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Tomgram: Arnold Isaacs, Moments of Truth

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Don't say that Donald Trump isn't consistent! No one was ever more so when it came to avoiding the truth! On lies and falsehoods of every sort, he's the greatest! Outstanding! Fantastic! Tremendous! Amazing! Give him credit! He's never wavered! Not for a moment! Not since he launched his presidential run on the coarsest of falsehoods -- that President Obama wasn't born in the United States (something, by the way, that he's typically never completely backed down on)! We're talking record territory here! I mean, after a while, the "fake news media" couldn't even keep up and largely stopped counting! Still, those who tried were overwhelmed! The Washington Post, for instance, now believes that, in the first 601 days of his presidency, Donald Trump made more than 5,000 false or misleading statements or 8.3 a day (125 in about 120 minutes recently)! Has anyone ever done better? Not a chance! Talk about a big-league falsifier! The American people made no mistake when they put their trust in such a trailblazer!

He makes Hurricane Florence look like a piker! He overflows his banks every day of the year, when it comes to bizarre falsehoods -- from 9/11 to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico! You name it and if he hasn't said it yet, he undoubtedly will! In the meantime, consider TomDispatch regular and former Baltimore Sun reporter Arnold Isaacs's thoughts today as notes for a future obituary on that increasingly outmoded term, truth. R.I.P. Tom

Learning the Power of Lies
Facts vs. Falsehoods in the Age of Trump
By Arnold R. Isaacs

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It's easy -- and not wrong -- to think that truth is in dire danger in the era of Donald Trump.

His own record of issuing breathtaking falsehoods from the exalted platform of the White House is unprecedented in American history. So is his consistent refusal to back down when a statement is proven false. In Trump's world, those who expose his lies are the liars and facts that show he was wrong are "fake news."

In this war on truth, Trump has several important allies. One is the shameful silence of Republican politicians who don't challenge his misstatements for fear of giving offense to his true-believing base. Another is a media environment far more cluttered and chaotic than in past decades, making it easier for people to find stories that fit their preconceived ideas and screen out those they prefer not to believe.

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These trends come in the context of a more general loosening of the informal rules that once put some limits on the tone and content of political speech. American politicians have always done plenty of exaggerating, lying by omission, selecting misleading facts, and using slanted language. Typically, though, if not always, they tried to avoid outright, provable lies, which it was commonly assumed would be politically damaging if exposed.

Nowadays, the cost of being caught lying seems less obvious. Some politicians show no apparent embarrassment about lying. Take, for instance, Corey Stewart, the Republican candidate trying to unseat Virginia's Democratic senator, Tim Kaine. Stewart unapologetically told the Washington Post about a doctored photograph his campaign distributed, "Of course it was Photoshopped."

In the altered photo, an image of a much younger Kaine is spliced in to make it appear that he is sitting with a group of armed Central American guerrillas. The caption under the picture says, "Tim Kaine worked in Honduras to promote his radical socialist ideology," suggesting the photo proves that he consorted with violent leftist revolutionaries while working at a Jesuit mission in Honduras at the start of the 1980s.

In reality, the guerrillas in the original photograph (which dates from well after Kaine's time in Central America) were not leftists and not in Honduras, but right-wing Contra insurgents in Nicaragua. So the visual was a double fake, putting Kaine in a scene he wasn't in and then falsely describing the scene. When I read the story, I wondered whether Stewart would think it legitimate if an opponent Photoshopped him into a picture of American Nazis brandishing swastika flags. (If anyone asked him that question, I have not found a record of it.)

It may still be uncommon for a politician to acknowledge a deception as forthrightly as Stewart did, but it does seem that politicians today feel -- and probably are -- freer to lie than they used to be.

So, yes, truth is facing a serious crisis in the present moment. But two things are worth remembering. First, that crisis did not begin with Donald Trump. It has a long history. Second, and possibly more sobering, truth may be more fragile and lies more powerful than most of us, journalists included, would like to believe. That means the wounds Trump and his allies have inflicted -- on top of earlier ones -- may prove harder to heal than we think.

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An Early Lesson

I began learning about the fragility of truth many years ago.

George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, taught me an early lesson. In the spring of 1964, less than a year after his notorious "stand in the schoolhouse door" attempt to block two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama, he came to Maryland as a candidate in the Democratic presidential primary (not to be confused with his more widely remembered presidential runs in 1968 and 1972).

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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