How Donald Trump uses dishonesty

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You don’t need to know a lot about Donald Trump to have a broad understanding of what motivates him, and how he approaches power. You only really need to know that he is someone who spent decades running a private company focused on selling real estate in New York City. He was someone who had dictatorial control over a business for a long time — a business operating in an industry renowned, particularly in that place, for its dishonesty and misrepresentations.

Trump spent years trying to get people to buy gold-plated condominiums, apartments gilded with veneers of luxury and class. He spent years trying to get lots of people to buy lots of things, really, with allegations of fraud lingering around him and his company for much of that time. But he was never more successful in parlaying dishonesty into investment than since he embraced a career in national politics in 2015.

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His approach that year was groundbreaking for a deceptively simple reason. Republican voters, frustrated by Barack Obama’s election and reelection, had increasingly embraced misinformation about national political issues. The Republican establishment, including elected officials, didn’t know how to deal with this. At first, they tried to co-opt the energy, reframing their desired policy preferences in the vernacular common with the tea party or fringe-right media outlets. But there was still a gap between what those outlets and right-wing commentators were endorsing and what established politicians would say.

Trump closed the gap. He said the things about immigrants that were common on the fringe-right, despite being exaggerated or false. He said the things about the left that those commentators, uncoupled from the party, were claiming on Fox News and in blogs. There was a backlash, including from the GOP establishment, that helped increase the audience for his claims. Republicans — especially the hard-right Republicans who were more likely to vote in primaries — heard him and viewed him not as a dishonest, opportunistic demagogue but as a solitary truth-telling pariah. That everyone in a position to know pointed out that Trump was wrong or lying reinforced his political branding: He was the guy challenging the elite hegemony. “Birds aren’t real,” but for an older generation.

This has been Trump’s sales approach ever since. You can see it in the rhetoric he deployed over the weekend at campaign events in Iowa, reiterating false, debunked claims about election fraud and attempting to reframe President Biden as a threat to democracy. But those are the endpoints of his approach, not the mechanism itself.

Consider this bit of rhetoric Trump offered in support of the idea that it is Biden, not him, who undermines America’s systems and history.

“You know that they’ve labeled parents at school board meetings as domestic terrorists. I mean, can you believe it?” he said in Cedar Rapids. “But they have. You know, when I first heard that — they have actually gone after parents viciously and violently, and when I first heard it, I thought people were just making it up. They haven’t made it up. You’ve seen that.”

Trump attempts to spin anti-democracy, authoritarian criticism against Biden

They did make it up. This idea that the Biden administration had called parents “domestic terrorists” has been debunked repeatedly. But — because it’s so compelling a reason to despise Biden and because the debunkings don’t permeate right-wing media — the idea has become embedded in anti-Biden lore. He’s right about one thing, though: His supporters have seen that claim, on Fox News and in right-wing commentary for years. It’s false, but they’ve seen it, and here’s Trump glomming onto the idea so that he can put it to higher use: disparaging Biden and his administration as the threat to democracy.

That’s how it works, over and over. He gets buy-in on a familiar claim and then pivots it to his advantage, either by depicting himself in opposition to shared enemies or by leveraging the credibility he earns to make other false statements. Right after this riff, for example, he started talking about how his opponents purportedly cheat in elections.

(Some of the false statements Trump makes are unquestionably lies. Some are misinformation; some are exaggerations. Most are presumably intentional, but some may be mistakes or downstream from Trump’s consumption of misinformation. Since these lines are blurry, it’s more useful to speak broadly of falsehoods and false statements than to simply use the narrower term “lies.” If the former is interpreted as offering moral leniency, that’s on the interpreter.)

At another point in the speech, Trump presented his case for Biden as the person undermining democracy.

“No president ever sent the FBI to raid the home of his opponent for crimes that he himself actually committed. He committed crimes,” Trump claimed. “This campaign is a righteous crusade to liberate our republic from Biden and the criminals and the Biden administration. They’re criminals. They’re criminals that think they can do whatever they want, break any law, tell any lie, ruin any life, trash any norm, and get away with anything they want. They want to control your speech, and they want to control your social media. They want to control what car you drive.”

All of this ties together in Trump’s telling: Biden wants to “control what car you drive” and “control your speech” because he is a criminal who wants to “trash any norm” that exists in service of retaining power.

But note how the argument for Biden’s purported autocracy is based on false claims or misrepresentations. Biden didn’t send the FBI anywhere, despite Trump’s insistence that Biden was targeting his opponent (in the way that Trump has suggested he would do). His home, Mar-a-Lago, was searched not because he had documents marked as classified in his possession but because he failed to return those documents and allegedly sought to hide that fact. This is not what Biden did.

This claim is coupled with these arguments about “control,” less specifically about Trump, but very popular on the right. Government efforts to encourage social media companies to limit misinformation (including, under Trump, about the coronavirus pandemic and foreign interference) have become (with the prodding of people like Elon Musk) a broad assertion about impositions on the First Amendment. The Biden administration, focused on combating climate change, has proposed regulations and boosted investments aimed at encouraging the adoption of electric vehicles. This becomes “controlling what car you drive” and fits into a Fox-News-popular theme about all the horrible things the left is trying to make Americans do. Incandescent lightbulbs are, in some circles, as potent a partisan indicator as a MAGA cap.

What Trump is also trying to do with his Biden-as-autocrat line is to muddy the waters, of course. That’s another point of his falsehoods: throw out so much garbage that the truth is obscured. Early on, those familiar with autocratic behavior noted that such leaders didn’t need people to believe everything they said. They just needed people to believe one thing — or even be open to the possibility that one thing was true — so they would be receptive to those leaders or question their opponents.

Polling shows that Republicans are already skeptical about democracy, not because Trump seemingly wants to be more overtly autocratic should he win reelection but because they believe his false claims about the security of the 2020 election. Trump advances his falsehood about Biden’s embrace of democracy with his falsehoods about Biden’s election.

One thing that has changed since 2015, when Trump first deployed this approach to politics, is that nearly the entire right-wing media and political ecosystem is now oriented around boosting similar falsehoods. There’s no fringe anymore, really. Elected officials and media outlets that were generally aligned with the establishment effort to co-opt the fringe eight years ago now hope to appeal to a huge, Trump-primed audience. This makes it easier for Trump in precisely the way the “domestic terrorists” claim worked: His audience hears the falsehood, not the reality.

It’s as though the New York real estate board had come to think that it was more broadly profitable to claim that every new apartment in New York City requires gold-plated appliances and fixtures. Or, really, that they were afraid to say that apartments didn’t need those things.

There is nothing new about Trump’s dishonesty, of course. But given the extent to which it is taken for granted, and given his current position in the 2024 Republican field, it’s useful to remember not just that his falsehoods are common but how he uses them to build power.

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