Hours after he was sworn in as President of the United States, Donald Trump took to the stage at one of three inaugural balls, dancing with his wife Melania to the Frank Sinatra classic My Way. It was a move which was said to anger Sinatra’s daughter Nancy, yet the song was a perfect choice for a President who reached the White House against all odds and on his own terms, breaking every rule of campaigning in the process. In business, show-business and politics, Trump has always done things his way, stubbornly refusing to conform to the standards, values or expectations of others, but as President he must realise that certain standards must be adhered to, not least the expectation that the commander-in-chief will be honest and tell the truth.
Sadly, this message doesn’t seem to have reached a White House which clearly believes that facts are disposable inconveniences that can be ignored or dismissed when they don’t suit the President’s agenda. Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer used his first White House press briefing to accuse the media of misrepresenting the size of the crowds at the previous day’s inauguration, before falsely claiming that Trump drew ‘the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.’ This, along with several other statements made by Spicer, is simply untrue; Friday’s crowds were considerably smaller than the numbers that gathered to witness Barack Obama being sworn in, both in 2009 and 2013.
Spicer’s casual disregard for the truth in the pursuit of a rather petty vendetta against the press demonstrates that, in the Trump White House, the default position is to lie, lie and lie again. Even worse was the reaction of senior advisor and former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway when asked about Spicer’s comments on Meet the Press the following day. Instead of admitting that Spicer was factually inaccurate, Conway doubled down by claiming that he had provided ‘alternative facts,’ as well as accusing moderator Chuck Todd of being ‘overly dramatic’ for calling out the administration’s unrepentant lies. For the President and acolytes such as Spicer and Conway, any attempts to hold the administration to account are just further proof of a deep-seated liberal bias within the media.
This antipathy towards the press was on full display at a speech delivered by President Trump at the CIA headquarters, in which he described journalists as being ‘among the most dishonest human beings on earth’ and claimed that his recent feud with the intelligence services was a media fabrication. Never mind the fact that, less than four weeks ago, Trump publicly attacked the intelligence agencies over allegations of Russian interference in the election, even comparing their actions to those of Nazi Germany; in Trump’s America, lies and falsehoods are commonplace but they all stem from the enemies of the administration, real or imagined.
Of course, in the real world facts are important and cannot be casually tossed aside as if they were as subjective as opinions. That is why Chuck Todd was right to call out Kellyanne Conway, stating that ‘alternative facts are not facts; they’re falsehoods’ – it is just depressing that something so obvious has to be clarified. However one can expect half-truths, falsehoods and outright lies to be a hallmark of this administration; after all, the events of the past two months simply reflect Trump’s behaviour on the campaign trail. According to the award-winning fact-checking website PolitiFact, 70% of Trump’s public utterances during the election were either false, mostly false or outright lies, with only 16% of his statements being rated as true or mostly true. It is therefore little wonder that, in a TV appearance last month, Trump spokesperson Scottie Nell Hughes claimed that ‘there is no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.’
In an age where facts no longer exist, politicians are free to say whatever they like, creating their own reality in order to suit their political aims. This is the most worrying aspect of Trump’s presidency, even more so than the casual bigotry, inflammatory rhetoric and unpresidential personal conduct, and the media has a duty to hold the administration to account when it seeks to dismiss the existence of objective truth. Previous administrations of both parties have spun information to support their policies, and at times Presidents and politicians have indeed lied to the public that elected them. However, such incidents have always been isolated attempts to persuade voters and legitimise certain courses of action; for Trump and his advisers, lying is a central part of their DNA.
The comedian and political commentator Bill Maher admitted during the election campaign that liberals had ‘cried wolf’ about Republicans in the past, exaggerating the dangers posed by figures such as George W Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney when in fact ‘they were honourable men who we disagreed with.’ The result was that, with the real wolf at the door, voters chose not to listen to the warnings anymore and instead pulled the lever for Donald Trump. Conservatives have also been guilty of this tactic, demonising Hillary Clinton for her dishonesty and corruption but turning a blind eye to Trump’s failings, despite the fact that he is undoubtedly more dishonest and more corrupt than his former opponent (indeed, 51% of Secretary Clinton’s campaign statements were classified as true or mostly true by PolitiFact). The current administration is not simply practising the usual tactics of spin and subterfuge – it is casually indulging in outright lies at every turn, and over the most trivial matters.
In a post-truth world where ‘fake news’ is common and even mainstream outlets frequently resort to using misleading headlines and clickbait articles to drive up their advertising revenues, truth and facts are more important than ever before. Likewise, with a shameless liar sitting in the Oval Office, it is crucial that the Chuck Todds of the world continue to fearlessly stand up against attempts to trivialise objectivity. The comedian Stephen Colbert may have been joking when he said that ‘facts have a liberal bias,’ but this is a mantra which Trump and his team appear to have taken literally; indeed, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani complained during the election campaign that the moderator of the first Trump v. Clinton presidential debate corrected some of Trump’s false claims. Nobody, not even Donald Trump, has a right to invent ‘alternative facts,’ and by continuing to do so he finds himself resembling a paranoid dictator rather than the Leader of the Free World.