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Debate Detector: Trump's Top 10 Tricks

Here's a useful guide to have on hand as the presidential debates get underway.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 9, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 9, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Ready for even more Trumpian disinformation?

Cornered by a continuing pandemic, teetering economy and racial strife, President Houdini has been resorting to rhetorical tricks honed over a lifetime to escape political calamity. One way to prepare for this Tuesday's first debate and his Fall barrage is to reveal Trump's "magic" beforehand so that viewers and voters can be their own BS Detector when he next tries to sliver away from lying about Covid-19 or his fascistic plans to overthrow the election.

1.  Cherry-picking -- Black Swans.

This trick is based on seeing a black swan and then pretending all swans are black.

So when millions of Black Lives Matter protesters peacefully march against police brutality, Trump will cite one who years ago allegedly called cops “pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon” to imply that all are looters and anarchists. And when a Republican US Attorney in Pennsylvania this week told AG Barr that his office had found nine discarded Trump ballots (later changed to seven), the White House immediately played it up to imply that this was organized mail-in ballot fraud (though it was quickly shown to be an isolated, local administrative error, not a Democratic conspiracy).

The idea is to make the aberrational appear typical. Would anyone judge Michael Jordan's career based on a reel of three missed clutch shots rather than his career stats?

2. Adjectives and Assertions.

Since it’s hard to enact legislation, why not instead just predict great or awful events since hard to prove the contrary. Or to paraphrase Nike, “Just Say It.”

Hence "next year [the economy] will be the best ever." This summer Trump began declaring that Democrats would “destroy the suburbs.” How? Presumably by building more integrated public housing, implying that this time the 2018 “caravan” from Latin America might directly settle in White Plains, New York.

The 'tell' here his frequent refrain, "believe me!"

3.  The Bully’s Pulpit.

Humorist Larry Wilmore joked that Trump was indeed our Roosevelt since “the only thing Trump has is fear itself.”

Politico reported that a third of his first 2000 president tweets disparaged people, totaling a hard-to-believe 598 people by the end of 2018. Here he’s channeling the Italian philosopher and politician who said five centuries ago, “it’s better to be feared than loved.”

Like Machiavelli’s princes, Trump loves being feared. And since a president’s bullying can do real reputational damage, this thuggish tactic often produces the desired effect of anticipatory obedience by those fearing massive retaliation. That helps explain why 52 of 53 Senate Republicans during his Impeachment trial, faced with his open-and-shut political extortion of Ukraine, concluded that what happened didn't happen.

4. Rhetorical Questions.

This is a low-grade but popular sleight-of-hand -- burying a disrupted premise in the form of a question in order to mislead listeners to a false conclusion. “What do you have to lose?”, he would repeatedly ask Black audiences in the 2016 campaign (now they know). And “why would” Putin interfere in that election? (Duh.)

5. Upside-downism.

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Trump repeatedly accuses others of his own misconduct in order to confuse “low education voters” (his phrase). He attacked the [non]corruption of the Clinton Foundation...yet it was his Trump Foundation that New York State shut down because of repeated violations of Law. Now he's indignantly declaring that Democrats are the real “liars” who are trying to “rig the election” while Biden’s the one fomenting violence and Harris undermining science. When Nancy Pelosi said that Trump was trying to “Make America White Again,” he accused her of racism because in Trumpland even talking about race is racism.

6. Figures Don’t Lie but Liars Figure.

Trump reverses the scientific method: facts don’t lead to conclusions but rather conclusions lead to “facts”, which is otherwise known as confirmation bias. This trick has a long history, from the 1920 Scopes Monkey trial and Lysenko-ism in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Today’s version of Creationism is his river of obvious lies about Covid-19, Climate, Crime and Race, as when a whistle-blower just charged that DHS ordered staff to underplay violence by white nationalists and Russian campaign interference.

In his acceptance screech this past August, for example, he bragged how his administration “had created” nine million new jobs, which sounds good until you realize that it followed three months where the economy lost 20 million jobs.

7. Rooster-Taking-Credit-for-the-Dawn.

With vanishingly few positive accomplishments, Trump will keep claiming credit for the good work of others while shunning any responsibility for his own wrongdoing.

He’s said or tweeted over 350 times a version of -- ‘we have the greatest economy in our history.’ Which a) isn’t true since his six immediate predecessors all had better jobs and GDP numbers and b) it was Obama who turned Bush’s Great Recession into seven years of steady growth, which Trump has merely coasted on, albeit at a slower pace.

This trick veered into parody when he claimed that there were no passenger airline fatalities in his first year as president. True... although there had also been none for the prior seven years. He abandoned this particular boast after Boeing’s 737 Max planes twice crashed because of failures by Boeing and the FAA.

8. Both-sidesism.

Whenever criticized, he and his team search for some arguably equivalent offence in history to exonerate him. Recall how he would cite Monica Lewinsky to wave off the few dozen women accusing him of sexual abuse and famously declare there were “fine people” on both sides of that Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville.

This maneuver can backfire. After flailing Hunter Biden’s business work during the Obama-Biden administration, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was asked by CNN's Jake Tapper about Trump’s sons traveling the world making deals at taxpayer expense. Replied Mnuchin, “I don’t want to get into those details.”

9. The Hyperbolic.

The man exaggerates exaggerations. Trump tries to explain away this repeated trick as “bravado...truthful hyperbole.” Actually -- see "beautiful coal" -- it’s untruthful hyperbole. So he announced that there would have been a nuclear war with North Korea if he hadn’t been elected in 2016 and he is the world’s leading expert on  “drones, nuclear weapons, technology, banks…[plus another 30 specialized categories].”

Speaking of Kim, listen carefully and you’ll hear Trump sound like the North Korean dictator who claimed to have shot five holes-in-one playing his first round of golf.

10. The Lyin’ King. The problem is not merely that Trump, like all presidents, has at times lied, fibbed and cut-corners but that he nearly always does. His go-to response to any public criticism is “fake news,” even as he deploys what he deplores.

It’s hard to arrive at any other conclusion after Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler has documented (so far) 20,000+ lies or falsehoods from his mouth -- or 22 a day for the past year, including when he pretends that prosecuted aides were invariably minor figures to him (Manafort? Cohen? Stone? Bannon? Flynn?). His lava of lies and disinformation reflects a comment attributed to Katherine the Great, “the first lie wins.”

Off camera, Trump knows exactly what he’s doing. After grossly puffing up his TV ratings, he then explained to Billy Bush, of Access Hollywood fame, “Billy, look, you just tell them and they believe it. That’s it. They just do.”

A different approach was taken by our 32d president. FDR speech writer Robert Sherwood, in his book Roosevelt and Hopkins, wrote that “the New York Times can make mistakes but the President of the United States must not make mistakes. After 1940, Isador Lubkin, the Commissioner of Labor Statistics, was constantly available and incalculably invaluable to Roosevelt in checking every decimal point.”

Now we’re about to find out whether, contrary to everything our parents told us, dishonesty is the best policy. Or whether truth still matters. For without truth there can’t be trust and without trust civilization can fracture and collapse.

Mark Green

Mark Green was the first Public Advocate for New York City and is the author or editor of 24 books. His new book, Wrecking America: How Trump’s Lies and Lawbreaking Betray All, co-authored with Ralph Nader, is out next month from Skyhorse Publishing.

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate and the author of The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future. His new book is, Wrecking America: How Trump’s Lies and Lawbreaking Betray All, co-authored with Mark Green.

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