Donald Trump has finally acknowledged from his own lips that President Obama was born in the United States. Less than two months out from Election Day, he — or more likely his campaign staff — has decided it is time to put to rest an issue that might benefit Hillary Clinton.
Of course, nothing Trump says now, including his campaign’s preposterous attempt to explain that he performed a public service by “successfully compelling” Obama to produce his birth certificate, will erase the record of his vicious five-year attempt to delegitimize the nation’s first African-American president. Trump’s turnabout only highlights his ceaseless stream of deliberate lies, unwitting falsehoods and blatant distortions of reality — a toxic brand of discourse that is doing great harm to American culture and politics.
Many of Trump’s falsehoods concern himself and his own achievements. His boast that he owns the “largest winery on the East Coast” is a relatively trivial but typical example. In fact, the Trump winery is not even the largest in Virginia, the state where it is housed. The cumulative effect of these multiple untruths about himself is to deprive voters of an ability to accurately assess his record as a businessman, a taxpayer and much else.
Other Trump falsehoods concern public affairs of great moment. We have his claim, for example, that after 9/11 “thousands and thousands” of Muslims were seen celebrating the attack on rooftops in New Jersey. Or his tale that an infant child of his acquaintance became autistic after receiving a vaccine. Or his assertion that Japan and China have been flooding the U.S. market with cars while “we send them, like, nothing.” The United States last year exported $62 billion worth of goods to Japan and $116.1 billion to China.
Here the damage is of a different sort. Trump might soon be the president-elect, at which point his pronouncements would carry extraordinary weight. Even without wielding the powers of the Oval Office, the fact that so many of them are false has already altered the world in noteworthy ways.
Reporters at major news outlets, confronted with falsehood piled upon falsehood, work overtime to scrutinize, parse and evaluate Trump’s every utterance. The effort is commendable even if the lies all too frequently get through unchallenged. That was the case at NBC’s recent national-security forum, where moderator Matt Lauer left unrebutted Trump’s oft-repeated but false claim that he had opposed the Iraq War from the start.
But the harm runs far deeper than the occasional hole in the journalistic fact-checking net. Before Trump’s change of course Friday, endless hours of television news have been spent wondering whether, how and when Trump might abandon “birtherism.” Not long before that, barrels of Internet bytes were spilled exploring the nuances of Trump’s claim that Obama was the founder of the Islamic State terrorist group. Before that, we endured prolonged discussion of whether Trump had fulfilled his promise to donate millions to veterans’ organizations. And before that were other controversies that, amid the flood of falsehoods, have already been forgotten.
Every one of Trump’s claims, no matter how patently false, is analyzed and dissected with great seriousness. The intent may be noble, but the effect is to amplify his lies. No matter how effectively journalists debunk them, through sheer repetition by Trump and his acolytes and amid the fog of charges and countercharges, many voters are unable to determine who is right and who is wrong.
Even worse, they sometimes seize upon the disagreements to willfully embrace Trump’s falsehoods. At any number of junctures, Trump has suggested as part of his birther quest that Obama is a Muslim. Back in 2010, opinion surveys found that 18% of the population believed the canard. In late 2015, with Trump well embarked on his presidential campaign and dominating the airwaves, the percentage had risen to 29%.
No data show the number of Americans who have been convinced by Trump that international trade injures rather than helps the United States or that vaccines cause autism, or any other of the extreme, bizarre or inaccurate positions he has propounded. But that number is unlikely to be trivial given his standing in the polls as well as the number of “respectable” Republicans and evangelical Christian leaders who are backing him — and thereby implicitly or explicitly associating themselves with his lies.
This is all deeply alarming not only for this election but also for the long-term future of our democracy. Lying to the public is invariably the chosen instrument of tyrants. Societies that have swallowed the lies of charismatic demagogues have brought about some of the most tragic episodes in recorded history. The Holocaust began with the demonization of Jews and, on the path to their annihilation in Europe, forced them to register with authorities.
In an unnerving echo, Trump seemed enthusiastic — and oblivious to the historical parallel — when asked whether he’d compel the registration of the millions of Muslims living in the USA. Characteristically, he then maintained he had never embraced such an idea.
Live not by lies, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously told his enslaved countrymen in the Soviet Union. We live in a free society but Solzhenitsyn’s words should constitute a powerful warning to us about America’s precarious circumstances in the age of Trump.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, was a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter: @gabeschoenfeld.