Amid Donald Trump's big little lies, Americans no longer know who to trust – besides God

That the President indulges in little lies all the time is as disturbing as it is ironic. He has correctly identified the propagation of fake news as a problem for our democracy but accuses the wrong people of doing it

David Usborne
Saturday 17 March 2018 10:30
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Donald Trump says he told Justin Trudeau he told him he was wrong about trade with no idea what was true

The little lies, they rain down on us. We have become so cynical about our chances of being told the truth, we almost shrug them off. The teeth whitener ad on the TV? Total bunkum. Your delayed plane will now be leaving at 10.35 instead of 10am? Ah-ha. Add 90 minutes to that.

The cynicism can alert us to the disinformation coming our way. By all means enjoy a gossip magazine while marooned in Terminal 5, so long as you are aware that the minor European royal in question hasn’t really been abducted to Mars. I am pretty sure the small rodent that inspired The Sun headline “Freddie Starr Ate my Hamster” survived to live a full and productive life.

Recalling outrageous headlines of yore is, however, to dive back into almost innocent times. They make us laugh. These days we face more consequential lies. For instance about Europe. Britain will regain control of “£350m a week”. Remember that one?

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Politicians have always been near the top of the list of chronic dissemblers (along, I hear you say, with lawyers and journalists). From them, really big lies might be acceptable when national security is at stake. If Theresa May is holding something back about the Salisbury nerve agent attack because it would be dangerous to share it, well, we can agree with that.

It’s the other lying they do that we shouldn’t tolerate. The stupid, unnecessary, transparently idiotic lies. Ones like: more people came to watch me being sworn in than ever in history; more people tuned in to watch my State of the Union address than ever in history; Rex Tillerson is “not leaving” – this via Twitter . “We work well together and America is highly respected.”

That Donald Trump indulges in little lies all the time is as disturbing as it is ironic. He has correctly identified the propagation of fake news as a problem for our democracy but accuses the wrong people of doing it. It’s Russia that tried to subvert the 2016 presidential election, not CNN or The New York Times. It’s not The Washington Post that lies on a daily basis. It’s him.

It’s in his DNA. He admitted in his 1986 bestseller, The Art of the Deal, that slaloming from the truth was something he found useful. “I call it truthful hyperbole,” he said. And it’s in the DNA of this White House. On Capitol Hill recently, the departing communications director, Hope Hicks, cheerfully conceded that on occasion she’d tell “white lies” on behalf of the boss. Those little lies again.

He does it with us and he does it in private too. The other day he told donors at a fundraising dinner about Japan’s practice of dropping bowling balls onto the bonnets of American-made cars to see if they are suitable to import. If the test leaves a dent, they aren’t good enough for their drivers. That, he inferred, is how the Japanese keep American goods out. Honda was among those befuddled. “I have never heard of such a test,” a spokesperson said. Because he made it up. Sarah Huckabee Sanders ventured that Trump had merely been “joking”. We’ve all heard that from liars before. I was just being funny!

At the same donors’ dinner, the President bragged about contradicting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when Trudeau dared to suggest that Canada does not run a trade surplus with the US. “Wrong, Justin, you do.” Trump recalled telling him. But then he went on: “I didn’t even know ... I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’” You were making it up? Oh man, that’s hysterical.

Even by the US government’s own reckoning, Trudeau was the one who had it right. The US had a $2.77bn (£1.99bn) surplus with Canada for 2017. But when Trump lies, he likes to double-down. Hence a day later, when social media discussion of what he had said was at full volume, he was on Twitter, still claiming he was right. “We do have a trade deficit with Canada, as we do with almost all countries (some of them massive),” he wrote.

Let’s say Trump wasn’t lying so much as flying by the seat of his pants. He figured he just may be right about the trade statistics with Canada, and putting Trudeau on the defensive while all three members of Nafta, the North American Free Trade Association, are engaged in renegotiating its terms probably seemed to him like the right strategy. But hadn’t he been briefed on the facts before talking to Trudeau? How is it possible than an American President could be so ill-prepared for talks with another nation’s leader? Especially so important an ally. Will he be similarly clueless with Kim Jong-un of North Korea?

But back to the actual lying. Clearly it erodes the public’s trust in him. A recent USA Today poll showed that when it comes to alleged collusion with Russia, more Americans have faith in Robert Mueller, the special counsel, than in Trump. It said 58 per cent of voters have some or a lot of trust in Mueller’s probe and 57 per cent have little to no trust in Trump’s denials of collusion. We also know from polling that trust in the mainstream media has reached an all-time low. With his relentless attacks on reporters, Trump has contributed to that also.

In God they trust. We know that. But whom else are Americans left to believe in? Social media is infected with bots and trolls trying to subvert the entire democratic process. Figures on the TV sets they used to trust to deliver the nation’s important news are being felled one by one for sexually abusing colleagues. Stormy Daniels hovers wraithlike over the West Wing. Even climate change is a battle of competing truths.

And still Trump dishes his little lies with such abandon. But they aren’t little, because the fabric of political discourse is already so frayed and fragile. Because the reservoir of trust in America is already so depleted. The damage they do in these febrile and polarised times makes them big.

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