In early 2009, congressional Republicans were eager to condemn the Democratic Recovery Act, which rescued the U.S. economy from the Great Recession. To that end, some on the right came up with a weird claim: the stimulus package included $1 billion to build a magnetic-levitation train from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
There was no such provision, but Republicans became so invested in the falsehood that they started to believe it. A California-based journalist sat down with then-Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) in March 2009, and she pointed to the non-existent element of the Democratic plan as proof of its flaws. When the journalist reminded the congresswoman of reality, Bono Mack directed her staff to retrieve the bill. "It’s right there," the GOP lawmaker said at the time. "Show him.”
A few minutes later, an aide emerged with a copy of the bill and quietly conceded, “It’s not in the bill.”
The congresswoman wasn't intentionally trying to deceive anyone; she'd simply made the assumption that her party's talking points were accurate and reliable. They were not.
A similar dynamic unfolded on the air yesterday, when Donald Trump sat down with Fox News' Chris Wallace and the president insisted that a new policy "charter," negotiated by Bernie Sanders' team and Joe Biden's team, calls for defunding American police departments.
The host, to his credit, explained that Trump's claim wasn't true, but the president was incredulous.
The platform does not support defunding the police, as Biden and his campaign have stated on multiple occasions. Wallace points this out, saying the plan "says nothing about defunding the police." "Oh really? It says abolish, it says defund. Let’s go! Get me the charter, please," Trump said, turning to speak to staff out-of-frame.
Not surprisingly, this didn't work out well for the White House: neither Trump nor his aides could substantiate the president's transparently and demonstrably false claim. Wallace told viewers that Trump “couldn’t find any indication, because there isn’t any, that Joe Biden has sought to defund [or] abolish the police.”
In the same interview, Wallace noted that when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, the United States has an alarmingly high mortality rate by international standards. Trump said the host had it backwards, insisting, "I think we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world."
Wallace again said, “That’s not true, sir.” But Trump, apparently feeling certain, said to an off-screen staffer, "Can you please get me the mortality rates?"
The host, again, soon after explained reality, which was at odds with the president's rhetoric.
At face value, the fact that Trump is still peddling nonsense may not seem especially interesting. Indeed, these were hardly the only examples of the president's detachment from reality.
But what struck me as amazing about this was the parallel to Mary Bono Mack's position 11 years ago about the non-existent magnetic-levitation train: Republicans sometimes come to believe their own nonsense, blissfully unaware that their bogus claims have already been discredited.
There's been speculation for years about the nature of Trump's dishonesty. When he makes ridiculous claims, for example, about Joe Biden's agenda, is he deliberately trying to deceive the public or does he genuinely believe his falsehoods? Yesterday's Fox News interview tipped the scales toward the latter: the president's eagerness to turn to aides to bolster his nonsense suggests he really didn't know how wrong he was.
Update: I should add in the interest of clarity that this interview offered some good examples of Trump sincerely believing his own false claims, but this is not to suggest he always does. There are plenty of examples of Trump peddling nonsense, being corrected, and then peddling the same bogus claim again -- and those instances are clear evidence of the president deliberately lying.