It is strange to think that when we are lied to we come to trust again. It is counterintuitive at best, and is likely representative more of necessity than good faith. We live not as individuals in a vacuum but rather as a highly inter-dependent collective. We call it society, even civilization – wherein we both aggrandize ourselves and belittle the barbarism of history to which this word is an antonym – as we forsake personal liberties in favor of the strength and safety of a collective greater than the sum of its individual parts. We are social animals after all. Thus, so as to secure our place within the interwoven mesh of our society, we safeguard our connections with kindness – both real and contrived – with our actions of friendship, and comradery, and with mutual respect, if not for each other, at least for the laws to which all must subscribe for this harmonious coexistence to work.
At times, even often, we tell “white lies” for this very purpose, and by design, opting for words of comfort that bring us closer together (or at least preserve the status quo) rather than pushing us apart, thereby fraying the strands of our social network. But let’s be clear; these are not the lies emanating from the Trump White House. More to the point, it is no longer possible for President Trump to utter “white lies,” beyond those he makes in private to his family and friends, by virtue of the fact that he is – against all odds and reason – President of the United States of America and when the President speaks we listen. Moreover, we expect – perhaps naively – that the President concern himself with the business of the people, the affairs of state, and conduct himself as such. By definition, falsehoods uttered on matters of such grave importance and solemn purpose cannot be “white lies.” Lies at this level have consequences. They are not opinions, nor are they personal. They are not a matter of perspective or open to debate wherein your beliefs are equally important to mine or those of another. They are the words of the people, as spoken by their elected leader, by way of the machinations of democracy, and – importantly – demonstrably, quantifiably, consequentially ruinous. When the President lies, he undermines not only his own credibility, but that of the nation. His words have the power to sink the NASDAQ and the DOW JONES indexes. His words affect international relations and trade which in turn affect prices back home. Ultimately his words are the first means by which a President is measured and the last by which history will remember him. When they are shown to be false, when they are known to be false, their weight is lessened, their power undermined, and their impact disruptive. Yet, paradoxically, not disruptive enough. Sometimes even highly beneficial; his lies did elect him after all.
What recourse is there? Politicians lie, often and well, perhaps even justifiably, but how do we know which lies are justified and which are not when we don’t know which are the lies and which are the truths, to say nothing of consensus on such matters. And therein lies another problem. “Make America Great Again” is a pithy slogan, but it requires its adherents forego challenging its core premise: that America was not (in the time before Trump’s Presidency) “great.” I suppose that rather depends on your perspective, or how you would seek to measure ‘greatness.’ It also depends on when America was great, as inferred from the inclusion of the word ‘again’ in the same slogan. These are question to which answers will span the gamut, but the campaign for the Presidency was not just a matter of slogans; words were spoken with purpose. That purpose was to win, and in so doing, despite being on the record often, and unrepentantly as having lied, President Trump has shown us a reflection of ourselves that is deeply troubling. It means, ostensibly, that we do not collectively care when we are lied to. It means, by extension, that facts matter less than perceptions, beliefs, and ideologies. It means, worryingly, that the verifiable truths of reality are allowed to play a secondary role to the whims of (to some) a charismatic man to whom that same reality is somehow inconvenient or inconsequential.
Some lies are great both in scope and consequence. Climate change being a hoax perpetrated with malicious intent by the Chinese government springs to mind – a Trump whopper from the campaign. In polite conversation between ordinary people such a wild, paranoid, conspirational claim would immediately be followed by a burden of proof. In this new era of alt-truths however, such claims propel people ever upwards for reasons that imply deeply troubling trends in how we conduct ourselves in defiance of scientific consensus, especially with regard to the process of democracy. That burden is our own. But the burden must also fall to our elected officials. These people must be held accountable for their lies even if they are told from a position of ignorance or misinformation. We must demand, at all times, and unrelentingly the best possible information. The demonstrable truth, whenever available, and – critically – we must admonish those who lie. We must punish those who lie on purpose. We must banish from the public forum those who lie habitually.
Many of those who voted for Trump may feel betrayed as his lies catch up to him. Not merely the casual lies, nor the ‘unimportant’ lies, but the false promises, the broken promises, and ultimately not only untruths but reversals of positions.
It is important to understand that lies should carry a cost. If you lie on your taxes, you can go to jail. If you lie in court, you will go to jail. If you lie to the people, you should rightly lose their confidence and with it your privilege to represent them, to say nothing of legislating them, or sending them to die in wars of your own making.
When you lie to the people their forgiveness and willingness to trust again comes more slowly each time, and – more than just the individual – sours the milk for the next man or woman to take up the mantle.
Trump is so septic, so wholly loathsome in every way, that he may well have set democracy itself back by eroding its power – the voice of the people.
When the number of people who did not vote for you is greater than the number who did, if the number of people who showed up to protest you is greater than the number who came to celebrate you, when you take the office will a record-low approval rating, and when the world at large fears what will happen now that the ‘tweet’ button has been replaced with the bully pulpit of the White House Press Briefing Room, you might tread softly, but of course the President has demonstrated time and again he is unwilling – and perhaps incapable entirely – of showing that much restraint. Thus it comes as no surprise that the first official briefings from the Trump White House continued the trend set during the campaign; more lies, more “alt-truths,” and – equally tellingly – continued scorn and derision for the dissenters. And dissent we shall.
We shall defy your hateful rhetoric and crony politics. We shall defy your blatantly self-serving cabinet. We shall defy the very notion that you are, as the 45th US President, amongst equals when so much as mentioned in the same sentence as the other 44. But best of all, we shall defy you in the end by virtue of time, for we the people will be here still, long after you have gone, resigned to the wrong side of the stained pages of a dark history. We will still be here, working to make the world a better place in spite of you.
For my small part, I start today. I am quitting my job and I shall be devoting my time to making sure that your bigoted, misogynistic, narcissistic bluster is not the only voice. I will be here reminding people that there are no “white lies” in politics and that “alt-truths” are heinous lies by another name but none the more true because of it. I will be here consigning you to the annals of posterity with the mother of all footnotes which shall state, unequivocally: read here of Donald J. Trump, liar, enemy of truth, propagator of falsehoods, deceiver of the people, and King of a misbegotten throne.