Lies, Disinformation and Autocracy in the Age of Trump

The early weeks of the Trump administration have shown a leadership style based on confrontation, intimidation and authoritarian decision-making. Donald Trump as president has made no attempt to temper his impulsive, self-centered and bombastic character traits. He has made no attempt to promote national unity, choosing instead to promote Islamophobia, coddle white supremacists and ignore growing anti-Semitism. An imprecise, poorly implemented and likely unconstitutional executive order barring citizens from seven Muslim majority countries suggest Trump has no basic understanding of the constitutional provision of checks and balances or separation of powers. As reported in The Washington Post, Trump’s Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller divulged the real aims of the Trump administration during an interview on “Face the Nation”: “Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” The autocratic implications of Miller’s comment are chilling: Anyone who questions Trump’s policies is the enemy and any method will be used to implement his political agenda; mass deportations of immigrants without due process, closing borders to refugees and Muslims, lying about terrorist threats. Trump, in the spirit of Machiavelli, will do anything necessary to protect the US from what he perceives as existential threats. As Trump stressed in his inaugural address, to implement his politics requires “total allegiance to the United States of America.”

It is evident that lying has become a strategic tactic in the Trump administration. According to political scientist John Mearsheimer, “Lying is when a person makes a statement that he knows or suspects to be false in the hope that others will think it is true.” Lies of commission and omission have become strategies to obfuscate the chaos, dysfunction and true intentions of Trump’s administration. Deceitful comments like “millions of people voted illegally” in the 2016 election, causing Trump to lose the popular vote, and the claim that “thousands” of people were driven “on buses” from Massachusetts to vote “illegally,” leading to his defeat in New Hampshire are a political sideshow. They conceal his unwillingness to address significant policy issues facing the country like health care reform, comprehensive immigration reform and infrastructure improvement.

Twitter is Trump’s tool to communicate disinformation directly to his base promoting a mass form of groupthink. Sending tweets allows Trump to evade traditional forms of checks and balances. Thus he avoids the scrutiny, deliberation and contrary viewpoints that emerge from consultation with experts in the bureaucracy, a critical policy approach used by past presidents. Most notably, Twitter is used to inflict real-time, public intimidation of political rivals. For example, on February 5, Trump attacked US District Court Judge James Robart, who had ruled against his executive order barring visa applications from the seven Muslim countries with his tweet, “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!” On February 17, Trump accelerated his war on the media, tweeting, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Circumventing the news cycle and bypassing the watchdog capacity of media sources, Trump’s Twitter feeds catch the media off-guard, forcing them to react rather than provide nuanced analysis of his comments. According to Adrienne Lafrance “… the pace of the news and the scale at which hoaxes can be made and distributed is certainly a complicating factor. Traditional media gatekeepers haven’t just lost their monopoly on publishing and distribution technologies — they’ve lost institutional prestige and public trust.” Capitalizing on this decline in trust are internet trolls; virtual storm troopers from the so-called alt-right movement who support Trump and enhance the autocratic process by spreading “alternative facts” through online comments sections and op-eds that discredit journalists who attempt to provide content that is evidence based.

Trump’s unpredictable personality and impulsive, unmonitored use of Twitter generate geopolitical complications in foreign policy and national security. Using Twitter as a means of correspondence with heads of state creates enormous potential for miscommunication and misinterpretation. The recipient of the tweet is left to ponder, “What is the official policy position of the United States; is it Trump’s tweet or established State Department directives?” Trump’s tweets have created diplomatic problems with China. He may have compromised national security when he publicly used a cell phone at a dinner party to discuss sensitive security issues involving North Korea. Instead of addressing a growing scandal with Russia affecting his administration, Trump attacks the intelligence community, tweeting on February 15, “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia.”

Lying is no stranger to the presidency. Historically, presidents lie to protect national security or establish strategic deception during wartime. Trump has broadened the scope and purpose of lying to include non-existent threats, pumping his ego and attacking his political enemies. Journalist Carl Cannon, has argued the citizenry must make the judgment “whether [presidents] are lying for the good of the country — or for their own good.” Given that Trump and his key advisers have chosen to make lies a critical adjunct of public policy, it is clear that self-aggrandizement is their primary motivation. As Eric Alterman has noted, “The pragmatic problem with official lies is their amoeba-like penchant for self-replication. The more a leader lies to his people, the more he must lie to his people.” Amir Ahmadi Arian, writing in OpenDemocracy, argues confronting the lies of Donald Trump require “searching for the banality of evil, not its glamor.” All of Trump’s obfuscations must be viewed in a strategic political context; as the press is distracted covering superfluous issues and lies, critical questions about Trump’s incompetence and authoritarian leadership is getting lost in the obfuscation.

US democracy possesses constitutional structures capable of withstanding expanding executive power. In the Trump era, it is clear these safeguards will be increasingly challenged. The courts, federal bureaucracy, the media and the citizenry all have a role to play in resisting Trump’s autocratic power grab. The power of judicial review has been the first line of defense against the anti-democratic policies apparent in Trump’s executive orders. The federal courts must not succumb to compromising their independence in the face of Trump’s agenda to expand the power of the presidency. Likewise, the bureaucracy must continue to push back against Trump’s leadership model. Bureaucratic inertia can be a weapon to hamstring Trump’s agenda and hinder his decision-making capabilities. Moreover, leaks are a critical means of checking his extremist policies. The mainstream media must become more confrontational, not allowing Trump’s obfuscation to become newsworthy. Trump’s ignorance of policy issues and grasp of details, especially in foreign affairs, must be exposed and subject to increased media scrutiny. Likewise, his propensity to identify all opposition ideas as “fake news” must be continuously identified as fraudulent. Questions from the media must be focused on Trump’s incapacity to address issues based on evidence. Finally, grassroots organizing, street protests and civil disobedience must continue. For example, the Indivisible Movement has been effective in pressuring elected officials to dump Trump’s agenda and linking the Republican Party with complicity in Trump’s anti-democracy platform.

Trump’s intent to “drain the swamp,” ridding Washington of entrenched political elites who he believes are corrupt and ripping off the American working class is the biggest lie of his administration. In a cabinet composed of wealthy plutocrats, Trump’s real intent is to enrich himself and his political cronies while ridding Washington of constitutional checks and balances. Trump cannot be allowed to succeed in his deceptions; once the swamp has been drained, the only thing left will be the dark, dank stench of autocracy.