IF PRESIDENT TRUMP is defeated in November, much of the damage he has inflicted on the political system and on U.S. international alliances can be reversed. Joe Biden could restore past norms of presidential behavior and revive ties with traditional U.S. friends. But one part of Mr. Trump’s toxic legacy will likely persist: his degradation of truth as a common currency in public life.
Our Democracy in Peril
Democracies cannot function if ideological differences are compounded by the circulation of conspiracy theories and falsified data; established facts are the foundation for policymaking and legislative compromise. Mr. Trump has greatly accelerated what was already a drift by elements of the Republican Party toward rejection of science and other hard reporting. His incessant lying — from inflation of the crowds at his inauguration to the course of the coronavirus pandemic — has led many of his followers to beliefs that are provably false and, in some cases, are the product of disinformation campaigns by hostile powers.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has waged a relentless campaign to discredit the institutions that seek to disseminate truth and discredit false stories, especially the U.S. intelligence community and the news media. Thoroughly documented intelligence reports on Russia’s interventions in U.S. politics, including the current election campaign, are, he says, “a hoax” conjured by a “deep state.” Media revelations of corruption and malfeasance in his administration are “fake news.”
Previous presidents have lied or twisted the truth, but Mr. Trump’s distortions are on an epic scale. As of July, according to a database maintained by The Post, he had made more than 20,000 false or misleading statements in just 3½ years, including more than 1,000 about the coronavirus alone. His mendacity has been accelerating: While his first 10,000 lies accumulated in 827 days, The Post Fact Checkers reported, it took only 440 days to double the total.
Mr. Trump’s most common false claims are that he has overseen the best economy in history, and that he passed history’s largest tax cut. During the impeachment investigation last year, he made nearly 1,200 false statements, including repeated references to the bogus theory — propagated by Russian intelligence — that Ukraine tried to harm his 2016 campaign.
Intelligence professionals and news organizations that have reported on the Russian interference and Mr. Trump’s attempt to extort the Ukrainian government have been subject to a relentless stream of presidential rhetoric — and, in the case of the intelligence community, political purges. One result is the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, now headed by a former Republican congressman and Trump loyalist, has curtailed briefings for Congress about Russian interference in the 2020 campaign — and distorted the reports it has provided, such as by equating Russian activities with those of China and Iran.
When Mr. Trump took office, the term “fake news” was commonly used to describe counterfeit stories disseminated on the Internet and elsewhere by Russia and other malign actors. The president set out to make it his own, responding to a question from a CNN reporter at a January 2017 news conference by saying “you’re fake news.” Since then, Mr. Trump has used the term more than 500 times on Twitter alone. He also began referring to organizations such as CNN, The Post and the New York Times as “enemies of the people,” a phrase he has repeated dozens of times.
The tactic has arguably done little damage to the news organizations, except in Mr. Trump’s political base. According to a study done by the Economist and YouGov, overall public confidence in The Post and the Times increased between 2016 and 2018, while that in the pro-Trump outlets Fox News and Breitbart fell. The Pew Research Center reported similar findings last January.
But Mr. Trump’s “fake news” trope has had two far-reaching effects. Internationally, it has been seized on by authoritarian governments — and a few democracies — as a tool for silencing critics. According to Freedom House, between January 2017 and May 2019, at least 26 countries enacted or introduced laws or regulations providing for censorship or criminal prosecution of “fake news.” Since then, more have joined in. Governments that took their cue from Mr. Trump include Egypt, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, South Korea and the Philippines. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even followed Mr. Trump in singling out CNN.
At home, Mr. Trump has helped to polarize what used to be a common information space. Pew reported that Republicans have broadly lost trust in mainstream media, especially those singled out by Mr. Trump. Many now exist in a parallel world where global warming is a myth and the United States leads the world in combating the coronavirus. A recent poll found that 56 percent of Republicans believe that the QAnon theory, which alleges that a secret cabal of pedophiles is embedded in the U.S. government, is partly or mostly true.
Mr. Trump himself recently welcomed the support of QAnon adherents. He also made clear that his campaign to defeat Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the November election will be founded on lies. At the Republican convention, the president and his surrogates repeatedly advanced the false claims that Mr. Biden favors defunding police, that he condones rioting in U.S. cities, and that he and his son were involved in corrupt dealings in Ukraine and China. If he loses, Mr. Trump likely will tell his supporters that it was because of fraud —and many of them will believe him.
Even if Mr. Trump leaves office in January, the country is likely to be plagued for years by this delinking of public debate from reality. If he wins, his war against truth surely will escalate. In his first term, the president took steps toward damaging mainstream media: He tried to block a merger of AT&T and Time Warner, which owns CNN, and he repeatedly sought to harm Amazon, whose chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Post.
In a second term, Mr. Trump could step up such attacks, perhaps seeking to force the sale of targeted media outlets to more friendly owners. He would install more loyalists in place of professionals in the intelligence agencies. He would convert U.S. government broadcasters, including the Voice of America, into his personal propaganda outlets. His goal would be to make his own version of reality dominant in political discourse — regardless of the truth.
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