How Trump’s lies are like Putin’s, and how the press should deal

Donald Trump, photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

Masha Gessen shows again why she’s invaluable right now.

Lying is the message. It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself. Take, for example, Putin’s statements on Ukraine. In March 2014 he claimed that there were no Russian troops in newly annexed Crimea; a month later he affirmed that Russians troops had been on the ground. Throughout 2014 and 2015, he repeatedly denied that Russian troops were fighting in eastern Ukraine; in 2016 he easily acknowledged that they were there. In each case, Putin insisted on lying in the face of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, and in each case his subsequent shift to truthful statements were not admissions given under duress: they were proud, even boastful affirmatives made at his convenience. Together, they communicated a single message: Putin’s power lies in being able to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is president of his country and king of reality

Trump has exhibited similar behavior, apparently for the same reason: when he claims that he didn’t make statements that he is on record as making, or when he claims that millions of people voting illegally cost him the popular vote, he is not making easily disprovable factual claims: he is claiming control over reality itself. Those puzzled by Trump’s election-fraud tweets, because they seem like sore-loser behavior on the part of the winner, or by his dismissing out of hand the CIA’s findings about Russian interference—against the views of many leading Republicans—are missing the point: Trump was demonstrating his ability to say whatever he wanted about the election, precisely because he had won it

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After the election, the media’s ability to do its job has been undermined even further. The standard model of reporting requires journalists to give the president-elect say in any news story about him. Thus we now have a series of stories in which reported facts are juxtaposed with a quoted Tweet that dismisses or contradicts the facts themselves. Even a factual narrative can no longer be aired without an immediate challenge contained within the news story itself—and without demonstrating that Trump has once again asserted his power to say what he wants, facts be damned, when he wants, convention be damned, and how he wants, logic and the English language be damned.

It is time to raise the stakes from fact to truth. With a president who lies in order to demonstrate power, fact-checking is indeed useless if it’s the entire story. The media have to find a way to tell the bigger story—the story about the lies rather than the story of the lies; and the story about power that the lies obscure. For mainstream media with long institutional histories, this is even harder than it sounds. The objective style in American journalism often means that nothing can be asserted unless someone in a position of authority utters it. Take Ukraine again: American newspapers have been reluctant to call a war a war because the US administration was not calling it a war. Words like “military adventurism” and “insurgency” had to stand in for the truth. But unless we are willing to live in a world that is not only post-fact but also post-truth, journalists will have to stand up to the soon-to-be president by exposing not only his lies but also other people’s truths.

Get the rest at The Putin Paradigm, @NYRB, by Masha Gessen.

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