In his first 869 days as President, Donald Trump said 10,796 things that were either misleading or outright false, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. Do the math and you get this: The President of the United States is saying 12 untrue things a day.
Which is a lot! But it’s also hard to wrap your head around how much lying or, uh, misleading that actually is. So, think about it this way: Trump is lying more every day than a majority of Americans wash their hands. According to data from the American Cleaning Institute, just 50% of Americans wash their hands in excess of 10 times a day. (Not for nothing: Here’s the CDC’s guidelines on proper handwashing!)
Try this thought experiment: Every time you wash your hands for the rest of the day – after using the restroom, before you eat etc. – think of that as the President of the United States saying something that isn’t true. For more than half of you, that won’t even equal the number of times Trump doesn’t tell the truth every day of his presidency (including weekends!).
Trump’s willingness to bend and break the truth isn’t new. Since becoming a candidate for president way back in 2015, Trump has shown a remarkable capacity for creating his own reality, a reality that often doesn’t comport with established facts. The pace at which he misleads has increased as his presidency has gone on. So too has his willingness to directly question the idea of whether capital “T” truth even exists.
“Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news,” Trump told the annual VFW convention in 2018. “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
Earlier this month when asked about Meghan Markle’s 2016 comment that she would move to Canada if Trump won, the President said this: “I didn’t know that she was nasty. I hope she is OK.”
Within 24 hours of making the initial comment, Trump tweeted: “I never called Meghan Markle ‘nasty.’ Made up by the Fake News Media, and they got caught cold! Will @CNN, @nytimes and others apologize? Doubt it!”
So, yeah. This a feature, not a glitch.
It is also the defining trait of Trump’s presidency to date, and, I think, the likeliest legacy he will leave behind – whether he is president through 2020 or 2024. What Trump has done – through both the audaciousness of his lies, their frequency and his assault on the media as a neutral referee – is made it virtually impossible for the average person to credibly delineate between what’s true and what’s merely political spin.
Trump has effectively created a self-fulfilling falsehood machine. It works like this:
1. He says something that is either misleading or totally refuted by known facts
2. The media fact-checks him, noting said known facts as evidence that he isn’t tell the truth
3. Trump seizes on these media fact-checks as evidence that journalists are out to get him
4. His followers, uh, follow suit – asking questions like: “How many times has CNN lied since Trump became President?????”
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
The cumulative effect of this cycle – after nearly four years of it – is a steady erosion of truth or even the broader idea that we as humans have things on which we all can and should agree. What Trump has proven (or maybe re-proven when you look at the sweep of history) is that if someone in a position of power is willing to unblinkingly say things that aren’t true, they can create a parallel universe of falsehoods that a not-insignificant number of people will believe.
The politicians who follow Trump into the presidency may not have the gall to push the lie line as far as he has. But none of them will come into office unaware of what he did to shape his own political reality.