Not just falsehood by falsehood, but as the defining feature of his presidency.
By Will Oremus
Donald Trump is not on the cover of Time this week, and that must gall him. The president is the subject of the magazine’s cover story, the promise of which apparently persuaded him to grant it an exclusive interview. But instead of Trump’s visage, the cover features a single three-word question in bold red type: “Is Truth Dead?”
It’s a callback to Time’s famous 1966 cover—“Is God Dead?”—and as such, it’s an eye-catcher. Time isn’t what it once was, but it still has a prominent perch on newsstands across the country. And this week, its top story highlights a side of Trump that much of the mainstream media have until recently failed, or neglected, to properly convey: his fundamental dishonesty.
The question on the magazine’s cover refers to Trump’s apparent ability to lie, dissemble, and distract from the truth—and to not only get away with it but to ride those lies to the world’s most powerful office. The story within by Time’s Washington bureau chief, Michael Scherer, rightly takes Trump’s dishonesty as its premise, then asks: How exactly does it work, and why, and can it possibly keep working now that he’s president? It’s a good story, thoughtful and—though Trump would never admit it—fair in the sense that it examines its subject’s penchant for prevarication without exaggerating, distorting, or moralizing.
More revealing still is the full interview transcript, which finds Trump inadvertently proving the story’s premise at every turn. The money quote, which is also the cover story’s kicker, is Trump in microcosm. Caught in a contradiction over his wiretapping claims, the president throws up one red herring after another, like a panicked homeowner hurling kitchen appliances at an intruder, before resorting finally to this: “Hey look … I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president, and you’re not.”
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This is as clear a distillation of Trump’s epistemology as you could hope for. Simply put: Might makes right.
Time is not the only mainstream publication to belatedly shine its light full-blast on Trump’s mendacity. The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board got there this week, too, making Trump’s credibility the subject of a scathing column that likened the president to a drunk clinging to a gin bottle. The implication: He’s addicted to lying.
Even Fox News has begun to set boundaries around the degree of pro-Trump dishonesty it will tolerate: This week it suspended one of its top legal commentators over false claims about wiretapping, which the White House had subsequently latched onto.
On a superficial level, it’s remarkable that middle-of-the-road and even conservative journalistic outlets are now breaking with their own conventions to, essentially, label the president of the United States an inveterate liar. But on a deeper level, what’s remarkable is that it took them this long.
That Trump is a professional peddler of smears and conspiracies has been clear from the outset. After all, we’re talking about a man who built his political name around the nakedly racist and utterly false claim that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. And yet he ran a whole campaign, was elected president, and spent more than two months spouting whoppers from the White House before some of the nation’s largest media outlets began to call him for what he is. And he did it all while branding his opponent as “crooked Hillary,” a ploy by which he manipulated much of the media and the public into minimizing his own misdeeds by mentioning hers in the same breath. (To be fair, some major news organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, have been duly documenting and highlighting Trump’s dishonesty since long before he was elected. That they’ve often been reticent to apply the “L-word” speaks not so much to cowardice as to the high bar they’ve set for deploying such a freighted term. Hearteningly, these publications have become much better about not letting Trump’s false claims stand unchallenged, even in headlines.)
It isn’t that Time, the Wall Street Journal, and others haven’t confronted Trump on specific claims. They have, of course. But they’ve failed until now to recognize that his untruths amount to something much more than a series of claims to be evaluated and debunked just as the claims of any politician must be. Trump’s reliance on dishonesty is not incidental to his character, or his appeal, or his approach to politics. It is his defining feature, shaping everything from how he talks, to the views he holds, to the way he conducts business and politics. If that sounds like an exaggeration, just go read the Time interview again and chase it with the Washington Post’s fact-check.
Trump’s lies are, and have long deserved to be, a top story in their own right. That the mainstream media have largely failed to treat them as such reveals the depth of its entrenched conventions around journalistic balance and respect for the presidency. Too many reporters and editors allow those conventions to constrain what should always be their core mission, which is to tell the public what they know to be true, no matter whom it offends or embarrasses.
The focus on Trump’s credibility may be late in coming, but it’s welcome nonetheless. In a way, Time—and the Wall Street Journal, and even in its way Fox News—has helped to answer that cover story’s three-word question through its own actions this week. So have the members of the public who have recently withdrawn their support of Trump, plunging his approval rating to historic lows. The truth isn’t dead: It’s down, and Trump is kicking it. But this week, at last, it’s kicking back.