Why Donald Trump's brazen lies overwhelm the press
There have been many dishonest presidential candidates in our history; indeed, it would be almost impossible, no matter how virtuous, to spend a year or two giving speeches, addressing audiences large and small, trying to persuade voters — in short, talking all day while your words are being recorded — without getting a few things wrong. Some correct themselves after it happens, some just don't use that particular line again, and others forge on ahead, repeating falsehoods even after they've been called out.
But there are liars, and then there's Donald Trump. He may have an inflated opinion of himself, but when it comes to lying, the man has truly reached a level no one else can approach.
If you've watched Trump at all, you've probably had this experience: First he says something outlandish ("If we negotiated the price of drugs, we'd save $300 billion a year"), and you think "That can't possibly be true." Then he moves on to something even more bizarre ("We have the highest taxes anywhere in the world"), and you say, "Now I know that's not true." But he keeps going, offering one ridiculous and false claim after another, until you're left shaking your head in wonder.
Trump's lies come in many different forms. Some are those that are clearly wrong, and which it's almost certain he knows are wrong, as when he says The Art of the Deal is "the number one selling business book of all time" (not even close). Some are things he seems to have heard somewhere that are false; of course, repeating such a story doesn't become an intentional lie until you know it's false but insist it's true. That's the case with things like Trump's bogus story about thousands of Muslims celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers on rooftops in Jersey City, or with his repeated story that the 9/11 hijackers sent their wives and girlfriends back to Saudi Arabia from the U.S. two days before the attacks (only two of the 19 hijackers were married, one had a girlfriend, and none of those three were in the United States). Others might be put down to being just wild exaggerations, as when he claims that all the polls show him beating Hillary Clinton in a general election (nope).
But the sheer volume of Trump's lies may, paradoxically, protect him from the kind of condemnation he ought to be be getting. His unique style was on majestic display at the press conference he gave Tuesday night after another round of primaries, in which he set out to defend himself against Mitt Romney's charge that many of his branding ventures — like Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, and Trump Magazine — have gone out of business.
It was complete with visual displays as phony as Trump's claims. Romney "talked about the water company" said Trump, showing his fantastic, luxurious water. But Romney said nothing about a water company, and it appears that Trump's water is made by this company in Connecticut, and then they slap a "Trump" label on it and sell it at his resorts.
"We have Trump Steaks," he said, pointing to a platter full of steaks that had been brought out for the occasion. But Trump Steaks have been off the market for a decade; the steaks at the press conference were still in wrappers indicating they came from a meat company called Bush Brothers.
"We have Trump Magazine," Trump said, holding up not the actual Trump Magazine, which stopped publishing in 2009, but something called The Jewel of Palm Beach, which he apparently has printed up and passed out to promote his Mar-a-Lago resort. "He mentioned Trump Vodka," Trump said, going on to explain how he owns a working winery (actually true!), but not saying anything about the vodka, which indeed went bust in 2011 (Jonathan Ellis explains all this, with pictures).
What should reporters do when they're confronted with this kind of blizzard of baloney? There aren't any easy answers. Though some publications employ fact checkers who pick out certain claims they think are meaningful enough to investigate at length, if you're covering a Trump rally or press conference and you decide to explain all the things he said that were false, that would make up the entirety of your story and there would be no time or space to address anything else.
And if a reporter for a major news organization described this matter accurately — that Trump is an unusually enthusiastic liar whose falsehoods come in such quantity that they're difficult to keep up with — she'd be accused of abandoning her objectivity.
The real genius of Trump's mendacity lies in its brazenness. One of the assumptions behind the fact-checking enterprise is that politicians are susceptible to being shamed: If they lie, you can expose the lie and then they'll be less likely to repeat it. After all, nobody wants to be tarred as a liar. But what happens when you're confronted with a politician who is utterly without shame? You can reveal where he's lied, explain all the facts, and try as hard as you can to inoculate the public against his falsehoods. But by the time you've done that, he has already told 10 more lies.
"A little hyperbole never hurts," Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal. "People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular." He seems to believe that what matters isn't the truth, but whether you lie with enough bravado. And so far, he's largely getting away with it.