A Legacy of Lies?

We live in a world awash in information.

To avoid information overflow, we create curated information diets or allow ourselves to be sucked into the gravity wells of ideological echo chambers.

Click-baity headlines, listicles, and the blurring of the lines between news and entertainment that are the common features of our information landscape hurt us even as they speak to the limited amount of time and attention we can give to any issue, regardless of how important it might be.

The presidency of Donald J. Trump and its potential impact on the trajectory of the United States is one such issue — an issue made all the murkier by the approach that he and his staff take to dealing with the American people.

The simple fact of the matter is that President Trump has a tenuous relationship with objective reality: most of what he says falls somewhere between a half-truth and a bald-faced lie.

In this, the President is supported by people who are no less disingenuous than the man they serve. While Kellyanne Conway’s role in this administration is the subject of discussion and debate, her declaration that this administration presents “alternative facts” in support of its agenda continues to ring true: in what other way could a Director of the Office of Management and Budget say, “I don’t believe the facts [about the financial implications of the American Healthcare Act] are correct.”

The press — which historically has been able to interact with the President, his Cabinet, and other senior officials and bureaucrats and, to a greater or lesser degree, hold them accountable for their statements and actions — tends be viewed as either friendly or adversarial, with access to the administration being dependent on the tone of their coverage (if not ideological orientation of their editorial board). The New York Times, which has won 122 Pultizer Prizes and citations over its 165-year history, is routinely dismissed as “fake news” whereas the conservative Fox News Network, which recently suspended one of its on-air personalities for making baseless claims about British intelligence operations, was praised by the President just this week for repeating his unfounded assertions about being spied on.

Unquestioning loyalty, if not abject fealty, seems to be the measure by which President Trump judges the people and the organizations around him. Dissent — and perhaps even the lower bar of independent thinking — seems to be tantamount to disloyalty, even when the dissent is based on compelling evidence (e.g., questionable ties between Trump’s advisors and the Russian government).

Trump further amplifies his ideas and ideology through his very effective use of social media: Trump the celebrity’s personal Twitter account has just over 29 million followers and 17.2 million people follow the official account for the Office of President. Of America’s major news outlets, only The New York Times commands more of a following with its 36 million followers.

Social media allows Trump to directly speak to his supporters and bypass any critical examinations of his assertions. As a result, the press is forced to react to Trump’s bluster and lies, rather than get out ahead of them through investigation, research and analysis.

The problem for those who do not agree with Trump or actively oppose the President and his policies is that his supporters often seem willing to take his assertions with a pound — and sometimes a ton — of salt: while Trump’s approval rating remains low for a new president, a recent poll conducted by a Republican consultancy found that “20% of those asked believe Trump never lies, while 37% believe he exaggerates the truth with good intent and 43% believe he intentionally lies.” Trump, for his part and probably with good reason, believes there will not be any consequence to even his most egregious statements and actions.

Historically, Americans viewed with deep skepticism — if not outright condescension — governments that lie about their accomplishments, the health of their economy, or the productivity of their people. Remember how we snickered about the 2002 Iraqi Presidential referendum when the entire Iraqi electorate voted for Saddam Hussein?

Why are we, as a people, now so willing to give the rest of the world very good reasons to laugh at us?

A wall along the length of the Mexican border to stop illegal immigration? Laughable to a degree that even the Republican members of Congress are discomforted by its impracticality and expense.

Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort as the “Southern White House”? That the price of access to a de facto presidential residence can be purchased for $200,000 per year (with the average American taxpayer footing the bill for government-funded security) puts our country in the same category as the tyrants and strongmen that have long been anathema to our national values.

Trump famously declared that he “…could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The sad fact of the matter is that he seems to be correct: despite implementing policies that disadvantage the majority of Americans, or target the very people driven by frustration and desperation to buy into his economically unviable campaign promises, a cross-section of Americans continue to support a man who would be king.

How do we respond? Americans protest even as the men and women who represent either try to duck the consequences of their actions or to enact laws meant to stifle protest, which has been a cornerstone of our country since we dumped British tea in Boston Harbor.

Increasingly, I think the answer to our future lies in looking at how people who have been in cults are deprogrammed: for nearly twenty years, Americans have been subjected to the relentless drone of talking points repeated throughout the course of a daily news cycle.

To be fair, lies and half-truths make for an easy diet as they eliminate the complexity of so many of the issues that confront our country and the world.

That said, a lie is still a lie.

I would rather not have America’s legacy be a poorly conceptualized wall built on a foundation of demagoguery that is the butt of jokes around the world. I want to see America made great again through the relentless pursuit of big ideas; the betterment of our people through relevant, fact-based education; and compassion toward those who are truly in need of help.

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