Sunday, December 17, 2017

As Liar-in-Chief, Trump Leads Assault on Democracy

      Truth is said to be the first casualty in wartime. With Americans engaged with each other in the most contentious political and cultural wars since the Civil War, truth is now under siege in the United States as never before in an assault led with deliberate malevolence by the nation's liar-in-chief, Donald J. Trump.
      Those of us who came of age during the Vietnam War remember the exaggerated body counts of Viet Cong killed or captured that the Pentagon issued in briefings that reporters openly mocked as the Five O'clock Follies. The blatant unbelievability of the numbers put "credibility gap" into the political lexicon and left a lasting stain on President Lyndon B. Johnson's legacy.
      With Donald Trump as president, a new truth-denying term has been coined: Kellyanne Conway's "alternative facts." As Conway's phrasing suggests, Trump's assault on truth is more than exaggeration or spin, but a direct assault on the very concept of objective, verifiable truth. And two recent exposés — one by a sociologist expert on liars and another by The New York Times — have documented that Trump lies in a uniquely reckless manner and at a rate unheard of in American political history.
      Trump's lies reflect more than a grievous character flaw or a relic of his earlier careers as real estate huckster and "reality show" star. His so-called "difficult relationship with the truth," as one Democratic lawmaker phrased it this week, represents instead a recognized technique of authoritarian control, according to political scientist Brian Klaas in his new book Despot's Apprentice.
      Klaas, a U.S. scholar now at London School of Economics who has studied authoritarianism up close in a dozen countries, reminds readers that truth-denial was the hallmark of Big Brother's totalitarianism in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984. But Klaas has also seen the technique in practice in real life. He recalls that the Zambian dictator Frederick Chiluba responded to a failed military coup in 1997 by falsely depicting the leader as acting out of drunken foolishness rather than substantive disgruntlement with Chiluba's regime.
      In like vein, Klaas draws the historical parallel between Trump's monotonous attacks on "FAKE NEWS" — all caps in Trump's tweets — and Adolf Hitler's ominous attacks on Lugenpresse or "lying press" as he consolidated control. In a more recent parallel, Klaas notes that the Venezuelan democrat-turned-dictator Hugo Chavez denounced his critics as "enemies of the homeland" just as Trump now terms his news media critics as "enemies of the people."
      The so-called "failing" New York Times undertook to quantify Trump's lies in an exhaustive account published online this week [Dec. 14] and scheduled to appear in Sunday's print edition [Dec. 17]. Applying a somewhat strict standard — intentional misstatements of objectively disprovable falsehoods — the Times counted 103 lies from Trump since his inauguration ranging from his false claim to having opposed the Iraq war to the more recent incorrect description of the United States as "the highest taxed nation in the world." Applying the same standard of intentional falsehoods, the Times counted only 18 lies by President Obama during his eight years in the White House.
      Most of the Trump lies on the Times' list serve an evident political purpose, like his claim to have won the popular vote in 2016 except for the supposed 3 million to 5 million ballots casts illegally. Others seem too trivial to matter, such as his erroneous statement that the Times recorded Sen. Bob Corker's harsh critique of Trump without the Tennessee Republican's knowledge.
      A week before the Times' compilation, a social scientist put an academic gloss on Trump's lies in a Sunday opinion section piece in The Washington Post [Dec. 10] that bore the headline "I study liars. I've never seen one like President Trump." Bella DePaulo, a sociologist affiliated with the University of California-Santa Barbara, concluded that Trump's lies "are both more frequent and more malicious than ordinary people's."
      DePaulo adopted the looser standard used by the Post's "Fact-Checker" to count 1,628 false or misleading claims in the president's first 298 days in office. Nearly two-thirds of Trump's lies DePaulo characterized as self-serving, such as his description of Vietnamese lined up "in the thousands" to greet him on his trip to the Southeast Asian nation. In addition, DePaulo counted "an astonishing 50 percent" of Trump's lies as "hurtful or disparaging," often needlessly so, such as his recent description of respected intelligence community officials John Brennan, James Clapper, and James Comey as "political hacks."
      DePaulo concluded by pronouncing Trump guilty of "violating some of the most fundamental norms of human social interaction and human decency." The Times' writers David Leonhardt and Stuart A. Thompson note that Trump's political career began with the "birtherism" lie that Obama was born outside the United States and that his lies remain central to the Russiagate investigation. "No other president — of either party  — has behaved as Trump is behaving," the Times writers conclude.
      Klaas depicts Trump's lies as one of many practices that he has borrowed, apprentice-like, from other despots, such as narcissism, nepotism, cronyism, and personal enrichment. He concludes with cautious confidence that the United States' political and constitutional norms are strong enough to prevent full-scale authoritarianism in Washington. But "democratic decay" has already set in, Klaas warns, and democracy "needs to be saved — before it is too late."

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