The Trumpian Truth Trap

What happens now that everyone agrees nothing the president says should be believed?

Donald Trump points from behind the podium in the briefing room.
President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing of the coronavirus task force at the White House on Wednesday. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The president lied again this week.

Astonishingly, that didn’t even register as a big deal by this point. He lies incessantly. But it is still a big deal. He lied about shutting down all immigration on Monday night (actually, he’s banning certain types of entry for those who don’t already have a valid travel document). On Wednesday, he lied about telling the Navy to shoot down Iranian gunboats (the Navy says it’s received no such directive). This follows a string of lies from last week claiming absolute authority over state governors and also the power to shut down Congress. The pattern is so familiar it’s tiresome: He lies, some of us point out the lies, then everyone starts arguing over whether the media should cover his lying or if the lies are a distraction, and suddenly we’re all suckers.

But it matters that the president keeps lying. When Americans head to the polls in November to decide whether President Donald Trump deserves a second term, they will be voting for or against radically different President Trumps. In part because he lies so fluently and easily, some people will vote based on what Trump says he’s done, and others will vote based on what he’s actually done—and the gap between the two is perilously wide.

Democracy depends on accountability, and accountability depends on knowing whom we are holding to account and for what. And we can do so only by knowing what our elected officials have actually done. But Donald Trump has—it appears, and quite deliberately—inverted all that. He says he’s doing one thing, then he does another. He says there is a new policy, and then it doesn’t materialize. He tweets out his feelings, then his underlings get to work creating a new policy or rule that may or may not have any legal force. It may or may not ever go into effect. But some voters will go to the polls believing, reasonably, that he did something because he said he did.

This week’s lie—well, one of this week’s many lies (alongside others, he is claiming not to have held campaign rallies he, in fact, held)—is the type of lie that particularly distorts the public’s understanding of Trump. On Monday evening, Trump tweeted that he would “be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!” Many reacted with horror. One of us quickly pointed out that, just as candidate Trump had pledged a Muslim ban after a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, perpetrated by a U.S. citizen and his wife, Trump was now provocatively but uselessly promising an immigration ban that would do nothing to stop a pandemic already running rampant inside our country.

So in one sense, it was a relief when reports swiftly emerged that Trump’s Monday tweet had been a lie—not misleading, not inaccurate, but, simply, a lie. On Tuesday, we learned that he wasn’t going to “suspend immigration into the United States.” Instead, reports said permanent green cards will be on hold for 60 days, with no impact on temporary work visas. By Wednesday, we saw the text of Trump’s proclamation itself and thus its many exceptions, such as for health care professionals, investors, spouses and children of U.S. citizens, U.S. service members and their spouses and children, those who hold certain categories of visas, and even unspecified foreigners “whose entry would be in the national interest.” Good, you might think—Trump’s actual policy isn’t as foolish and self-defeating as his description of it.

It’s still absolutely terrible for American democracy. Because the Trumpian dance of deceit once again had its desired effect. He doesn’t even have to go through the trouble of implementing a policy as sweeping and legally dubious as the one he promised. Many people will believe he is in fact banning all immigrants anyway. By Wednesday evening, when he issued his narrower (if still exceedingly harmful) presidential proclamation, nobody could agree on what had happened or why. Tweet, retrench, lie, create policy.

This matters not merely because, as Steve Bannon long ago pledged, by “flooding the zone with bullshit,” nobody believes anything. For years, many Republican lawmakers have insisted that they don’t read Trump’s tweets, or argue that he’s only “trolling” people. During impeachment proceedings, they finally admitted that they just don’t care much what Trump said. But now, some Democrats have similarly begun to insist that everything Trump says is just a distraction to be dismissed. More and more, whenever Trump tweets or speaks, supporters and critics alike insist that it’s a ploy to divert attention, up to and including Nancy Pelosi. Across the ideological spectrum, then, we are all increasingly in agreement that the president should never be believed about anything anymore. And while that may be a relief—at least we are largely in agreement that he is making it all up—it means that his actions take on even greater force.

And when great swaths of the country have made peace with the fact that in all likelihood the president is lying anytime he says anything, it raises questions, come November, about how one is to judge Trump at the ballot box.

Many Americans—understandably—believe that Trump does what he says he does. If he says he’s suspending immigration, they believe he’s suspending immigration—even though he’s not. If he says he’s cutting off travel from China, they believe he’s cutting off travel from China—even though he’s not. If he says he’s “right now building a tremendous wall” between the United States and Mexico, they believe he’s right now building a tremendous wall between the United States and Mexico—although he’s not. (Nearly three-quarters of Republicans say they trust Trump’s information on the coronavirus, according to one poll from last month—despite the stream of swiftly disproven falsehoods he’s issued on the subject.)

All of this creates a democratic distortion when Americans vote this November. And it’s a problem that transcends Trump himself. Democratic accountability is the animating notion behind the whole idea of a unitary executive, which dictates that the American president must have fundamental control over the whole of the executive branch. The president must be in charge, the theory goes, because he’s the one Americans get to vote on. Yet Trump’s Cabinet members create the same gap between talk and action that he does. Again, just look at the assertions made this very week: Attorney General William Barr claimed to be considering litigation against states that are maintaining restrictions to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus. As the two of us have discussed, it’s hard to see what authority the federal government could credibly invoke to override states in this area. And it’s entirely possible that we’ll never see Barr claim such an authority—this was likely yet more idle talk to mollify his boss in the Oval Office. When Americans can’t trust what a president says and also cannot believe what his Cabinet members say, Americans just don’t know how to hold them—but especially him—fully accountable.

All of that creates a powerful temptation: just ignore the loose talk. If Trump doesn’t mean what he says, then maybe taking his words seriously is a distraction we can’t afford. After all, it’s painfully clear that this week’s return to the familiar leitmotif of a travel ban is intended precisely to distract Americans—or at least Trump’s base—from his abysmal handling of the pandemic that continues to take American lives.

But therein lies the trap. Because, ultimately, ignoring what the president of the United States claims to have the authority to do, and overlooking the yawning space between what he says and what he indeed appears to be doing, isn’t healthy for a democracy. When a president—any president—says that he has the power to do something extraordinary—like bar all immigration to the United States—it would be crazy just to pretend he never said it. He needs to hear from us—all of us, from members of Congress to voters to legal scholars—if he’s claiming a power he doesn’t have. To let it go is, in a sense, to give permission. The threat becomes a loaded gun: Even if not fired right here and now, it can still be fired in the future. Delusional or not, presidential statements matter. Allowing them to stand unchallenged moves the goal posts for presidential norms and even for a collective sense of the law itself. Such silence also persuades those apt to believe him that his fantasy football powers are already real. Like it or not, “ignoring” his proclamations and policies doesn’t vaporize them; it merely reinforces them.

And there’s one other aspect to the Trumpian truth trap: The very instant Trump says something untrue, we all turn on one another—attacking one another for taking it all literally, or seriously, or for failing to take it seriously enough. And that, of course, is Trump’s long game: destabilizing the truth itself.

We have discussed before whether Trump intends to upend America’s democracy in November. But Americans must realize: Trump is already upending democracy. He’s sidestepping the accountability on which America’s constitutional system is based. He is goading us into fighting among ourselves about what is a real crisis and what is manufactured. And he is evading accountability for any of it, as a growing number of Americans opt to tune him out because they know he never tells the truth anyhow. All of this is a silent crisis for democracy. It demands a painstaking accounting for what he says, what he does, and the swirling miasma of what lies in between the two.