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When Lies Trump Truth

If Trump's falsehoods do not get him impeached or defeated in 2020, the future of American democracy will be bleak.

US President Trump greets the audience after delivering remarks at Young Black Leadership Summit at the White House, on October 4, 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

US President Trump greets the audience after delivering remarks at Young Black Leadership Summit at the White House, on October 4, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

There is supposed to be a penalty for lying.

If there is no penalty for relentless and unabashed lying in politics, then democracy is at risk, all of society is at risk.

Listening to Donald Trump is bizarre.

Nearly everything he says about himself is exaggerated, misleading, false, or some scrambled combination of the three.

Some of the problems he has pointed to are real problems. In the cases where that's true, his description of the causes is usually wrong, and his solutions will make things worse. Dealing with that is exhausting.

You have to take his statements, rambles, and tweets apart, phrase by phrase. Then fact-check him word by word. That means you have to have sources that are truly reliable, accessible, and quick to search - a rather difficult feat.

But it doesn't end there. Examining Trump's statements needs more than just an immense amount of time and effort. It needs a magic stopwatch that makes time stand still. Because while you are fact-checking, he keeps talking, adding more deceptions and, what is worse, that original nonsense that you are trying to debunk is travelling around in various conscious and unconscious ways.

This latest business about the phone call between Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine, is a perfect example.

On September 24, Trump tweeted  that he had "authorized the release tomorrow of the complete, fully declassified and unredacted transcript of my phone conversation with President Zelensky of Ukraine."

It was not a transcript. Right on top, it said "memorandum of telephone conversation" and on the bottom, there was a note saying: "CAUTION: ... not a verbatim transcript". It was not complete. Not even close.

Yet, in public, it is routinely referred to with Trump's word, "transcript."

After some of the deficiencies were noted, Trump ranted on the White House lawn, "I had a transcript done by very, very talented people - word for word, comma for comma. Done by people that do it for a living."

None of the reporters on the lawn were able to stop time and say: "Wait a minute Mr President. That's not what you released. If there is such a transcript, where is it? Will you release it? What did you cut out and why?"

Apart from what may have been said and not included in the memo, there is also the issue of what was said and included. Trump is recorded as saying: "The other thing. There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great."

Many, including members of his own Republican party, found this part reprehensible; they saw it as clear proof that the US president had tried to pressure a foreign leader into investigating a political opponent.

Yet Trump continued to repeat during press conferences that he had done nothing wrong and that there was nothing incriminating in the released memo. And his electorate believed him.

According to a recent poll conducted after the scandal broke, 86 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of Independents believe Trump is doing a good job as president.

Some 43 percent of Republican voters also think there is nothing wrong with a US president asking a foreign leader to launch such an investigation, while another 30 percent are actually convinced such a request was never made. Unsurprisingly, just nine percent of Republicans support Trump's impeachment.

Something clearly has gone very wrong; it was already visible during the Republican primaries in 2016. Instead of "likely voters" (as polled) punishing the contestants for lying, they rewarded them. The more a candidate lied, the higher they rose in the polls.

It is extremely useful for humans to get information from other humans and rely on it. If everything has to be doubted and fact-checked, that incredible resource becomes useless. We, therefore, have a certain automatic and natural level of credulity. Obviously, there has to be a way of dealing with liars. The standard methodology after a person is caught in a lie (or two) is to label them as such (privately or publicly) and penalise them by disbelieving what they say in the future.

According to political history and the way humans deal with liars, Trump's lies should have been self-defeating. Stone-walling, refusing to turn over documents, having subordinates do the same, should have damaged him. But it hasn't.

In fact, it has made it very difficult for his opponents to develop effective ways to oppose him. The combination of his missteps and arrogance over the Ukraine affair and the whistle-blower's complaint laying it out so clearly and vividly may have been a bridge too far.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Adam Schiff appear, at the moment, to have found the right style and choices of substance to genuinely counter him. If he survives the impeachment process and wins re-election, it will mean that lies trump truth.

If we are governed by lies and liars, the ship of state necessarily crashes into the rocks of reality. And sinks.

Trump won the nomination as the candidate who lied the most, won the presidency as someone known to lie, has had an unshakeable base of support even as his record of lies has risen to Himalayan heights, and has an approval rating even now of at least 40 percent.

It is possible that he is a phenomenon who just has his fans no matter what. But it is far more likely that his success only came about and is only sustained because serious underlying societal issues made them possible.   

If Trump is taken down - by conviction in the Senate or rejection by the voters - that holds the promise of a reset. If the Democrats running in 2020 offer a vision that addresses this malaise afflicting American society, and if they win, and having won are able to govern effectively, that promises a restoration of America's democracy. 

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