The big story about the Trump administration these first few days since the inauguration is that they lie…a lot. Or as Kellyanne Conway would say, they are consistently relying on “alternative facts.” The New York Times even labelled the last one right in their headline: “Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers.” Just counting the most egregious, so far this administration has lied about crowd sizes at the inaugural, voter fraud in the presidential election, the size of the federal workforce and U.S. foreign aid being used for abortion services.
This won’t come as any surprise to people who actually watched the presidential campaign or Trump’s transition. But the rationale and repercussions of having a presidential team so completely divorced from the truth is a whole new ballgame.
It’s no big mystery why Trump himself lies – his ego demands it, as Timothy O’Brien suggested:
News that contradicts his worldview gets flushed down the sort of emotional and intellectual dispose-all that I think he carries around with him from the second he gets out of bed to the minute he goes to sleep each night.
But beyond Trump’s ego, there are other factors at work. We saw a glimpse of that yesterday when Mara Liasson asked White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer a simple question: “What is the overall unemployment rate?” He simply refused to answer the question.
There are ways you can put out full employment—[cross talk]—right, there’s a reason we put out several versions of that. One is the illustrative nature of how you count the unemployed, whether or not they’re long-term unemployed or whether or not they’re still seeking a job. But there’s a reason that you put out several of these statistics, so that economists can view them and decide—look at different landscapes on, on how to make economic policy.
As you may recall, Trump has thrown out wildly inaccurate statements in the past about the actual unemployment rate being as high as 42% in order to back his claims about a dystopian America. Alvin Chang documents how Trump and his surrogates have suggested that the way BLS calculates the unemployment rate is flawed. The reason for lying about these kinds of things is that they will eventually be used to evaluate this administration’s performance – just as I suggested on his first day. Chang writes:
Much of the way we judge this administration will be based on data. It will be based on unemployment rates, on economic growth, on uninsured rates, on crime rates.
In many of these areas, the federal government is the sole source of this data. We now face the very real possibility that it will become unreliable during the Trump administration. We’ve seen early signs of the direction things might go with Newt Gingrich’s attacks on the Congressional Budget Office, calling it “obsolete, inaccurate and dishonest.” That is disconcerting, to say the least.
In areas where there is alternative data, the administration’s claims will be challenged. But that will be reported by a media that the administration says is at war with the president. In a polarized electorate, Americans will be choosing sides on who to believe – perhaps even on things like the unemployment rate.
For those of you who questioned why I hit the theme of Trump as chaos agent so hard yesterday, this is the kind of environment I see this administration creating. It’s also why so many writers lately, including Mike Lofgren, are using the term “gaslighting” for what is happening. He spells out the effects on the public with this:
Aside from reinforcing the Trump base, the next four years of non-stop gaslighting could erode the basic standards of discourse in a healthy civil society. The truly horrible thing about propaganda in authoritarian regimes is not that it convinces the true believers, but that it demoralizes opponents by saying in effect: “Yes, we know that you know we are lying, but we don’t care! We do it because we can and you can’t stop us!” As for the majority of apolitical citizens, it infects them with a corrosive cynicism and dissuades them from all forms of public engagement. Apathy may be a more powerful silencer of dissent than overt physical coercion.
That’s why, for an authoritarian regime, “If nothing is true, then anything is possible.”