Donald Trump continues to make history.
We know of no other president in American history who has started out his tenure by unfurling two preposterous bookend lies, the way Trump did during his first days in office.
He lied fantastically about the size of his inauguration crowd. And then, taking a sledgehammer to the premise of free and fair elections, he lied fantastically about millions of Americans having voted illegally on Election Day, supposedly costing him the popular vote victory.
Pressed for details, White House press secretary Sean Spicer could point to no real evidence to back up Trump’s whimsically dangerous insistence about ballot box fraud. Spicer also sputtered trying to justify the unjustifiable claim about historic viewership for the Republican’s swearing-in.
Both of those bold prevarications ignited media firestorms, and for good reason, as increasingly baffled journalists try to decode Trump’s daily crusade to gaslight them about simple facts and events. More and more, journalists are straining to make sense of Trump’s erratic ways; trying to figure out what his political motivation is for spreading such easily debunked falsehoods.
Trump is “addicted to controversy,” and suffers “acute sensitivity to criticism,” reasoned The Washington Post. He just can’t “shake his erratic campaign habits,” Politico suggested, while The New York times pointed to Trump’s “anxiety” as a reason he needs to tell tall White House tales.
Two key points: Trump has shown himself to be a relentless liar since he launched his political career in 2015. Anyone who thought he would discontinue that habit as president just hasn’t been paying attention.
Second, if journalists want to understand Trump’s unbalanced Oval Office behavior they need to focus on his character and his extremely troubling flaws. (They’re not merely “campaign habits,” as Politico called them.) Those character flaws will ultimately define his presidency because they’ve always fueled his erratic actions and weird fixations.
Yes, Trump’s a dishonest conspiracy theorist. But he’s also much more than that. He’s a remorseless liar and a grievously insecure man who seems to feed off spite and revenge.
And by the way, that description mirrors the one Tony Schwartz has given about the Republican billionaire. And Schwartz knows Trump well, having served as Trump’s ghostwriter on his 1987 breakthrough memoir, The Art of the Deal. (Trump is a “sociopath,” and “lying is second nature to him,” says Schwartz.)
It’s true that some in the press have begun to do a better job at clearly labeling Trump’s lies for what they are. What’s been largely missing, though, is the why: Why does the president of United States act in such an erratic and dangerous way? What’s been missing post-election are regular and detailed examinations of Trump’s character as an explanation for his unprecedented actions.
Understanding and recognizing the character blemishes at the center of Trump’s personality isn’t superfluous, armchair analysis. It’s the key to gaining a crucial window into who the president is, as well as into the country’s precarious future.
Instead, journalists keep searching for rational “explanations” to Trump’s presidential behavior, trying to make sense of his pattern of telling obvious lies. (Remember when we were told not to take Trump’s outlandish claims “literally“?) But pathological liars like Trump don’t discriminate between lying about big things and lying about small things or between obvious lies and subtle ones. (See here and here for 600-plus documented falsehoods he’s told.)
Also, the press simply isn’t used to this level of naked dishonesty coming from the Oval Office. (Trump’s inauguration crowd totaled 1.5 million??) And journalists haven’t yet properly adjusted. They’re still accustomed to dissecting political lies in the context of, “What’s the motivation behind the lie?” And, “What’s the political advantage of telling that lie?” But that linear approach doesn’t always apply to Trump. There’s no indication he plots out the falsehoods or even cares if he gets caught. Lying is who he is. He cannot not tell lies.
In other words, it’s not a political strategy, it’s a character defect. Especially for someone like Trump who appears to have no deep ideological moorings.
This isn’t the typical territory most political journalists tread when covering Beltway politics. But it now needs to be. Journalists need to familiarize themselves with what it means to have someone in the White House who is “obsessed with his popularity”; what it means to have a serial liar occupying the Oval Office. They need to understand how people like that think, how they function, and why they lash out.
More analysis like this would be helpful, from MTV’s Jamil Smith (emphasis added):
But the defects of his personality have become almost instantaneously institutionalized within the White House. Whatever his mental and emotional hangups are, they’re now our problem, too. His fragility makes us all weaker, and his petulant outbursts can now shift world events. Sadly, it’s clear from the first few days of the Trump administration that the trustworthiness of his office is not the president’s foremost priority. His feelings are.
We need more reporting in the vein of the Associated Press’ recent examination of the extraordinary insecurity that seems to be driving the early days of the Trump presidency. And the Times’ Maggie Haberman’s recent reporting that shed light on the intersection between Trump’s impulsive personality and his early, erratic actions in the White House.
It may seem unusual for journalists to dissect the president’s character flaws in search of clues regarding his political agenda. But it’s just another instance where the media need to rip up the old Beltway rule book and find a new way forward.
IMAGE: Gage Skidmore/Flickr