President Donald Trump has earned special notice among independent fact-checkers — people employed by respected news media organizations and universities to ferret out false claims. In their view, the president is among the most prolific liars in political history.
Trump did not have a bigger inauguration crowd than Barack Obama. He did not lose the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because of massive voter fraud. He does not have the highest approval ratings of any Republican president in history. And the independent investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, having already yielded several incidental guilty pleas and convictions, is not a witch hunt.
Those are just a few among his whoppers. Last month, The Washington Post published a remarkable story reporting that the president — already an accomplished liar — was working hard to ensure that no one could ever break his record. “In his first year as president, Trump made 2,140 false or misleading claims. Now, just six months later, he has almost doubled that total,” the Post reported.
But Trump is not the real story here. The real story — the sad and frightening and incomprehensible story — lies in the millions of Americans who still believe him, who hang on his every word, who invest in his version of reality, no matter how warped or unbelievable or clearly inconceivable it may be. Among self-identified Republicans, the president has an 85 percent approval rating, according to a Gallup poll conducted last month. That is simply stunning.
This flight from facts has been well documented. Former New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani has written a book, “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump,” which cites the spread of propaganda and the White House’s elevation of mendacity as threats to democracy. She and others note that the trend isn’t new. There has always been a segment of the electorate ready to confuse fantasy with fact.
In his landmark 1964 essay, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about “the paranoid style in American politics,” which he traced to the nation’s beginnings. And his analysis of the political conservatism of his era has an eerily prescient ring now: “But the modern right wing … feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”
Trump is not the cause of that worldview but merely its avatar. He knows how to channel that feeling of dispossession among his base — largely aging whites upset by demographic and cultural change — and to promise that he will return the nation they believe they lost. In exchange, they are willing to believe any lie he tells.
Trump’s base had already been conditioned for the “alternative facts” that he has fed them. The vast right-wing media axis has conjured up a universe in which the religious beliefs of upright Christian folk are threatened by gay couples who want to get married, in which hardworking, white taxpayers are being cheated by immigrant grifters, in which black criminals are preying on white police officers. By now, regular viewers of Fox News believe only that nonsense — easy for them to swallow because it’s what they wanted to believe anyway.
Given their proclivity for the paranoid style, Trump’s base is ready to go along with his assault on mainstream news media and, more recently, search engines such as Google. Trump has decided that the barrage of negative news stories associated with his name on the Internet is evidence that search engines are “rigged,” as he tweeted. The president has also — heaven help us — instructed White House officials to explore regulating the search engine.
That is likely to come to naught because of First Amendment protections, but it won’t stop Trump’s supporters from calling for just such regulation. They are convinced that some unnamed group of conspirators has it in for Trump.
I think I’m familiar with that entity, which is given to hiding in plain sight. It’s called, well, truth. As Stephen Colbert famously put it, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”