Trump’s two kinds of lies – and why they’re undermining American democracy

Trump is ramping up both kinds of lies – lies about the facts, and lies about those who are reporting the truth.

SOURCERobert Reich
Image Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

There are two kinds of Donald Trump lies. One is about facts. The other is about those who call him out on his fabrications.

An example of the first occurred Sunday, when Trump issued a tweetstorm of lies:

“The Robert Mueller Rigged Witch Hunt, headed now by 17 (increased from 13, including an Obama White House lawyer) Angry Democrats, was started by a fraudulent Dossier, paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC. Therefore, the Witch Hunt is an illegal Scam!”

These assertions have all been contradicted by Trump’s own FBI director and even by GOP congressional leaders.

It’s bad enough when a president of the United States tells the public nonstop lies. It’s worse when he impugns those who are pointing out he’s wrong – the second type of Trump lie.

An example of this second category occurred last week when Trump was speaking to a veterans group. “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” he said.

In other words, you should only trust me.

Trump is ramping up both kinds of lies – lies about the facts, and lies about those who are reporting the truth.

Both categories of lies are dangerous to a democracy. The first misleads the public. The second undermines the capacity of the public to discover they are being misled.

In the words of George Orwell, “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

For those who believe both kinds of lies, Trump (backed by his Fox News propaganda machine) is the only credible source of information in America. That means he can say anything at all and remain unaccountable.

In escalating his war on the media, Trump is also blocking unfriendly reporters from covering him.

Last week, newly installed Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Shine and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told CNN correspondent Kaitlan Collins she could not attend Trump’s open-media event in the Rose Garden because they objected to her questioning of Trump earlier in the day.

Meanwhile, Trump’s increasing attacks on the media are causing journalists to worry about their safety. New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger warned that the attacks were “contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

Democracy is imperiled when a president of the United States tells bald-faced lies. It is doubly imperiled when a president convinces a portion of the public not to trust anyone who contradicts him.

As statesman and poet Vaclav Havel put it, “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.”

These two kinds of lies are becoming more common in Europe as well. Indeed, the central political divide in the West is no longer right or left as we’ve come to understand the terms since World War II – emphasizing choice between small or large government.

It is coming to be authoritarianism based on lies versus democracy based on truth.

Trump’s two kinds of lies are lending legitimacy to European leaders who are actively suppressing the truth to entrench their power, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Poland’s Law and Justice Party.

Close behind them, although not yet in power, are France’s Marine Le Pen and Britain’s Nigel Farage. Italy’s new deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, also falls into this category.

It is tempting to attribute the public’s willingness to believe lies to a growing disillusionment with global capitalism, especially the broken promise of higher standards of living.

Despite low unemployment, the median wage in the United States (adjusted for inflation) is barely higher than it was in the late 1970s, and economic insecurity is widespread. Europe still suffers high unemployment.

As in the 1930s, when global capitalism broke down, economic hardships fuel the rise of demagogues who direct anger and resentment toward scapegoats such as immigrants and minorities – lying about them with impunity.

Added to this has been a concerted effort by Russian President Vladimir Putin to attack democratic institutions across America and Europe. The aim of his cyber-warfare campaign is to confuse the public about both the truth and the reliability of truth-tellers.

The logical endpoint to both kinds of lies is fascism.

Few living today remember the birth of fascism in Europe and Soviet Russia in the 1930s. Maybe that explains why the free world seems relatively passive in the face of these current attacks on democracy and truth.

This is no time for passivity. The truth is still getting through to most people. But in sharp contrast to the 1930s, an American president is now helping lead the charge against it.


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Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "Saving Capitalism." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, co-founder of the nonprofit Inequality Media and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, Inequality for All.