USA Today, September 2018
The president of the United States is a liar. There’s no question about that. The question is, are you going to help him spread his lies?
That the world’s most famous birther is a liar is not just an opinion held by me, every legitimate fact checker or the 60 percent of Americans who refuse to believe most of what comes out of Donald Trump’s Diet Coke hole.
It's the clear reading of statements from Trump’s own Justice Department (which said there was no evidence for a claim he made in a speech to Congress) and FBI (which said the same of his claim that China hacked Hillary Clinton's email).
What did these remarkable rebukes from nation’s top law enforcement officials change?Absolutely nothing. Trump, as usual, couldn’t be bothered to even correct himself.
This doesn’t mean Trump’s lies are irrelevant. The truth matters. But Trump doesn’t lie to be believed. He lies to be repeated — by his fans, the media and even his fiercest opponents, whom he often manages to enlist as viral marketers in his effort to distract and distort.
Fact checking is no check on Trump lies
It’s likely that no American had more lies debunked than the 45th president, and no one has ever been more checked, to less effect, by fact checkers. His hurricane of half-truths is only picking up speed.
In his first 100 days, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker tracked Trump making 4.9 “false or misleading claims” — known to people who don’t have wary editors as “lies” — a day. That number has more than tripled to 15.4 in the last three months.
Trump prides himself on repeating the debunked lies so often that you’d think he was earning residuals on them. Of the 4,713 “false claims” the Fact Checker vetted in Trump’s first 592 days, 160 were lies he repeated at least three times. The message to his fans here is not only that Trump “has the power to say what the reality is,” as Greg Sargent notes, but also that they should continue to repeat his lies.
“Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them,” says political theory professor Jacob T. Levy.
Totalitarians recognize that getting their subordinates to repeat lies not only asserts your power over them, Levy notes, it makes them complicit and compromised.
And it isn’t just crowds who will repeat lies from Trump or his “attorney” Rudy Giuliani word-for-word. Media outlets will often do the same in tweets and clips, though — as media critic Jay Rosen notes —this practice has been discredited.
The time has come to admit that what we’re doing is not working. To admit that fact checking Trump is not only a colossal failure, it seems to be spurring him on to lie more.
While his awful poll numbers suggest that Trump’s torrent of lies isn't helping him or the GOP, this constant spew of propaganda may be doing something more dangerous by helping to consolidate the devotion of his base to levels of intensity more geared for armed combat than political debate. And we have to expect that the last few months of this campaign will be filled with more of the surprises and shenanigans that ripped open reality in 2016.
Trump’s lies don’t just arm his supporters with things to yell at their mouthy stepkids, they also create an echo in which the false claim is then repeated just to be debunked, generating even more resentment in his fans. Meanwhile, true accountings of atrocities — like a solid count of the Americans killed by Hurricane Maria or the number the children orphaned by the administration’s illegal family separation policy — are drowned out in the noise.
So what we are going to do about it now, as we face what could be the most important midterm election in our history?
Don't be an unpaid volunteer for Trump
Start by not helping him — at least until the last poll closes on Nov. 6.
Leave the fact checking to the people who get paid to filter Trump’s muck. And encourage the media to embrace best practices designed to minimize the effect of propaganda — such as the “truth sandwich” advised by cognitive scientist George Lakoff: The truth, the Trump claim, the fact-check.
For the rest of us, remember that our fact checks won’t be any more effective than the media or Justice or the FBI. Liberals’ brains assume disproving lies will make them go away. The opposite is true. “When you repeat Trump, you help Trump,” Lakoff wrote. If repetition didn’t work, businesses wouldn’t spend trillions on advertising.
Trump can’t be shamed and he knows that by encouraging you to correct or rage at his lies, he’s shaping the debate. If you’re making it easier for anyone to see his words by repeating or retweeting them or even quote-retweeting them, you’re just anunpaid volunteer in the Trump campaign.
Refuse to help Trump — even if it denies you the pleasure of dunking on him. Next time you feel the urge to help Trump, consider helping a swing candidate you care about instead. Volunteer, donate or just share their messages. Every little bit you can do helps.
Don’t believe me? Ask Trump. Actually, don’t bother.