Donald Trump, the 45th president of these United States, has a tenuous relationship with the truth. Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site, calculated that Trump tells the truth approximately 4 percent of the time, while 17 percent of his statements constitute egregious lies. Critics of Trump have labeled his modus operandi “gaslighting”—a form of psychological warfare wherein you manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity. The term comes from the 1944 film Gaslight, starring screen siren Ingrid Bergman as a wife whose husband (Charles Boyer) convinces her that she’s lost her faculties in order to obscure his true motive: Stealing the jewels of her late aunt, whom he murdered years earlier.
In Trump’s case, he has a troubling tendency to launch attacks at targets that are actually veiled criticisms of himself. It’s a genius strategy, really: a preemptive strike that not only removes the card from his opponent’s deck, but also accuses them of the very thing that he is guilty of.
A few examples: After a photo emerged of Hillary Clinton being escorted up some steps, Trump spent weeks on the campaign trail taking shots at the Democrat’s perceived health woes, even though he himself is said to suffer from bathmophobia, or a crippling fear of steps and slopes. His childish nicknames for his political foes—“Little” Marco Rubio, “Lyin’” Ted Cruz,’ “Crooked” Hillary”—are words that have been used to describe Trump for decades, while his narrative of a corrupt Clinton Foundation more closely resembled his own. Even his continued assault on CNN, which President Trump has labeled “fake news,” appears remarkably disingenuous when you consider that CNN chief Jeff Zucker and Trump are longtime friends (Zucker hired him for The Apprentice, and he reportedly keeps a framed Trump tweet in his office), and the cable news network played a substantial role in helping Trump get elected POTUS—from round-the-clock coverage of his rallies, at times airing just an empty podium, to its army of pro-Trump campaign propagandists, including: Kellyanne Conway, Scottie Nell Hughes, Kayleigh McEnany, Jeffrey Lord, and Corey Lewandowski, who remained on Trump’s payroll for the lion’s share of his CNN tenure.
Furthermore, nobody is more reliant on “fake news” than President Trump.
On Sunday, John Oliver returned to his perch as the shouty host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight following a two-month hiatus, where he focused much of his attention on four questions pertaining to President Trump: “How did we get a pathological liar in the White House? Where are his lies coming from? Why do so many people believe him? And what can we possibly do about it?”
Trump is, of course, widely known to regurgitate talking points that he hears on the right-wing morning-show programs, from Morning Joe to Fox & Friends. For instance, two weeks ago he tweeted: “Ungrateful TRAITOR Chelsea Manning, who should never have been released from prison, is now calling President Obama a weak leader. Terrible!” Manning, however, never called Obama a “weak leader,” and Trump’s tweet was sent a mere 15 minutes after Fox News aired a critical segment on Manning, calling her an “ungrateful traitor.”
More troubling, though, is the president’s dependence on Breitbart, which former honcho Steve Bannon once called “a platform for the alt-right,” and former Breitbart writer Ben Shapiro labeled “Trump’s personal Pravda,” as well as Infowars, a site run by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
“He also takes information in from frighteningly unreliable sources such as Breitbart, the organization which gave us Steve Bannon—now Trump’s chief strategist,” said Oliver. “Bretibart has published such Pulitzer-eligible stories as ‘Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy,’ ‘Racist, Pro-Nazi Roots of Planned Parenthood Revealed,’ and ‘Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage.’ You know, the kind of headlines you see your old high-school friends share on Facebook and think, Oh, that’s a shame! I guess Greg sucks now.”“But Trump’s trust in Breitbart actually goes way back,” the satirist continued. “A few years ago, Trump was challenged by Bill O’Reilly, who correctly pointed out that [Trump’s] claim that ‘thousands of Muslims’ were seen celebrating in New Jersey on 9/11 was based on no evidence whatsoever.”
Trump, as is his wont, responded to Fox News’s O’Reilly by holding up a printout of a terribly misleading and unsubstantiated Breitbart story that appeared to validate his claims, saying, “Well, I don’t know that I’m wrong, Bill. This just came out from Breitbart—I mean, literally, it just came out: ‘Trump 100% Vindicated.’”
This prompted O’Reilly to fire back, “Believe me: If there were thousands, that would have been reported.”
“This article says they were swarming all over the place!” exclaimed Trump, waving the piece of paper around. “So, I don’t know what that means, but it means a lot of people!”
Oliver was incredulous. “Wait: Holding up a Breitbart article does not make you seem more credible,” he said, before picking up a banana, holding it to his ear, and joking that the “sources” on the other end of the imaginary banana phone line were about as credible as a Breitbart story.
Then there’s Infowars, which also attempted to back up Trump’s bogus claim that “thousands of Muslims” were celebrating in New Jersey on after the 9/11 attacks—while providing zero supporting evidence. Infowars’ unhinged host, Alex Jones, has claimed that 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing were inside jobs, the Boston Marathon bombing was a “false flag” operation, and that the U.S. government has the ability to control the weather, and are poisoning the water to “turn the friggin’ frogs gay.” One of Jones’s most disgustingly offensive claims is that the Newtown mass shooting, which left 20 young children and six adults dead at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, was “a synthetic, completely fake” and “manufactured” massacre “with actors.”
Jones has not only boasted about advising Trump, but even confessed, “It is surreal to talk about issues here on air and then word for word hear Trump say it two days later.” For example, back in September, Jones claimed to have been the guiding force behind candidate Trump’s baseless claims that the election would be “rigged” against him. Trump also appeared on Infowars during the campaign, telling Jones, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down, and you’ll be very, very impressed—I hope.”
Mark Barden, a Sandy Hook father who lost his 7-year-old son, Daniel, in the shooting, told me some months back that he was sickened by Trump’s affiliation with Jones. “The Republican presidential nominee of the United States is being advised by a delusional sociopath. It speaks for itself,” Barden said, adding, “What else can you say about that? It’s disgusting.”
Oliver pointed out how problematic this call-and-repeat with dubious news sites is: “This is really dangerous, though, because there is a pattern here: Trump sees something that jibes with his worldview, doesn’t check it, half-remembers it, and then passes it on, at which point it takes on a life of its own and appears to validate itself.”
Jones’s constant claim of election “rigging” prior to the general later mutated into unsubstantiated allegations that “millions” of people voted illegally against Trump in the election, causing him to lose the popular vote to Hillary Clinton—a claim voiced by Trump, and parroted by Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller on Sunday’ news talk shows.
“Trump’s constant claim that ‘millions of people voted illegally’ originated, as far as anyone can tell, from some dude on Twitter who claimed in November—while providing no evidence: ‘We have verified more than three million votes cast by non-citizens,’” said Oliver. “The next day, Infowars picked that up and it spread like jet fuel among right-wing sites. Now, it was quickly debunked by multiple outlets, but despite that, days later, President-elect Trump started tweeting about ‘millions’ of illegal votes, and ‘serious voter fraud’ in places like California. And by early December, people were on TV expressing similar concerns.”
The comedian threw to a CNN clip of correspondent Alisyn Camerota interviewing a panel of Trump supporters. “Voting is a privilege in this country, and you need to be legal, not illegal like in California where three million illegals voted,” said Paula Johnson, a Trump supporter.
“Where are you getting your information?” asked Camerota. “From the media!” Johnson replied.
Cue Oliver, who broke it down as follows: “If you get your news from similar sources to [Trump], as many, many people do, he doesn’t look like a crank—he looks like the first president to ever tell you the ‘real’ truth. But rumors can be really tenacious, and I’ll prove it,” he said.
“What rumor do you think of when you hear the name Richard Gere?” asked Oliver, referring to the infamous (fake) rumor that Gere had to have a gerbil removed from his rectum. “Well, here’s the thing: There is no proof that he did that. If you think about it, it’s ridiculous. Have you ever held one of those things? There’s no way it was possible,” he continued. “But, if the president went on TV and told you it was true, you’d go, ‘I knew it! Thank you! I knew it! Finally someone said it!’ But that loop gets much more dangerous when you’re not talking about something as silly as gerbils. Trump validated his supporters’ beliefs about voter fraud, and in turn, they validated his.”
He closed the segment with a call to action: “We all need to commit to defending the reality of facts, but it’s going to take work.”
That includes making sure stories are properly sourced, questioning stories that merely validate your own worldview, not taking the White House at its word, and, last but not least, avoiding sketchy sites like Breitbart and Infowars.