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It’s hard to understand Trump supporters’ willingness to excuse his blatant falsehoods

There’s a part of human nature that, rather than wanting to know what’s accurate and true, wants to believe certain things, whether true or not.

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump delivering his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Leah Millis

Here’s a shocker: President Trump’s State of the Union message was riddled with falsehoods and exaggerations – obvious deceptions of the sort that clearly warn a careful listener of this obvious truth: You are listening to a liar. Sometimes he lies cleverly, by taking things out of context or using phony comparisons. Sometimes he only exaggerates, which is a common flaw of politicians, but he does it more often, more blatantly and more shamelessly than most. But fairly often he just flat lies. Says things that are provably untrue and that anyone paying attention knows are untrue. But he somehow, sorta, gets away with it.

With the help of FactCheck.org, I’ll pass along below a link that will get you chapter and verse to on some of the untruths from the SOTU message. But allow me to get both philosophical and nostalgic for a moment first.

I’ve been a professional journalist since 1973. You can do the math. (OK, I’ll do it. In August, I’ll celebrate my 47th anniversary of scribbling for a living.) MinnPost refers to me as a columnist, but for most of those years I was a “reporter.”

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, the heyday of journalism’s “objectivity” model, that “O” word carried a fair bit of heft. It meant reporters reported facts and didn’t express their own opinions. Opinionizing was reserved for a relative few columnists and editorial writers.

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The model, designed to prevent journalistic bias, was flawed. If reporters were biased, the bias could and very likely did influence which facts reporters reported, and which they didn’t, or in what order the facts were presented and how the facts were framed and described. All serious flaws.

But as a veteran of several newsrooms where that model was enforced, I can also tell you that the power of the objectivity paradigm ensured the pretty much every statement asserted was based on a verifiable fact, and that when an issue that was part of some larger public debate was discussed, representatives of differing sides would be quoted, accurately and honestly, so that readers could decide for themselves which side they found more trustworthy or persuasive.

That was the old religion, and it’s mostly gone. Even newspapers are mostly gone. Most “information” is now carried on the internet and social media platforms. TV news is divided substantially between righty and lefty shows. There are winners and losers in the new information economy, but one of the biggest losers has been the old religion about the importance of basic factual accuracy and what used to be called “balance.”

I’m sentimental for the old system, even while acknowledging its shortcomings. I’m horrified by what has replaced it, which has quintupled the old demons called “selective perception” and “confirmation bias.”

There’s a part of human nature that, rather than wanting to know what’s accurate and true, wants to believe certain things, whether true or not.

I’m not one who thinks Donald Trump is a genius, but if he is a genius, his genius is rooted in his understanding of that above-referenced feature (or bug) of human nature.

It’s not that he’s clever about it. He’s blatant. He lies all the time. In the age of fact-checkers, his lies are easily and quickly identified and publicized. But this easy access to a catalog of his lies has no apparent influence on the bond between him and the roughly 40 percent of the electorate that supports him or at least “approves” of him, as measured by approval polls.

I assume, and more than assume, that some portion of his 40 percent knows that he lies a lot and wishes he would lie less, but doesn’t disapprove of that aspect of his leadership as much they approve of some of his policies. I don’t know, and probably can’t know, how many of his supporters view it that way. I try to respect their beliefs, which differ from mine, on many of these policy issues.

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But – maybe it’s because I’m an old reporter indoctrinated in the importance of factual accuracy – it’s hard for me to understand a willingness to excuse such lying. Still, they are free to make that choice.

I worry more about those, presumably most of his supporters, who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the lying. It’s frightening. It’s cultish. It’s 1984-ish.

And I assume that many or most members of that cult don’t read what I write. But if you do, and if you doubt the level of Trump’s mendacity as I’ve described it above, I offer two links, as promised at the top of this screed, from factcheck.org and the Washington Post’s “Fact-checker” operation, shedding a bit of truth onto some of Trump’s falsehoods from his lie-filled State of the Union address.

Here’s FactCheck.

Here’s the Washington Post truth squadding.