It doesn't take extensive media fact-checks to know that Donald Trump makes false statements freely and often--from claiming he saw thousands of Arabs celebrating 9/11 during his campaign to making up unemployment numbers in his latest press conference.
But according to Ned Resnikoff, senior editor at ThinkProgress, when Donald Trump tells a lie, it's not so much about deceiving his audience or promoting a calculated narrative as it is about destabilizing reality altogether. He talks to Brooke about the way Trump's lies create an alternate version of reality with no internal logic, thus devaluing the very meaning of truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Trump lies with an abandon hitherto unknown on these shores. Some are smears; some are trial balloons, deflections or diversions. Many seem to have no motive whatsoever. But some watchers of history argue that there is a purpose and that it lies not in the nature of each particular lie but in the sheer volume. The constant stream of BS messes with reality.
Ned Resnikoff, a senior editor at the progressive news site ThinkProgress, draws a clear distinction between, say, how the White House of George W. Bush misled the country and how Trump does now.
NED RESNIKOFF: The way that the Bush administration lied was very disciplined, usually intended to achieve a particular result. That’s not what Trump is doing with his lies. I mean, many of his lies are mutually contradictory. Instead of creating a sort of alternative set of facts, he's trying to make it impossible to establish fact. All politicians lie at some point or another but this sort of pattern of lying, I think, in some ways is directly hostile towards democratic governance.
When you're creating a structure of untruths that isn’t consistent or coherent, there's really nothing for people to latch onto. Nothing actually makes sense and nothing is fixed, so there is really nothing to discuss or negotiate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you’ve drawn a connection to the political style of a Putin advisor named Vladislav Surkov.
NED RESNIKOFF: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell me about Surkov.
NED RESNIKOFF: Vladislav Surkov was brought to my attention by a British documentarian named Adam Curtis who actually came out with a film recently that references Surkov, called, HyperNormalisation, which I recommend. Here's something from an earlier film that Adam Curtis wrote about Vladislav Surkov: “Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering constantly changing piece of theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin. But the key thing was that Surkov then let it known that this what he was doing, which meant no one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it, it is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fiendishly clever but some would say it’s not a political strategy, it's just Trump's personality.
NED RESNIKOFF: Yeah, I don't want to dive too deep into Donald Trump’s psychology but I do think there's a level on which this is a strategy that must have worked well for him in business, whether or not he's familiar with the work of Vladislav Surkov. He also has advisors who do have connections to the strange gray area between American right-wing nationalist movements and allies or members of Putin's inner circle. Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, who, you know, used to be chairman of Breitbart, I would be a little bit surprised if Bannon was not familiar with Surkov’s work or tactics. This is a quote that Bannon gave to the Hollywood Reporter in a, in a profile of him when he was talking about the transition: “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan, that's power.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of people still desperately hold onto this belief that if we could just call out Trump’s lies, if people only fully understood that he was lying, they wouldn't support him. This isn't working. Is that why, because he's created this destabilized reality in which you just assume that everybody is lying and, therefore, you're under no pressure to choose the truth?
NED RESNIKOFF: Yeah. People know that Trump is not telling the literal truth but what they see him doing is letting them in on the joke, winking and nodding at his audience and saying, look, I'm a politician, they’re all politicians, everyone's a crook but I'm your crook. I'm doing this for you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how does this play out? Trump presents himself in the kaleidoscopic ways and you get to just pick the Trump you like?
NED RESNIKOFF: Yes, exactly. And the example of how he’s managed to appeal to both white supremacists and some politically conservative Jews is an important one, convincing members of both constituencies that he's really on their side, he just needs to play to this other side. And the way he does that is by having this malleable identity that changes, depending on the audience. Instead of choosing a consistent image or a consistent message, he embraces the contradiction and oscillates between them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the scariest things you note in your piece is how the relentless downpour of inaccurate or useless information can make people lose trust in their own minds.
NED RESNIKOFF: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] During a, a campaign event, Corey Lewandowski, who was Trump’s campaign manager at the time, physically attacked Michelle Fields who, at the time, was a Breitbart reporter. And Ben Terris witnessed Lewandowski grabbing Fields in an, in an aggressive way and reported it. What happened afterwards was the campaign and many of the campaign supporters just came down on him incredibly hard. You know, Ben Terris is a professional reporter and, and one of the things Trump has been very effective at using against reporters is our sometimes natural inclination to scrutinize our own perception, just to make sure that we’re not getting anything wrong. And so, they used that against him. They just aggressively denied from the very beginning that this had ever happened. They just said, no, no, no. Terris was asked over and over again by his own editors, are you sure that's what you saw and, at, at some point he started to doubt his own perception. And then, then the video came out confirming exactly what Terris had said had happened, and the Trump team just pivoted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They moved on.
NED RESNIKOFF: To something else, yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Okay, so when reality is up for grabs and you can choose your own version to subscribe to, if democracy relies on consensus, what kind of democracy can we have?
NED RESNIKOFF: Well, Surkov has this term called “managed democracy” which is his vision for, for Russia. And he, he believes that all democracies are, are really managed democracies, to a certain extent, and, and what he's done is just sort of exposed the hypocrisy at the heart of modern democracy. But the idea is that rights of democratic participation that people have essentially just boil down to rights of self-expression.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We maintain the right to express a preference for one policy or another but in a managed democracy, in Surkov’s view, we don't have any impact on the formation of that policy.
NED RESNIKOFF: Exactly. One, one way to think of it might be to compare managed democracy to a good old-fashioned 20th century totalitarian state. Freedom of expression is, is ruthlessly, ruthlessly suppressed, whereas in a managed democracy you’re absolutely free to do so, it just won't make any difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do we address that?
NED RESNIKOFF: Well, I think it's easier to fight if people just know what he's doing. The press needs to be more aggressive about not just fact checking Trump’s lies but treating the lying itself as a story and explaining why it’s significant. A lot of people have talked about the post-fact world that we now live in because of Trump. I think it concedes way too much to him and his team. We do not live in a post-fact world. The facts are out there, the reality is out there, it's the responsibility of journalists to depict that reality and to explain the importance of that reality, not just to do stenography between various competing unrealities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Once our perception of reality has been splintered, can it be reassembled? How hard would it be to scramble back after this and create a democracy based on consensus and compromise again?
NED RESNIKOFF: That remains to be seen. The just sort of structural –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh come on, Ned!
NED RESNIKOFF: [LAUGHS] I’m sorry, I mean, that’s the truth. I, I think the sort of structural and technological and political challenges that we’re dealing with now, none of them are completely unprecedented, but they’re combining in a way where I don't think there is a really obvious historical guide about how to emerge from this, which, in many ways is, is very frightening but, at the same time, means that the future is yet unwritten and it's up to the media to help write it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you packed your bags?
NED RESNIKOFF: [LAUGHS] No, not yet.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ned, thank you very much.
NED RESNIKOFF: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ned Resnikoff is a senior editor at ThinkProgress.