Opinion: Has Trump Killed the Truth?

(The following is an opinion piece written by Craig Benedict, a retired federal prosecutor.)

     Accept we must that human beings at times shade the truth, exaggerate it, and, occasionally, outright lie. Most people, however, do not possess a mental pathology where lying is integrated deeply into their personalities to such an extent that it adversely impacts their life-long adult relationships, be they intimate, social, professional, political or a combination thereof. And yet, eight months into his presidency, it is increasingly clear that we should expect President Trump will continue to lie even on matters of great significance to our nation. 

     Recently, Trump decertified the nuclear deal with Iran, despite all evidence showing that Iran is in full compliance with its agreement obligations. Iran’s compliance – not whether a future President likes the deal – was the only basis for decertification. Yet Trump, lacking such evidence, did so anyway. No signatories to the deal, including our closest ally Great Britain (and Trump’s own top military advisors), contend evidence of non-compliance exists. Not one to speak more carefully following broad international criticism premised upon his truth-deficient position, Trump almost immediately thereafter casually stated during a press conference that he alone among recent Presidents contacted and consoled families of American soldiers killed on the battlefield. Howls of protest arose from aides to past Presidents because his statement was, once again, utterly false, and something he simply made up to try to make himself look good.  

     The point is not that President Trump has lied a lot recently, has lied a lot less recently, and has lied a lot long, long ago. It is that Americans and the rest of the world are catching on that our leader is untrustworthy as a general proposition. It is increasingly difficult to determine whether our President is telling us something that is important and true, or important and utterly false. He appears to have no “tell” when he lies – a twitch or tick perhaps – or a placid face just when he is being truthful. The good name of our nation is being run down across the globe because we elected someone for whom telling the truth is an inconvenience to be discarded early and often, whenever he pleases. Following North Korea’s most recent nuclear test, Trump announced he was considering ending trade with all nations that do business with the reclusive regime. China did not even bother to respond. The world’s most populous nation – usually hyper-focused on defending its right to make trade decisions – has learned that Trump’s bloviates so often his remark was not even worth public comment.   

     The New York Times is carefully cataloging our leader’s near-constant prevarications (“President Trump’s Lies, The Definitive List”). The Times documented one or more Presidential lie every single day during his first 40 days in office and a near constant stream thereafter. Sometimes, he seems to carry on a debate with himself, issuing a barrage of assertions that are inconsistent and impossible to reconcile with one another.

     There seem to be several results that emanate from the President’s verbal misconduct. First, among his fervent supporters, polls show that his lies simply do not matter. So long as he is doing what they like, he has their unconditional support. The truth be damned. Moreover, Trump supporters get their news almost exclusively from conservative sites that simply ignore many of his less flattering assertions. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, a significant percentage of the population is sufficiently troubled by his many falsehoods that Trump has lost any hope of ever being considered trustworthy. Fewer and fewer Americans reside in the middle. Americans in this group seem troubled by Trump’s lies but focus more on whether what he is doing hurts or helps them.

     So the question becomes, has Trump killed truth? Will he be permitted to say, ad infinitum, whatever he wants without serious consequence, or will America eventually conclude that truth is important enough to rise up and demand it? 

     Like all nations, America is influenced by popular culture. Indeed, Trump first gained national notoriety as a TV actor. Many shows, plays, and movies portray characters that manipulate their way to success. At other times, a hero demonstrates high character and succeeds because of, not despite, it. A short speech from Game of Thrones has gone viral in part because the character placed truth over expediency; he declined to lie even when he was aware that telling the truth seriously hurt his position. Perhaps you heard it: 

 

"When enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything, and then there are no more answers, only better and better lies."

 

     Ironically, this soliloquy by Jon Snow, King in the North, was reported to have been filmed on the day Donald Trump was elected to office. It is a pity our President is incapable of taking this simple, crucial concept to heart.