Trump tries to bully the truth into submission

Updated

There was a point a few months ago at which Donald Trump began arguing that China was paying the United States billions of dollars as a result of the administration’s trade tariffs. This wasn’t true: the tariffs are a tax on American importers, and the penalty is ultimately imposed on American consumers. Everyone involved in the policy debate noted that the president was mistaken.

Left with no choice, Trump changed his talking points, unwilling to embarrass himself by basing a national trade policy on a basic detail he struggled to understand.

No, I’m just kidding. What Trump actually did was cling to his bogus claim with all his might, repeating it on a nearly daily basis, and rejecting those who had the audacity to highlight the truth.

After a while, there was a general understanding that this was something the president simply would not stop saying and believing. Nothing would dissuade him. Evidence would not matter. It was, according to some around him, a belief toward which he had a nearly theological commitment. Fact-checkers eventually got tired of pointing out the falsehood, over and over again, which only seemed to encourage Trump to keep saying it.

From the Republican’s perspective, he’d bullied the truth into submission through a combination of persistence and indifference toward reality. As the Washington Post reported overnight, Trump has spent this week doing the same thing.

He posted nine tweets and five maps about Alabama and the big storm. He defended a doctored hurricane map that had been altered with a black Sharpie to include the state.

And he had his White House release a 225-word statement defending his erroneous warnings that Alabama was “going to get a piece” of the storm.

As Hurricane Dorian battered the Carolinas with torrential rain and wind Thursday, President Trump remained fixated on sunny Alabama – a state he falsely claimed was in the storm’s crosshairs long after it was in the clear.

The president’s original false claim wasn’t all that interesting, and it likely would’ve been a one-day story, mixed in with related coverage of a hurricane threat.

But unable to get out of his own way, Trump could neither admit error nor allow others to get away with pointing out his mistake. It was time for President Bully to get to work.

On Wednesday, that led Trump to show the public a misleading and outdated hurricane map that he reportedly manipulated himself with a marker. When he told reporters this week that he didn’t know how the image had been manipulated, that apparently was a lie, too.

Yesterday, Trump tweeted, lobbied a Fox News correspondent, and “personally directed” Rear Adm. Peter Brown to defend him. Or as an Associated Press report put it, Trump’s “fervent, dayslong pushback has displayed not only his prolonged focus on a personal spat but his willingness, notably again late on Thursday, to deploy government staff and resources to justify an inaccurate claim.” (Greg Sargent had a good piece yesterday tallying the instances in which “government officials have wheeled into action in an effort to make Trump’s lies, errors and obsessions into truths.”)

For the president, the fact that early projections showed Alabama might feel the effects of Hurricane Dorian necessarily means he was right. That’s incorrect. On Twitter, Trump said Alabama was among the states that were likely to “be hit (much) harder than anticipated” at a point at which the evidence said the opposite.

This left Trump with a choice of ignoring the falsehood, acknowledging it, or bullying everyone involved until they relent. He’s spent the week banging on Door #3.

This is, to be sure, an extreme example of the phenomenon, but we’ve seen this pattern before:

1. Trump tells a lie.
2. He repeats the lie and denounces those who tell the truth.
3. He keeps repeating the lie until those who know the truth either get tired or start questioning their own sanity.
4. He claims victory and moves on to the next lie.

If recent history is any guide, at some point over the next week or so, Trump’s posture will begin a new phase in which he says “everyone knows” he was proven right, at which point he’ll reference imagined conversations with people who called to applaud and congratulate him.