After that Matt Lauer debacle Wednesday night, it’s time to stop grading Donald Trump on a curve, don’t you think? He’s not blunt. He’s not refreshing. He’s not a straight talker.
Trump is two things.
First, he’s a liar. Not an occasional liar or accidental liar, but a liar as a matter of course, a liar as strategy, a liar as a means to crush his opponents. This is hard for most people to wrap their heads around because most people aren’t like this and indeed have never even met anyone like this. It’s so shockingly amoral that most people can’t believe that someone would actually be like this. But he is.
Second, he’s something we don’t even have an English word for. “Ignorant” is a start, but ignorant misses the key element, which is his I-don’t-give-a-crap pride in his own ignorance. He doesn’t know anything about anything having to do with governing the country. How large a brigade is; how Medicare is financed; what an average family of four pays in health care premiums a year; what the median household income in this country is, within (I’d bet) $10,000; the number of cabinet departments in the executive branch, within three; that military courts already exist, as we learned in Wednesday night’s fiasco; and, well, nearly everything else.
Think about that. We have a lot of words in this language of ours, and we don’t even have a word for what he is. I wish I knew more German; surely buried somewhere in Nietzsche or Heidegger is some perfect seven-syllable word for the type. I see from the Googles that the respective German words for ignorant, proud, and brain are unwissend, stolz, and Gehirn. So that’s what he is. Unwissendstolzgehirn. It’s only six syllables, but it’ll do, and all the better of course that it’s German. Memorize it and pass it around.
I shouldn’t joke. This is serious. What do we do about a man who lies literally most of the time he’s talking, and the rest of the time parades his ignorance of settled facts?
Actually I’m not being quite fair. Sometimes, very occasionally, he tells the truth as he sees it. And those turn out to be the most appalling moments of all. Like Trump’s defense of Vladimir Putin Wednesday night, citing the Russian strongman’s “82 percent approval rating” and saying: “The man has very strong control over a country. It’s a very different system and I don’t happen to like the system, but certainly in that system, he’s been a leader. Far more than our president has been a leader.”
God help us. Putin’s at 82 percent because the other 18 percent are in jail or dead. But more than that, Russia is an adversary. Imagine Nixon having said in 1968 that Brezhnev was a much stronger leader than LBJ. It would have been thought of as verging on if not crossing over into outright treason.
Lauer deserves to be remembered for this. It belongs in the first paragraph of his Times obit when the day comes. He should apologize to America for a performance that was indefensible by any known journalistic standard.
But more importantly, his performance should be a wake-up call.
With the debates coming, the networks have to think long and hard about how they’re going to handle them. Here’s one starter idea, which I batted around on Twitter Thursday morning with Glenn Thrush of Politico: real-time on-screen fact-checking chyrons.
This would require the debate-hosting network to have a little battalion of staffers at computer terminals assigned to do instant web searches and determine whether what the candidate said had any connection to reality. So it would cost money.
But more than that, it would require rendering judgments in defense of the objective truth. This is something the media are terrified of doing. The urge in objective journalism not to want to be seen as taking sides is understandable. But with Trump we’ve been hauled into a parallel universe, and the old rules are dead.
This real-time fact-checking must apply to both candidates, obviously, and when Hillary Clinton says something that isn’t true, they should say so. But what the networks should not do is any of this craven pussyfooting around in the interest of balance; Oh gee, we’ve given Trump six falses in a row, our switchboard is gonna explode, we’d better give Hillary one just to seem fair.
Bollocks to that. That is precisely what isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to the electorate or the truth or democracy.
There have to be other remedies. Maybe newspapers could start appending fact-checks to the bottom of news articles: The facts stated by Mr. Trump in the fourth paragraph of this news story are false. The actual facts, according to [authoritative source] are… And so on. Or just start a feature called Fact-checking Everything the Candidates Said Yesterday. If Trump’s list is 17 items long and Clinton’s is three, print the white space and have the stones to stand up to critics and say no, this isn’t liberal bias, it’s reality bias, deal with it.
Drastic measures? Trump has forced them upon us. All politicians lie sometimes, and it is highly unfortunate that Clinton wasn’t always truthful about some of her personal affairs, like the email server business. But generally speaking she doesn’t lie about the world. Despite all the nonsense and millions wasted on serial investigations, no one has proven she ever said a false word about Benghazi. Trump lies about the world constantly—as well as, by the way, lying about his personal affairs far more egregiously than she.
Fact-checking can take any number of forms here. But the main hurdle is psychic. The big corporate media have to decide that they want to be in the truth business instead of the ratings business or the entertainment business or the false-equivalence-so-conservatives-don’t-get-mad-at-us business. That’s the question. Sixty days and counting.