It was rather fitting that Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, which pundits praised as a strong and effective rallying cry for his base, occurred the night before he was acquitted in his impeachment trial, for each of these dubious achievements relied upon the same crucial element: disinformation. And both the just-concluded impeachment trial and the ongoing election are tests of whether the American political system can adequately handle and reject Trump’s never-ending and pervasive disinformation.
In the most showbiz-iest speech of his presidency, Trump drew heavily on his experience in reality-TV, a medium that, despite its moniker, is predicated on the falsification of reality. He orchestrated the reunion of a soldier with his family. He doled out a scholarship to a needy kid. And he departed from describing the state of the union to award the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, to a man who has a long history of hurling racist, misogynistic, and hateful rhetoric. Trump combined these story segments with an orgy of self-praise, declaring that he single-handedly rescued the economy, that he revived American manufacturing, that he protected Americans with pre-existing conditions from losing health care, and that he moved millions of low-income people out of poverty and off a dependence on food stamps. None of that was true.
Fact-checkers immediately reported these were false assertions. The moment Trump bleated, “If we had not reversed the failed economic policies of the previous administration, the world would not now be witness to America’s great economic success,” tweets went flying to note the obvious: more jobs were created in the last three years of the Obama administration than during Trump’s three years as president. When Trump proclaimed the US economy was moving at an “unimaginable” pace, other tweets noted that the US economy grew 2.3 percent in 2019, matching the average rate for the past decade and far below the 3-percent Trump had promised. “We will always protect patients with pre-existing conditions.” No, in court cases, the Trump administration has taken steps that would eviscerate or end those protections.
All these lies were not big news, merely the falsehoods Trump has uttered many times before. This was dog-bites-man stuff. Nothing to see. But they serve a purpose beyond pathological self-aggrandizement. They reinforce Trump’s standing with his supporters. Sure, his political foes and whiners in the media can easily point out the falsity of these statements. But with his fellow Republicans loudly applauding them, these lies shoot across the information ecosystem—Jake Tapper and Brian Williams can’t slow them down—and register with millions who want to believe Trump. These folks don’t care how many Pinocchios a Washington Post columnist will throw at Trump, especially when the entire GOP and the conservative media world of Fox News, Limbaugh, and others are constantly enabling the prevaricator-in-chief. In Disinformation We Trust—that’s the secret motto.
The Trump impeachment has been shaped by a cavalcade of disinformation from Trump and his defenders. Trump himself has falsely described the overlapping Russia and Ukraine scandals as hoaxes. That has been his big lie. Trump could never acknowledge that he helped Russia’s attack on democracy (which the Kremlin waged to assist Trump’s presidential bid) or that he mounted a mob-like plot to pressure the Ukrainian president to launch investigations of Joe Biden and a nutty conspiracy theory that claimed Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the 2016 election. The evidence in both of these affairs was clear and overwhelming. But Trump found that flat-out denials resonated within Trumpland. And it was easy to repeat and to augment these absurd assertions of complete innocence with paranoiac and demagogic attacks on an imaginary cabal of Deep Staters, the media, and maniacal Democrats that was hell-bent to destroy him. That was the real scandal, Trump maintained. Trump flipped the story: he wasn’t the perp, he was the victim. And his peeps bought his counterfeit concoction.
Disinformation was a critical ingredient of the Republican counter to impeachment. During the impeachment inquiry hearings in the House, Republicans would not address the simple and basic facts of the Ukraine scandal. They looked at the quasi-transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky—in which Trump asked for these investigations as a “favor” in return for providing arms to Kyiv—and claimed this was not a quid pro quo. That is, they denied reality. After Gordon Sondland, the hotelier who gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration and who was then appointed US ambassador to the European Union—testified there had been a “quid pro quo,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of Trump’s most dependable bullhorns, yelled at me, “No quid pro quo! No quid pro quo!” It was like a child placing his hands over his eyes and shouting, “I can’t see you.” And in this case, Republicans like Jordan were trying to place their hands over the eyes of the entire American public.
Or at least divert the public’s attention from the main narrative. During those hearings, GOPers ranted about the Deep State, the Steele dossier, the whistleblower who helped trigger the Ukraine scandal, and the unfounded notion that the Ukraine government had interfered in the 2016 election to hamper Trump. That last bit is a favorite talking point of, yes, a Russian disinformation operation (as White House national security aide Fiona Hill testified to the House impeachment inquiry). Jordan and the others relied on disinformation to distract from the facts of the case. Their goal was to turn the House’s impeachment proceedings into a confusing swirl of contentions and counter-contentions. They did not have to win the debate. They only needed to make the debate over impeachment look complicated and messy—that same-old partisan brawl in Washington that people could feel free to ignore or dismiss. And it’s easy to do that. It may take two to tango, but one party to the public discourse on its own can muddy waters and transform almost any proceeding into a circus—and then criticize the circus for being a circus in an effort to discredit the proceeding.
Republican disinformation did not triumph in the House, for the Democrats held the majority and voted to approve two articles of impeachment. But those GOP endeavors established the foundation for the legal team that defended Trump before the Senate. Trump’s lawyers claimed—against all evidence—that Trump had withheld $391 million in military assistance for Ukraine because he was concerned about “corruption” in that country. This was like saying Trump was concerned about women’s rights when he bought all those beauty pageants. His legal mouthpieces falsely maintained the Ukrainians were never aware of Trump’s hold on the aid. They said he “did absolutely nothing wrong.” Instead, they spewed the now-predictable hogwash about the Steele memos, the whistleblower, and Hunter Biden and Burisma. And they fought mightily to prevent additional facts from entering the case, opposing motions that would allow the House managers to introduce important documents blocked by the Trump White House and to call witnesses, including former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who had reportedly written a book that recounts Trump telling him he delayed the military aid to pressure the Ukrainians to initiate these investigations.
Trump’s lawyers also pushed disinformation about the Constitution. Alan Dershowitz, the star of the team, argued that a president cannot be impeached for any actions that are not crimes. He insisted that “abuse of power”—the centerpiece of the first of two articles of impeachment approved by the House—was not sufficient cause for impeachment. He maintained that a president could engage in corrupt behavior and remain safe from impeachment, as long as he broke no law. Under this interpretation, Trump could pardon the Russian hackers indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for attacking the 2016 election, essentially encouraging them to do it all over again in 2020, and urge other countries to produce dirt (true or false) about his political rivals, and none of that would be grounds for impeachment. Dershowitz was presenting a false reading of the Constitution that is challenged by the legal mainstream. (There were no federal statues for a president to violate at the time the Constitution was written.) It was a con job.
Trump’s impeachment, as I and others have noted, placed the Senate on trial. Could it deal with a defense founded on disinformation? The outcome was not surprising. The Republicans, by and large, chose partisanship. Many focused on the Bidens and Burisma, not Trump’s actions. They embraced the distractions and slammed the impeachment as sham. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) shamelessly put up a display with the name of the alleged whistleblower, who, under federal law, has the right to remain anonymous. All the Republicans, minus two, voted to keep witnesses and new documents out of the trial. They would not listen to Bolton. They would not obtain for themselves and the public more facts about the case. Those facts, some said, didn’t really matter.
In the end, disinformation won. A small number of Republicans conceded that Trump had acted inappropriately, but they joined the rest of their gang to vote against removing Trump. With the exception of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who surprisingly both condemned Trump’s actions and voted with the Democrats on the first article of impeachment to kick Trump out of the White House. But as a group, the Republicans endorsed the disinformation and diversions, as they protected their man. They would not allow a fulsome trial with witnesses and new documents. They would not give full and careful consideration to all the information available. Sure, Trump received the verdict he desired and expected—not guilty on a 52-48 vote—but the Senate Republicans convicted themselves. They literally would not handle the truth.
With the Senate Republicans failing this test, the question now is how the larger political-media world—which includes the voters—will confront the disinformation Trump and his handmaids deploy for his reelection. His State of the Union address was a reminder that lying is Trump’s brand—and that his party, in cult-like fashion, will cravenly and eagerly boost all his false signals. (According to the Washington Post‘s running count, Trump has made over 16,000 false statements since becoming president.)
Politicians—and everybody else—lie because lying gives them an advantage. And Trump lies more than anyone else. That was well-known before he ran for president. Since then, he and his acolytes have honed their skills at disseminating disinformation that goes beyond petty lying about crowd sizes and other small and perishable matters. They have learned that Trump’s legitimacy and standing depends on the production of alternative and false narratives. He’s always been pretty good at issuing fake and often implausible denials about his frequent mistakes and misdeeds. (As a developer in New York City, he pretended to be his own spokesmen in order to plant stories in the media.) But through his impeachment and with his State of the Union address, Trump has demonstrated a keen ability to concoct reality-defying cover stories and phony distractions that are embraced by the GOP, that are amplified by his amen choir in the conservative media, and that register with his voters. Trump did nothing wrong with Russia and Ukraine; the real culprits are the Deep State traitors and the nefarious Never-Trumpers. Trump is an economic savior; Barack Obama almost destroyed the economy. In fact, Trump is the Messiah. And we have all the disinformation to prove it.
It’s hard to know how the political-media world will process the flood of disinformation that will hit between now and November. (Facebook has said it generally won’t remove false content posted by political campaigns.) Disinformation is a powerful weapon—and it’s tough to figure out how to dilute or thwart it. There’s an old line that has falsely been attributed to Mark Twain: “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” This observation was made long before the age of the Internet and social media. At no time in human history has it been easier to bombard the public with false data and bogus information. And in an era of tribalized politics and fractured media, the penalties for doing so seem diminished. US society—and the whole world—faces a profound challenge in this regard, as scoundrels, autocrats, and others seek to gain or hold power through the effective utilization of disinformation. Trump is a one-man stress test for American democracy. With the impeachment trial, he has shown that before a jury dominated by members of his own party he can escape accountability by drum-beating fictions and by smothering truth with deception. The coming nine months will tell whether Trump’s fabrications and propaganda can defeat reality when it’s the voters who are judging.