Except on those rare, fairly boring occasions when Donald Trump actually reads off the teleprompter a speech written for him by others, almost every public occasion on which he moves his lips and utters words is filled with lies, braggadocio and often disrespect toward various races, genders, Democrats, the leader of some allied nation who have genuflected insufficiently toward him, anyone else who has publicly criticized him and, some combination of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
That such utterances escape his pearly lips is known and knowable to anyone with ears to hear or eyes to read that are open to perceiving reality.
Before the rise of Trump, it was generally believed that no one could get away with so much lying and hate-mongering and succeed in presidential politics. Now we know different. And have to figure out how to respond.
The fact-checkers and truth-squaders do a great job cataloging the lies. In a better world, that would suffice to relieve Trump of his credibility. But, with the rather large group of his loyal supporters, it doesn’t have that effect.
(I haven’t written about his approval ratings for a couple of weeks, so I’ll slip it in here: The recent small uptick in his approval rating that I noted four weeks ago, has been followed by a small downtick, roughly restoring the norm, which is that Trump’s approval rating, based on the average of many approval polls maintained by FiveThirtyEight, is back to where it always has been; a touch more than 10 percentage points under water, with 42.3 percent approving and 53 percent disapproving. That’s bad, but incredibly stable compared to any other president since the invention of approval ratings.)
How to understand this? Do his loyalists not know he lies to them constantly and engages in fairly blatant promotion of racism and sexism? Do they not care? Do they not mind? Or do they know, and care and mind and either approve of it or believe these problems are worth overlooking because of all the wonderful things he is doing for them and to annoy those they dislike, at home and abroad?
In a recent column for The Washington Post, Greg Sargent blames the media, or rather, as he puts it, “the conventions of political reporting often constrain reporters from conveying just how crazy, depraved and saturated in malice and hate some of [Trump’s] rally performances are.”
Sargent refers to “press coverage that sanitizes away the wretched, hateful sides of Trump’s performances could help his appearances carry forward Trump’s mission of electrifying the base, under the radar, without clearly conveying to all those other voters — those who may not be tuning in as attentively to the 24/7 manure show that is this presidency — the truly depraved nature of what he’s dumping in their backyards.”
Is this right? Does Trump get away with constant lying and racism and sexism because the media “sanitizes it away?”
I don’t really think so. Anyone who wants to know — or is even willing to consider the possibility that Trump lies constantly — has easy access to the fact-checkers who have cataloged and continue to enumerate his unprecedented thousands of lies, omissions and half-truths.
Even the straight reporters who aren’t allowed to opinionize and don’t specialize in fact-checkery are not at all shy about pointing out falsehoods and other contradictions from reality in their coverage.
A reporter assigned to cover a Trump is not exclusively assigned to truth-squading the rhetoric, but is not precluded from — nor do they mostly shy away from acknowledging — Trump’s heavy reliance on what Kellyanne Conway has called “alternative facts,” which is an alternative fact-y term for half-truths and pure falsehoods.
Yes, Trump is the president and what he says is news, and reporters have to report it. And in today’s news norms, when he lies it’s easier than ever — and more necessary than ever — to report that. But when he says something that’s not a lie, that’s news too, and must be reported. And when he traffics in racist and sexist tropes, you can report that, too, although if you are still playing by the old rules, you are supposed to just report it, not condemn or otherwise editorialize about it.
But, with apologies to Sargent, who’s on the side of honesty and truth-telling, not everything that Trump says is exactly a “lie.” If he’s race-baiting or male chauvinizing or otherwise demagoguing, that’s news, too, and the norms for the non-commentariat reporters is that you just quote those things and allow readers to make of it what they may.
So, sympathetic as I am to the horror Sargent evinces toward Trump’s ability to get away with lying and race-baiting without losing supporters, I’m not sure blaming the coverage of Trump’s rallies is the key to fixing this. I wish I knew what was. But bear in mind: if by “fixing this,” one means getting some of his loyal 40 percent to consider other alternatives, whatever “it” is has to have the effect of reaching that group and encouraging a re-think.