From the outset of Donald Trump’s presidency, Americans have told pollsters they consider him dishonest.
That makes his re-election campaign entirely on-brand. In ways large and small, in targeted advertising and public remarks, Trump has made deceit the hallmark of his bid for a second term.
All presidential candidates depict opponents in the worst possible light. Trump uses outright fabrications against Democratic rival Joe Biden.
All candidates buff their own records. Trump falsely describes the conditions he inherited and presides over today.
All candidates frame campaign arguments to their advantage. On the core 2020 campaign issues – coronavirus, the economy, and racial justice protests – he offers fables.
This may sound unsurprising for someone who launched his political career with lies about the circumstances of President Barack Obama’s birth and who, by CNN’s count, has made more than 8,500 false claims as President. Amid a public health crisis that has killed more than 186,000 Americans, ravaged the economy and upended daily life, Trump has few good options.
Yet Trump’s dishonesty is both comprehensive and routine. And it represents a heavy burden for him to carry in the campaign’s final two months.
Some falsehoods have grown as familiar as kitchen wallpaper. Trump says his border wall with Mexico “will soon be complete” (just five miles of all-new border barriers have been built), that his tariffs bring billions into the US Treasury from China (American purchasers of Chinese imports pay them) and that he “essentially” kept his promise to kill Obamacare (seven states have expanded Medicaid under Obamacare provisions during his presidency).
Some campaign deceptions involve digital manipulation. A Trump Facebook post purporting to show “chaos and violence” used an old image from pro-democracy protests in Ukraine; a Republican convention video purporting to depict disorder in “Biden’s America” used 2019 images from Spain.
After last month’s Republican National Convention, three Black tenants of public housing units said they were misled about participating in a conversation later shown on television. Similarly, participants in a naturalization ceremony said they hadn’t known their moment of attaining American citizenship would become convention programming.
This past summer, Trump tweeted a campaign ad using an 2018 statement on a different subject from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to create the false impression she encourages violent protests now. White House social media director Dan Scavino fabricated a video purporting to show Biden sleeping by altering old TV footage involving the singer Harry Belafonte.
Before the 2020 Democratic primaries, Trump feared the politically-moderate Biden enough that he pressured Ukraine’s government to smear the former vice president. The House impeached him for it.
Now he invents wild claims that Biden would “confiscate your guns,” “demolish the suburbs,” and enact a “socialist agenda.” He made up the suggestion that Biden took performance-enhancing drugs for debates.
He absurdly called Biden, a devout Catholic, “against God.” His campaign cropped a picture of Biden bowed in prayer to make him appear “defeated.”
The pandemic looms over every other issue. Trump paints a picture of success through bold early action and reliance on scientific expertise. America’s world-leading infection and death counts belie those claims.
He compounds that deceit by falsely ascribing increases in cases to improved testing, falsely claiming success for unproven therapeutic treatment, and falsely minimizing health damage from coronavirus. He mocked Biden last week for wearing a mask, which public health officials call the best way to limit community spread.
Trump claims that, before coronavirus hit, he built the strongest economy in American history after taking office under deteriorating conditions. In fact, he inherited a record-breaking streak of job growth from Obama; on growth as well as unemployment, the Trump economy has been nowhere near the strongest-ever.
Nor is the economy now racing up what he calls a “Super-V” recovery. Job growth slowed as the virus resurged this summer. For 24 straight weeks, the number of Americans filing new unemployment claims has exceeded the highest single week ever previously recorded.
Law and order
Trump runs as the “law-and-order” president. But the cloud of criminality surrounding him, and his behavior as president, render that an empty slogan.
His former 2016 campaign chair and personal lawyer have been convicted of felony charges, and his first national security adviser pleaded guilty to federal crimes – though the Department of Justice is now pushing to drop the case. His former White House strategist was recently indicted, though he’s pleaded not guilty. The Mueller report, which found Trump’s 2016 campaign welcomed Russian assistance, documented presidential behavior meeting the legal standard for obstruction of justice.
Trump defends armed vigilantes entering cities to confront protestors, including the 17-year-old charged with homicide in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He falsely claimed to have gotten National Guard troops sent to Kenosha that were actually sent by governors. He heightens tensions by conflating peaceful protests with incidents of violence and exaggerates the extent of the violence, falsely describing the entire city of Portland as aflame.
Trailing Biden nationally and in key battleground states, Trump casts doubt on the legitimacy of the election by falsely associating mail-in balloting with rampant fraud. That amplifies what his own Department of Homeland Security calls Russian propaganda.
Attorney General William Barr joined him in that effort on CNN this past week by making assertions about fraud that the Justice Department later acknowledged were inaccurate. The president even suggested his North Carolina supporters attempt to vote in person after mailing in absentee ballots, which would be a crime.
American voters have noticed.
In a July Quinnipiac University survey, 66% called Trump dishonest; 64% told Washington Post/ABC pollsters they didn’t trust the president on coronavirus. Last week, a 55% majority told ABC/Ipsos said Trump’s comments made disorder in American cities worse, not better.
The recent Democratic and Republican conventions gave Americans a back-to-back opportunity to evaluate the unfiltered message of each presidential candidate. A CNN poll before either one showed that, by 51%-40%, voters preferred Biden over Trump for being “honest and trustworthy.”
After the conventions, the numbers changed. Trump’s deficit on honesty had grown to 53%-36%.