The coverage of Donald Trump’s bombastic, self-praising speech to the United Nations has mostly featured the fact that the audience, representing, in a sense, the world, laughed at him audibly as he exaggerated the accomplishments of his presidency thus far. They laughed at him, not with him, although he took it surprisingly well. It was obviously not a planned deal, and it passed, and he went back to boasting.
My main purpose in noting this tragicomic episode is to pass along a good fact-check of the speech by the Washington Post’s excellent fact-checker, Glenn Kessler.
I’m a big fan of the growing fact-checking industry within journalism. Trump didn’t invent political lying, and pre-Trump the fact-checkers would often elevate our grasp of the kind of self-serving half-truths politicians that long been part of political rhetoric. It used to be that if a politician were called out for a half-truth he or she would drop the claim, or adjust and switch to better version, closer to verifiable reality, perhaps for fear of losing credibility.
But Trump lies pretty much every day, often sticking with lies that have been debunked (as he did at the U.N.) And, although most Americans understand that he is an inveterate liar, which surely contributes to the reason that he has had by far the worst approval ratings (since the advent of approval ratings) of any president during their first two years, those same approval polls tell us that a very large minority (roughly 40 percent) of Americans continue to express approval.
This troubles me, and perhaps you, too, but apparently not those who make up the loyal 40 percent. Some of them must believe his lies. Others perhaps understand that he isn’t a stickler for factual accuracy and don’t care because they have bonded with him at a deep and enduring level. It’s normal and it’s not healthy for a president to have an approval rating that hovers on either side of the 40 percent level but, as he sometimes reminds us, he’s still president and we’re not.
I just passed my 45th anniversary as a working journalist, and I’ve seen a lot of changes, including changes in the ways reporters worship factual accuracy. We always understood that many politicians would shade the truth when it served their purposes, but, when caught in a falsehood, they would usually drop the false claim or make it less clearly false or something.
We’re in new and troubling territory now. Or maybe I’m just an old-fashioned scold about liars, liars, pants on fire. Maybe I’m getting used to the new normal, but I don’t plan to get comfortable with it.