WASHINGTON (AP) — The cherry tree folklore is too good to be true, but it’s no lie that George Washington had a thing for the truth. “I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is the best policy,” he wrote in his farewell address.
A few decades later, another future president’s reputation for veracity earned him a well known nickname: Honest Abe Lincoln.
Then there’s Donald Trump, who during his presidency faced questions about business dealings in Moscow. “I have nothing to do with Russia,” he said in 2016. He switched stories when the facts of his decades-long effort to build a luxury tower there emerged. “Everybody” had always known about the project, according to Trump, who suggested only a sucker would drop such a proposal just because they wanted to serve their country as president.
“Why should I lose lots of opportunities?” Trump said.
America has had prevaricators in the Oval Office before, but never one who has been at war with the truth as regularly, on so many different subjects. As a candidate and as president, Trump demonstrated a keen ability to use broadcast and social media to amplify his distortions, and found remarkable success in convincing large chunks of the American public.
As Trump seeks a second term while fighting federal charges, the nation faces the prospects of another campaign riddled with falsehoods and misinformation, and the not-impossible outcome that such a well-documented purveyor like Trump could be returned to the White House by an electorate that either believes his falsehoods, or doesn’t care.
“This is a test moment. We haven’t been in a situation like this,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Jamieson said that before Trump, the assumption was that certain lies — lies that undermine faith in democracy or the courts, for instance — would be disqualifying for a person seeking public office. “If saying the election was rigged doesn’t fall into that category, then what does?”
As a candidate, Trump made misinformation a major campaign tactic, routinely using falsehoods to demean his rivals, as he did when he bizarrely asserted that Ted Cruz’s father may have played a role in the Kennedy assasination. Cruz is now an unapologetic Trump supporter.
As a president, Trump misled Americans about economic indicators, about a hurricane, about climate change and about his past actions and meetings with foreign leaders. While leading the nation through the pandemic he underplayed the severity of coronavirus while endorsing fake cures.
In today’s fragmented information ecosystem, efforts by journalists to fact-check the president didn’t always reach those who accepted his words as truth. That may be changing, according to one Republican strategist who said he thinks his party is waking up to Trump’s alternative fact universe.
“To me, he’s sort of a tragic 77-year-old individual who is totally out of touch with reality, sort of creates his own reality,” said Craig Fuller, who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Fuller said he believes the relatively large field of Republicans vying with Trump for the GOP endorsement is a sign that many voters want a more honest alternative, even as a large field also improves Trump’s chances of winning.
“I think it’s almost too dangerous to contemplate,” Fuller said when asked to imagine a second Trump term.
A message seeking comment from Trump’s campaign was not immediately returned on Friday.
During his presidency, Trump lied so often — in person, on TV, on Twitter — that tallies of his falsehoods quickly crested 100, then 1,000, then 10,000 and then 30,000. An entire wikipedia page was created dedicated to keeping track.
Elections and voting have long been the most frequent target of Trump’s mistruths. He won the 2016 race but claimed that it was rigged anyway because he lost the popular vote. He declared the 2020 race rigged even before Election Day, and said before the vote that the only way he could lose the election was due to cheating. Proof was never offered, and after the election, Trump’s claims were rejected by dozens of courts, including ones overseen by Trump-appointed judges.
It was Trump’s lies about democracy, and about the integrity of elections and the courts, that worry experts on voting, politics and history the most.
“It’s not the first step, it’s the 100th step on the road to despotism,” Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, said of Trump’s attacks on judicial independence and law enforcement. “What’s shocking to me is how open Trump is about it.”
Conflicts between presidents, Congress and the courts are a fundamental part of American government, Engel said, and plenty of presidents have shaded the truth about failings personal and public. But none have openly defied another branch in the way that Trump has.
For months before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Trump implored supporters with a steady stream of false claims about rigged elections, voting by mail and stuffed ballot boxes. He then did little to disperse the violent crowd that soon descended on the Capitol. The congressional investigation into the attack concluded that Trump engaged in a conspiracy to overturn the election.
To activists working to strengthen American democracy, the deadly riot showed what happens when lies are allowed to take the place of truth.
“On Jan. 6 we re-learned how fragile our democracy is,” said Nathan Empsall, an Episcopal priest who leads Faithful America, a nonprofit religious organization that has criticized efforts to rewrite the history of Jan. 6. “If we don’t remember that, if we forget what happened, we may not be able to hold the line next time.”
While Trump didn’t create the factors that led to our current era of polarization and misinformation, he did exploit those factors, said Julian E. Zelizer, a Princeton University historian and political scientist.
“I don’t know if Donald Trump is the chicken or the egg but I know he’s part of the scramble,” Zelizer said. “He entered politics in an age of social media and growing issues of distrust and he catalyzed them. He poured gasoline on the smouldering flames, and the statements he makes apparently don’t need to be tethered to reality because his believers like his version better.”
When Trump was arraigned in April in New York on charges that he falsified business records to obscure hush money payments in an effort to influence the 2016 election, many of his online supporters openly compared the scandal-plagued thrice-married tycoon to Jesus Christ, who Christians believe rose from the dead following his cruxificion.
His vocal online supporters have stayed just as supportive following his federal indictment this month.
Trump may be emblematic of our current era of misinformation, but distrust and political polarization can’t be ascribed to one individual and typically arise from deep societal fissures and economic pressures, according to Nealin Parker, executive director of Common Ground USA, a nonprofit that studies ways to bridge America’s political divide.
“Often people are looking for a silver bullet: if only we didn’t have this one political leader we’d be fine,” Parker said. “But that’s not how it works.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — David Klepper has covered misinformation for The Associated Press since 2019.