As the nation prepares itself for four days of non-stop racism, conspiracy-mongering, incitement to violence, and hundreds if not thousands of outright falsehoods to be communicated to the public by the president, his party, and their supporters this week at the virtual Republican convention, it behooves us to take a short look backward and try to understand how we arrived at this point: where we have a president who has proven himself to be an almost comically pathological liar; one whose word cannot be accepted on literally any topic, whether it be toilet flushing, cancer-causing windmills or imaginary terrorist attacks—and yet, has a credible hope of being re-elected.
Back in 1991, I published an op-ed article in The New York Times about presidential lying. It did not mention, however, that then-President George H. W. Bush was among the many presidents who had lied to the American people because my editor instructed me, “The New York Times will not allow anyone to call the president a liar.” I pointed out to this editor, who was a friend of mine, that this was a rather absurd objection, given the topic of my article. He did not dispute this but simply replied, “Well, Eric, you may be right. And if you like, you can photocopy your article and send it to your friends. [This was before email.] Or you can take out that accusation and about a million people will read you tomorrow.” I took it out, but it was the last time I wrote for that page for roughly 20 years.
I’ve been studying presidential lying ever since. I had just begun working on my history PhD at Stanford when I published that op-ed, and I later chose presidential lies as my dissertation topic. I eventually turned that into a book, When Presidents Lie: A History of Deception and Its Consequences, in which I examined the long-term consequences of four crucial postwar presidential lies: Franklin Roosevelt following the Yalta agreements; John F. Kennedy following the Cuban Missile Crisis; Lyndon Johnson following the (non-existent) “Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident”; and Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal. It closed with a short discussion of George W. Bush and the Iraq War, in which I described him as occupying (and embodying) America’s first “Post-Truth Presidency.”
How They Get Away With It
When Donald Trump was elected president despite having already proven himself to be a pathological liar throughout his entire adult life, and especially during the 2016 campaign, I felt a need to account for myself during what I expected to be a time of trial for our country. I was reading Ron Chernow’s massive history of the Warburg family at the time and found myself both amazed and depressed at the manner in which these elite, intelligent, and well-informed German Jews kept convincing themselves that Hitler was a problem that either they could live with or would just go away. So in an attempt to answer the question “How did Trump happen?”, I put aside the book I was writing and embarked on a history of presidential lying that begins with George Washington—yes, he told a lie—and takes us through the first three years of the Trump presidency. The result is my new book, Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie and Why Trump is Worse, just published by Basic Books.
You will have to read the book if you want the whole story, but one of the primary aspects I seek to examine in it is the role of the media in enabling presidential lying. Presidents cannot lie effectively to the country unless journalists conspire to help them do so. If they fail to hold a president accountable, they undermine their very reason for being, and put democracy itself at risk. And yet the problem, as The Washington Post’s legendary editor Ben Bradlee once explained, is that “even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face.”
Modern political reporters have found it challenging to call presidents out. The reasons are both multifaceted and self-reinforcing. On matters of “national security”—a term that in most cases denotes the expansion or maintenance of the American empire—journalists have repeatedly proven themselves eager to give presidents and their advisers a wide berth, lest they appear unpatriotic, or somehow find themselves responsible for undermining the nation’s safety.
Another cause for reticence has been the expectation that journalists show respect for the office of the presidency, which they—publicly at least—have been more than happy to fulfill. A third barrier arises from the ideology of journalistic objectivity, which dictates that there are always two sides to any given issue, and that it is wrong to take one over the other, despite the fact that one (or both) might be based on a lie. Even at its most elite level, a majority of political news reporters are satisfied to rely on the typical “he said, she said” formula. Conflict, after all, is what makes a good story.
In addition to the above, we have seen the simultaneous growth of a right-wing media that typically prefers to broadcast falsehoods if they serve the material and ideological interests of their own side, together with an explosion of social media platforms that are uninterested in preventing the spread of lies when told by politicians. These have the effect of putting further pressure on the mainstream media because the lies become embedded in the political culture and debunking them becomes a full-time job, to the detriment of the “story” that political reporters like to tell about who’s winning, who’s losing and why. What’s more, because so many conservatives receive all their news from these sources, refuting them becomes an act of alleged political bias—further evidence of the media taking sides against them and cause for dismissal and derision, rather than careful consideration of truth and falsehood.
One of the most interesting things about Donald Trump is that while he is in many obvious ways a dunce, he is also in others a genius. And nowhere is that genius on better display than in his instinctive ability to exploit not only the news media’s desperate search for shiny objects in the form of phony conflicts he constantly creates, but also in their inability to rein in, or even report accurately, on his lies. Trump lies so frequently and with such a lack of self-consciousness that it is impossible for anyone to keep up.
Jonathan Swan and Chris Wallace have both received well-deserved praise for the relative toughness of their recent interviews with the president, but the sad truth is that he got away with many more falsehoods in both cases than the reporters were able to call him on. And this has been the pattern of his presidency from day one. Yes, we have The Washington Post fact-checking team, and the intelligently conceived—and therefore more effectively contextualized—one-man fact checking operation of reporter Daniel Dale, who decamped from the Toronto Star to CNN. But the Post and CNN still publish Trump’s falsehoods in their news stories uncorrected, and so they aid him in getting away with the very same falsehoods they have identified elsewhere. Even so, both news organizations find themselves under constant attack by the president and his allies as purveyors as “fake news” and “enemies of the people,” for having made even these inadequate attempts to hold him accountable to a simple standard of truth.
Half of Republicans Think Trump Won the Popular Vote
Trump successfully defined the terms of his relationship as president immediately after winning the election. As I explain in the book, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide,” he tweeted, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” This was nonsense. When the returns from the popular vote were tallied, Clinton had beaten Trump by nearly three million votes. His 46 percent share of the overall vote was lower even than that of recent losers, including Gerald Ford (1976), Al Gore (2000), John Kerry (2004), and Mitt Romney (2012). And yet this lie quickly became conventional wisdom in the pro-Trump media. A July 2017 Morning Consult/Politico poll found that 47 percent of Republicans believed that Trump had won the popular vote, just 5 percent fewer than those who knew the truth. Trump’s lie proved to be a brilliant political stroke, as it addressed three problems simultaneously. First, for those who believed whatever he said, it eliminated any uncertainty about the legitimacy of his victory. Second, it advanced his false argument that undocumented immigrants were undermining America and doing so at the behest of media elites and Democrats. And third, it provided the foundation for future lies.
When reporters finally asked Trump to support his claim with evidence, the president-elect reassured them that “the very famous golfer Bernhard Langer” was waiting to vote in Florida on Election Day and was refused, but some people “who did not look as if they should be allowed to vote” were allowed to do so. In fact, Langer said he had never even spoken to Trump. The president-elect had heard some story probably sixth-hand and then passed it on to the rest of the country in the hope of undermining the nation’s faith in its democratic procedures. When a New York Times reporter noted that no evidence could be found to support Trump’s ludicrous claim, the new leader of the free world responded by retweeting a 16-year-old fan, who had asked, “What PROOF do u have Donald Trump did not suffer from millions of FRAUD votes? Journalist? Do your job!”
When Trump repeated his nonsensical claim about the allegedly illegal votes in a private, off-the-record meeting with congressional leaders shortly after his inauguration, their reports to the press of what he said inspired something of an existential crisis within the mainstream media. The president was obviously lying, but almost no publication was ready to say so in black and white. Among daily newspapers, as tallied by the Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance, only The New York Times crossed the line and employed the word “lie” in its headline. The rest ranged from: “Trump Wrongly Blames…” (AP) to “Trump Falsely Tells…” (Chicago Tribune), “Trump Still Pushing Unconfirmed Claims…” (New York Daily News), “Trump Repeats Unsupported Claim” (Wall Street Journal), and “Without Evidence, Trump Tells…” (Washington Post). At least two allegedly neutral sources, CNN and The Hill, also repeated Trump’s lie without any qualification: “Trump Believes Fraud Cost Him Popular Vote” (CNN), and “Trump Continues to Insist Voter Fraud Robbed Him of Popular Vote” (The Hill). The problem with so many of these headlines was that they took no position on whether Trump’s boast was true or not. The CNN and Hill headlines positively encouraged the lie. These news organizations apparently felt themselves helpless in the face of a phenomenon they had never faced before: a president who was an unapologetic, pathological liar and did not care who knew it.
And yet the word “lie” remained off the table for most media institutions. As New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet would argue, “If you get loose with the word lie, you’re going to look pretty scurrilous. Right? It’s going to be in every story.” Similarly, Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron, following in the footsteps of Ben Bradlee, refused during the election campaign to allow his news staff to call the would-be president a liar. “I think you have to actually have documentation, proof, that whoever you’re saying lied actually knew that what he or she was saying was in fact false,” Baron said. The then Wall Street Journal editor, Gerard Baker, concurred. Though he admitted in an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2017 that he thought “the president probably lies a lot,” he was only interested, as editor, in “what my reporters can report as facts.”
Faced with complaints about this policy from his staff, Baker later added a clarification: “If we are to use the term ‘lie’ in our reporting, then we have to be confident about the subject’s state of knowledge and his moral intent.” Other journalists also worried about alienating Trump voters by telling the truth about his lies. “Every time he lies you have to point out it’s a lie, and there’s a part of this country that hears that as an attack,” wrote New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg. “That is a serious problem.” And so Trump’s lies, the scale of which had no precedent in American political history, were treated like politics-as-usual. Although some opinion writers felt free to call the president a “liar,” in news coverage readers were told that Trump appeared to “backpedal,” or that he had made statements that were “belied by the facts” or “proved to be inaccurate.” When Trump spoke in a “misleading” fashion, making statements whose “veracity” had already been “undermined,” this was often attributed to his “rhetorical bluster,” particularly when he found himself walking a “rhetorical tightrope” owing to his “overbroad boasts”—and the like.
Back during the Reagan presidency, Ben Bradlee mused on why he felt the press—his own Washington Post included—had gone so easy on Ronald Reagan’s falsehoods, even as most reporters did not support Reagan [Lou Cannon did!] and knew very well they were doing so at the time. Bradlee attributed the media’s generosity to Reagan as “part of a subconscious feeling… that we were dealing with someone this time who really, really, really disapproved of us, disliked us, distrusted us, and that we ought not give him any opportunities to see he was right.” Bradlee believed that after Watergate, much of the public implicitly warned the media, “‘Okay, guys, now that’s enough, that’s enough.’ The criticism was that we were going on too much and trying to make a Watergate out of everything. And I think we were sensitive to that criticism much more than we should have been, and that we did ease off.”
Something quite similar happened with Trump’s election, but this time the consequences have been far worse than under Reagan. The combination of Trump’s lies about the coronavirus and his lawless response to “Black Lives Matter” protests have put tens of thousands of Americans at risk, and give every impression of threatening the future viability of the republic itself. The time to call him on his lies, and to refuse to pass them along unrebuked, is long past. For honest reporters covering the president, if you are not part of the solution, you are, alas, part of the problem.
Eric Alterman is The Nation’s longtime media columnist and a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie and Why Trump Is Worse, from which some of the above is adapted, published by Basic Books, is his eleventh book.