We’ve had two presidents of the television age who were serial liars. From 1972 through 1974, President Richard Nixon repeatedly lied about the Watergate scandal. In 1998, it was President Bill Clinton who told us he didn't have sex with Monica Lewinsky.
It didn’t end particularly well for either of them. Clinton was impeached but acquitted, and Nixon resigned just before impeachment. There is immense danger when presidents lie.
America is now a week into its experiment with the populist President Donald Trump. It comes as the “post-truth” presidential race has morphed into an administration operating on, as senior adviser Kellyanne Conway termed it, “alternative facts.”
Trump supporters frequently say he was “telling it like it is,” but that really means he is conveying perceptions as opposed to facts. Conway had advised prior to the inaugural that the media shouldn’t seek the Trumpian truth through his words, but through his heart. So this will be a tough challenge if you’re a reporter, a congressman, a governor or a citizen who needs to believe their president.
We’re already seeing the turmoil and chaos to hollow words conflict with perceptions. During their confirmation hearings, Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo seemed to part with Trump over the use of torture.
On Wednesday, an executive order draft appeared, described by Politico as one “that would require the CIA to reconsider using interrogation techniques that some consider torture.”
In an ABC News interview, Trump said he believes waterboarding “works.” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on the record of the draft that he “had no idea where it came from” and said it “was not a White House document.”
How serious is this? Media reports have Mattis and Pompeo feeling “blindsided” by the draft. This isn’t the first time Mattis has found himself straddling the chasm between truth and consequences. Vice President Mike Pence had to talk him out of quitting after Trump hired Vincent Viola for a senior Defense Department position. Spicer tweeted on Jan. 5, “Great transition at DoD. Reports to contrary completely false and come from sources who do not have any knowledge of our transition efforts."
Who to believe?
Trump spent his first weekend in a rage after multiple media outlets compared the crowd and online streaming of Trump’s inaugural compared to President Barack Obama’s in 2009. Spicer made demonstrably false comments on Saturday, despite an array of visual evidence. But the key question here is why would this or any president care about crowd size?
Another whopper arose when Trump told congressional leaders there was massive vote fraud, something Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, her colleagues in other states, and even Speaker Paul Ryan say there is “no evidence” of.
Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty put it in this perspective:
"Donald Trump, having propelled his presidential campaign to victory while often disregarding the truth, now is testing the proposition that he can govern the country that way.
"In the first five days of his presidency, Trump has put the enormous power of the nation’s highest office behind spurious — and easily disproved — claims.”
So the post-truth election is giving way to the alternative-fact presidency. Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political fact checker, noted that during his 2016 campaign, it reported 14 percent of Trump’s statements were half true, 19 percent mostly false, 33 percent false and 18 percent “pants on fire” lies.
Why are facts and truth so disposable for this new president? Matt Yglesias, writing for Vox, notes that Trump’s administration “already stands out for the frequency of misleading statements, their baldfacedness and the at times absurd content.”
He quotes George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, who says this emerging culture of lies is two-pronged based on “truth and loyalty.” Yglesias continues, “By having subordinates tell lies on his behalf, Trump accomplishes two things: One is that it’s a test — ‘If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid.’ The other is that it’s a rite of passage — ‘By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration.’”
In the first week of the Trump presidency, Amazon reported the highest selling book is George Orwell’s 1949 classic “1984.” It’s a dystopian story of a society where facts are distorted and suppressed in a cloud of “newspeak.”
I led this column off suggesting the specter of impeachment. In this nation’s first two centuries, it happened once. But in a 15-year period between 1974 and 1999, it occurred twice. If these challenges to power become the norm as opposed to the exception, we will find ourselves on a destructive path.