Donald Trump lies. The man lies about crowd sizes. The man lies about voter fraud. The man lies about medical science. The man lies so much that news outlets have taken to compiling year-end lists of his most egregious lies, sort of like when they name the best songs of the year except instead of great music it’s the death rattle of the American republic.
Trump’s latest lie (as of my writing this) is that children are “almost immune from” Covid-19. That’s apparently a bridge too far for Facebook and Twitter, both of which—in a still rare but increasingly frequent move—removed the president’s posts. Twitter even went so far as to limit the Trump campaign’s ability to tweet because the claim violated their policies against spreading Covid-19 disinformation.
“Fake news” is a documented problem corroding our democracy, and it is especially destructive when it is propagated by the most powerful man in the world. Still, the president’s opponents should be cautious about gloating. Trump is a man who thrives off playing the victim, and by labelling his lies as lies, he has the perfect opportunity to cry “bias!”
For critics of this president, such as myself, both journalists’ and social media companies’ reluctance to label Trump’s lies as lies has long been a source of frustration. But the fact is, it does not matter that Trump lies.
Let me be clear: saying it does not matter that Trump lies does not mean it should not matter that he lies. It absolutely should. It also doesn’t mean that when he presents inaccurate information that we should not correct the record. Facebook and Twitter were absolutely right to take down his post about children and the coronavirus because that kind of lie can literally lead people to their deaths.
But to a great many Americans, it simply does not matter. In a 2017 poll of Republicans in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—all swing states—68.7 per cent of respondents said they believe the president exaggerates or lies but don’t care.
Another poll, from a year later, shows that the majority of Americans, regardless of party affiliation, believe the president lies. A lot has happened since 2018, not least of all the pandemic. Trump’s poll numbers are now in the toilet. But for a great number of Americans—and crucially, not just his most ardent supporters—I don’t think the basic fact that the president lies matters any more than it did two years ago, because one fundamental truth has not changed: a lot of people want to believe the lies.
One thing you regularly hear from Trump supporters, whether lukewarm or strident, is that he “says what I’m thinking.” Lies about the number of illegal ballots cast or lies of rampant rioting at Black Lives Matter protests resonate with people in Middle America who desperately want and believe those things to be true. Donald Trump isn’t convincing them these things are happening, he’s simply confirming their already false beliefs.
It’s the same with the coronavirus. People want to believe things are fine, that schools and bars and hair salons can open and that they don’t need to wear a mask or wash their hands. And, like the Georgia principal who threatened children with disciplinary action for calling out the school’s lack of social distancing on social media, they are determined to enforce that false reality. Therefore, when Trump says it, they believe it because it’s what they so desperately want to be and are convinced is true.
When Kellyanne Conway said that Trump used “alternative facts,” those of us on the left scoffed. But the reality is that for millions of Americans, those “alternative facts”–otherwise known as lies—are reality. When journalists or social media companies point out the president is lying, his supporters feel personally attacked.
This means that when Twitter or Facebook labels something Trump said as “untrue,” Trump can point to it and scream “bias!” and people across the country nod in agreement because they are part of Trump’s clique. It is him (and by extension them) against the world.
This election will hinge on who turns up to the polls. Voters who are determined to enforce a false reality where Covid-19 isn’t a problem but that Black Lives Matter is are not likely to stay home, especially if they feel the “lamestream media” is sneering at their delusions.
Trump came to power riding this very wave of discontent by pretending to be outsider treated unfairly who speaks up for “real Americans.” It is entirely possible he can ride it to a second term. That’s a frightening truth no one wants to reckon with.