Trump’s Strategy is Simple: Accuse the Opposition of Lying

It's Smart and Brazen. How Should the Democrats Respond?

Grant Wood; "Parson Weems' Fable"; 1939; oil on canvas; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; 1970.43

Usually, it is an insult to say that people are lying. In the case of the Trump administration, that’s a very fair description of its strategy. It is evident in example after example: The claim that the inauguration crowd was the biggest ever, that millions of people voted illegally, the existence of “alternative facts” and the “Bowling Green Massacre” nonsense from Kellyanne Conway and so forth. It’s chilling in both definitions of term: It is frightening and it is an effort to quell a process (in this case, dissent).

The lie as a strategy, which generally is coupled with attacks on its enemies, is not new. However, Donald Trump is taking it from the periphery, where such strategies usually exist, and making it the major pillar of his communications strategy. It’s hard to keep up. Here are a couple of new examples. From The New York Times today:

President Trump on Monday asserted that the news media was playing down the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State, telling American military personnel that journalists were reluctant to report on the militant group’s attacks in Europe and “have their reasons” for failing to cover them.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Fox, as reported by Mediate, on whether the travel ban protesters are paid:

“Oh, absolutely. I mean, protesting has become a profession now. [Fox jump cuts ahead] They have every right to do that, don’t get me wrong, but I think that we need to call it what it is. It’s not these organic uprisings that we’ve seen through the last several decades. The Tea Party was a very organic movement. This has become a very paid, ‘astroturf’ type movement.”

The left has a tendency to underestimate its opponents. It was axiomatic that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were dummies, for instance. It was not true in either case. And, to be sure, the people who worked for them were smart. The resistance to Trump must understand that whatever his other failures, he is a savant, of sorts, in understanding the visceral feelings of his constituency.

The resistance should listen if he feels that such blatant dishonesty will work. To many of his followers, as well as the persuadable middle, the difference between an outright lie and something that might be called an aggressive interpretation is small to nonexistent.

The media has enabled this, perhaps with a bit more subtlety. Think back to Mitt Romney’s infamous “Corporations are people, my friend” remark. To the media it was a personification of the greed and avarice of the candidate and his class. The Obama campaign got a lot out of statement.

A fair interpretation of what Romney almost certainly meant is far more benign. His appeared to simply be saying that corporations are comprised of people—owners and employees—and that when the organization thrives they do as well. The media helped Obama by pinning an interpretation on Romney’s statement that was overly literal (and, by the way, made no sense). The left side of the political spectrum accepted because to them it summed up what they assumed was the guy’s basic philosophy and, in any case, it was a great sound bite.

All politicians do that, of course. The point is that the step between politics ain’t beanbag-level stuff and outright lies is not as big as it seems. The other ingredient is social media, which provides a way to bypass even a modest level of scrutiny. Those lies can be distributed widely and without oversight.

The resistance to Trump must understand what is going on. There must be a redoubled effort to expose and rebut the lies. The strategy itself must be exposed and discussed. Media experts must be brought in to develop counter-strategies. Above all, the lie-as-a-strategy must be directly confronted.

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