied on their 8-k SEC filing to make him look bad. That’s the kind of crime that put Jeff Skilling and Bernie Madoff in prison. Just to make Trump look bad. And HD workers who are Trumpers are blaming Europe. It’s a fucking Cult of Stupid.

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  5. CSK says:

    @teve tory:
    Could you enlighten me as to what, precisely, is “the Aura” of which Trump speaks in his Tweet about Harley?

  6. James Pearce says:

    It may just be that, in a fact-free world, there’s no viable response to a shameless liar.

    The only “viable” response is to disbelieve the liar by default, even when the wolf actually shows up. The intractability of this problem might be why human societies throughout history have taboos on dishonesty.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: trump only uses the BEST ingredients, top shelf gold gilded stuff, sure to cure what ails you! Just ask him!

  8. Charon says:

    @CSK:

    It isn’t just Trump, these people have been trained by the Conservative Infotainment Media to believe only their team, disbelieve CNN, NYT etc.

    Trump just takes it a tat farther than the Daily Caller and Breitbart, seized the prepared ground.

    It was already a cult, Trump just morphed it into his own personality cult. (And, of course, dialed it all up to 11).

  9. CSK says:

    @Charon:

    Indeed. Trump actually owes much to Sarah Palin. She paved the way for him.

  10. Charon says:

    they don’t care if he’s lying, or if the undeniable facts contradict him.

    Some, perhaps. I think the majority of them are simply used to disregarding inconvenient facts, which one needs to do to accept “truths” simply on faith. It’s not they don’t care if he lies, they just do not believe he lies.

  11. An Interested Party says:

    This reminds me of McCarthy and his brief rein of hysteria…eventually he went too far, got smacked down, and faded from view…I wonder if there’s anything this deranged charlatan could do that would be the breaking point for most people…

  12. CSK says:

    @Charon:

    Of course. Anything that contradicts Trump is Fake News.

    Something I’ve noticed when I look at Lucianne.com: If someone posts the (rare) article about Trump being caught out in a lie that should be obvious even to them, the commenters ignore it.

  13. Charon says:

    @CSK:

    Indeed. Trump actually owes much to Sarah Palin. She paved the way for him.

    Rush Limbaugh. When Trump says “fake news” he is just parroting the message about the “MSM” that Rush keeps harping on.

  14. Not the IT Dept. says:

    CSK: there is no “Aura”. Trump was referring to the aura – the image – that being a HD rider gave to bikers. Why it got capitalized, I have no idea.

  15. This comment might get moderated, but it seems to me that the best thing to do when people spout unsubstantiated nonsense is to refer to them as “jerk offs” and leave it at that. If it isn’t evidence based, what is the point of even arguing?

  16. CSK says:

    @Charon:

    True, but Sarah Palin was the first person running for political office (that I can recall) who capitalized on it with her constant references to “the lamestream stream media.”

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    Thanks. I figured it was that, but with Trump, one never knows.

  17. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    You act as though this is something new. Republicans have been lying thru their teeth for decades. Dennison may be taking it to the extreme, but new? No.
    Lying is a pathology of the Right. It always amazes me the fierceness in which people like Bunge and JKB and J@nos and John420 and all the others hold onto their beliefs in the face of factual evidence, rational arguments, and common sense…they form these delusions in order to rationalize their belief in the lies that party leadership tells them to believe.
    Trickle-down economics/tax cuts will pay for themselves.
    The party of small government.
    Welfare queens.
    Life begins at conception/every life is precious.
    The Second Amendment.
    WMD in Iraq.
    Death Panels.
    Climate change denial.
    99 & 44/100ths of the Clinton conspiracy theories.
    Obama is a Muslim socialist.
    Fox News – right wing TV, and all lies all the time.
    The list is stunningly long.
    Maybe Dennison will bring about a tipping point, and the Fourth Estate will finally start calling BS on what is clearly BS. I hope so…but even if they do, it will be decades late. So much damage to the Republic has already been done.

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  18. Kathy says:

    If the trumpidians are credulous enough to believe the Cheeto, shouldn’t we be trying to scam them? Perhaps they’re in the market for a bridge. Cheap.

  19. KM says:

    @CSK:

    I’m not altogether sure if they recognize the ingredients of the Kool-Aid as toxic.

    They do. They understand very well things that hurt them – the proof is when a Dem tries it, they scream to high heaven. Think of it this way: an abused spouse tends to take the punches of their abuser but most likely call the cops if someone else takes a swing at them. What’s the difference you ask – isn’t a strike just as painful, humiliating and illegal from a stranger then from a loved one? Isn’t it all battery?

    The answer is the twisted mental logic one tells oneself when trapped in an abusive relationship. Oh, they don’t mean to hurt you, it was an accident. Oh something provoked them, the strike only happened because some outside force (possibly the abused themselves) caused them to get hit. Oh, they still care, it’s just a rough patch and they’re not bad people. Oh it will stop, it always stops and they’re nice to me again…. maybe I can stop the cycle from starting again if I just love them more.

    They see the toxicity and realize it’s bad. They want it to stop. Getting them to leave? That’s a whole different scenario then hoping they’ll see reason. Recognition and action are two difference trials. Trumpkins understand Trump does bad things – they simply don’t see it as a rationale for leaving him.

  20. teve tory says:

    @CSK: He thinks all Harleys are Made in Murka and that’s a special patriotic virtue.

    In reality they’re assembled in America from parts sourced all over the world ever since 1928 or 29, if you exclude the ones assembled in Brazil and India.

  21. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @CSK:

    Could you enlighten me as to what, precisely, is “the Aura” of which Trump speaks in his Tweet about Harley?

    The same people who idolize Dennison also idolize 50 year old technology that is loud, slow, and breaks frequently. See also; NASCAR
    Make sense?

  22. gVOR08 says:

    You all hit on the root cause, the Conservative Echo Chamber. Chuck Todd can do nothing about people who get their news from the CEC. But Chuck Todd could do something, as suggested above, about people who get news from Chuck Todd. But since Chuck Todd is a smarmy, both sides, he said she said careerist, he’ll content himself with bemoaning his inability to do anything about it while filling his show with lying Republicans.

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  23. MBunge says:

    So, we just went through an outburst of public hysteria over family separations at the border where an avalanche of lies, inaccuracies, and mischaracteriztions were vomited into the public discourse by legions of people not named Donald Trump but when a sitting member of Congress advocates a campaign of public harassment and physical intimidation against people serving in the Trump Administration, the real problem is that Donald Trump referred to that as a threat to “harm?”

    Pop quiz: Under Barack Obama, how many times did a right-winger try to murder a bunch of Democratic politicians? How many times under Donald Trump has a left-winger tried to murder a bunch of Republican politicians?

    Mike

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  24. Charon says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Lying is a pathology of the Right.

    The difference is that for people like Mitt Romney or Devin Nunes or whoever, the lies serve some rational political purpose. Trump has mental health issues, so he lies to make himself feel good even if it serves no rational purpose.

    By embracing lying as useful politics, the GOP left itself wide open to people like Trump. Psychopaths lie, Trump is an opportunistic infection that the GOP made itself open to.

  25. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @MBunge:

    public hysteria over family separations at the border where an avalanche of lies, inaccuracies, and mischaracteriztions

    You mean over 2000 kids weren’t separated from their parents…many of whom will never see them again?
    Please provide a link. (joking…I know you’re just going to slink away like the coward you are)

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  26. Paul L. says:

    My favorite Trump lie is Hilary Clinton wants to repeal the 2nd amendment.
    Far easier to have the courts decide just like with Gay Marriage.

  27. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @MBunge:

    when a sitting member of Congress advocates a campaign of public harassment and physical intimidation against people serving in the Trump Administration, the real problem is that Donald Trump referred to that as a threat to “harm?

    Waters was widely repudiated by Democrats, including Congressional Caucus leadership. So, again, you are just plain wrong.

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  28. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @MBunge:

    Pop quiz: Under Barack Obama, how many times did a right-winger try to murder a bunch of Democratic politicians? How many times under Donald Trump has a left-winger tried to murder a bunch of Republican politicians?

    What do the actions of a nut case have to do with Dennison lying? Well, other than he and his supporters are nut cases?
    You come in…post a comment that is so easily debunked…then you run away like the chicken shit that you are.

  29. teve tory says:

    I think MBunge is talking about Jared Lee Loughner.

  30. Kylopod says:

    @MBunge:

    Under Barack Obama, how many times did a right-winger try to murder a bunch of Democratic politicians?

    According to journalist Ronald Kessler, there was a 400% increase in assassination attempts against the president when Obama took office. There were at least three well-publicized attempts, and Obama received Secret Service protection earlier than any other candidate in history. There was unquestionably a massive increase in right-wing terrorism in general following Obama’s rise. According to David Niewert’s book Alt-America (which I highly recommend):

    In the seven and a half years between Jim David Adkisson’s 2008 rampage and Dylann Roof’s in 2015, domestic terrorism in America spiked dramatically…. During that time span, there were 201 total cases of domestic terrorism in the United States–almost three times the rate of the preceding eight years. The large majority of these crimes were committed by right-wing extremists–some 115 in all, compared to 63 cases of Islamist-inspired domestic terror, and 19 cases of left-wing-extremist terrorism…. Even before Obama’s election in 2008–but also in anticipation of that event–the rate of incidents began to rise dramatically, seemingly triggered by Jim David Adkisson’s rampage. And it remained at that same high level for most of the Obama presidency.

  31. James Pearce says:

    @MBunge:

    when a sitting member of Congress advocates a campaign of public harassment and physical intimidation against people serving in the Trump Administration

    Here’s Maxine Waters “advocating a campaign of public harassment and physical intimidation:”

    Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere. We’ve got to get the children connected to their parents.

    Lefties love to tone police –and they yet haven’t figured out that this leaves them susceptible to being tone policed themselves– but I don’t see anything in Waters’s comment that justifies the “public harassment and physical intimidation” nonsense. Good effort, though.

  32. teve tory says:

    The Greatest Cartoonist in the World, known for drawing a svelte, muscular Donald Trump, has similarly reworked Mrs. Sanders’s figure.

    https://grrrgraphics.com/the-left-lays-an-egg-red-hen/

  33. gVOR08 says:

    @James Pearce: Shame I can’t both up and down vote. Nice reply to Bung, but you had to take your obligatory, irrelevant shot at Dems.

  34. Kylopod says:

    @teve tory: Did you catch the series by that right-wing propaganda painter? It also makes Trump look leaner and fitter, and it makes his hair look like a normal hairdo.

    https://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/the-birth-of-godly-trump-the-humble-teacher

  35. Charon says:

    @teve tory:

    Pleasurable viewing for people down Trump’s rabbit hole.

  36. Charon says:

    @Kylopod:

    I think Trump’s flat approval ratings mask increasing approval by the hard right, especially the Christian hard right offset by decreasing approval by everyone else.

    The paintings are of course at one level just comical schlock. Most levels, really. But what I want to focus on is the idealized Trump we find in these paintings, a sort of gentle teacher, humbly dispensing lessons, reprising various biblical motifs. This is needless to say, quite different from any actual Trump who has ever walked the earth. Even if you like, perhaps especially if you like Trump, he is the archetypical dominator of enemies. He’s a disruptor. He’s a lot of other things. But this is the most positive read. But here we have the creation of this alternative, godly Trump, which you actually see increasingly in various Christian art produced over the last year which incorporate Trump into scenes communing with or taking guidance from Jesus.

  37. Nick Nelson says:

    There is nothing the media can do. If someone watches and believes only Fox for their news it doesn’t matter what anyone else says.

    I find myself regularly going back to the incredibly prescient and insightful article by Masha Gessen – Autocracy: Rules for Survival. To summarise:

    Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.
    Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
    Rule #3: Institutions will not save you.
    Rule #4: Be outraged.
    Rule #5: Don’t make compromises.
    Rule #6: Remember the future. Nothing lasts forever.

    It is a wonderful read and I recommend it to everyone.
    http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/11/10/trump-election-autocracy-rules-for-survival/

    PS Note that this was written before Trump’s inauguration.

  38. Paul L. says:

    @Kylopod:

    Obama received Secret Service protection earlier than any other candidate in history.

    So
    Didn’t he start running for President immediately after getting elected Senator and had the blessing of the Party bosses (superdelegates).

  39. Kylopod says:

    @Paul L.: Thank you for the link, an article from Apr. 2007. It confirms what I said: “The Secret Service said Thursday that Democratic Sen. Barack Obama was being placed under its protection, the earliest ever for a presidential candidate.”

    Didn’t he start running for President immediately after getting elected Senator

    He launched his campaign in Feb. 2007, more than two years after entering office.

    and had the blessing of the Party bosses (superdelegates).

    No. He was not the favorite of most party elites, superdelegates or otherwise, when he began his campaign. The supers only got on board late in the primaries, after he had nearly sealed up the nomination and was leading in pledged delegates; in short, they simply rubber-stamped the primary and caucus results.

    In any case, what in God’s name does any of this have to do with the topic under discussion?

  40. grumpy realist says:

    OT, but it looks like North Korea is starting up its nuclear stuff again.

    Great negotiating, Cadet Bone Spurs. Indeed, you know “The Art of the Deal.”

  41. CSK says:

    @teve tory: @Kylopod:

    Thanks, guys. I suffered a near-fatal attack of vicarious embarrassment looking at that crap.

  42. James Pearce says:

    @gVOR08:

    Nice reply to Bung, but you had to take your obligatory, irrelevant shot at Dems.

    Irrelevant?

    The left’s “When they go low, we go high” self-righteousness has comedians apologizing for using foul language during a bit, and if you’re not careful, it will have you apologizing for Maxine Waters, too.

  43. Kathy says:

    It would be nice for the press to start asking “Mr. Cheeto, given all your lies and falsehoods, why should we believe anything you say?”

  44. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @grumpy realist: It’s that tricky subjunctive/conditional future tense! Kim really wants to denuclearize; it’s just that it’s not possible at this moment to do so.

    And by the way, when is Trump going to do his part for the denuclearization and denounce American weapons and urge their destruction?

  45. mike shupp says:

    I want to see what high school American history texts say in twenty years. Are millions of American kids going to be learn that President Trump was a habitual liar (but beloved by most of their parents) or will they be taught that He Made America Great Again?

    Anybody here got a clue?

  46. Mikey says:

    @mike shupp: I hope they say he was successfully impeached and removed from office.

    Or resigned, that would work too.