BY FRANCIS WILKINSON
President Donald Trump admitted over the weekend that the true purpose of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his senior campaign team and a group of Russians was to obtain actionable information on Hillary Clinton. The admission is a landmark in Trump’s awkward struggle to contain the Russia scandal. But it may also signal a landmark defeat in Trump’s larger battle against truth.
The essential tool of democratic politics is speech. As Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson wrote in “Deeds Done in Words,” their study of U.S. presidential rhetoric, “Public communication is the medium through which the national fabric is woven.”
Trump’s furious assault on truth claws at that fabric daily. But it has yet to shred it. When he is forced to retreat from falsehoods — such as the series of lies that he and his aides told about the Trump Tower meeting — it’s a victory for truth and for democratic institutions.
While Trump’s unprecedented dishonesty is well-documented — see Susan Glasser’s fine piece last week in the New Yorker — it’s still unclear what it means for American democracy. “I don’t believe our democracy can function for long on lies,” writes former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in a new book.
That’s no doubt true. But how many political lies, of what sort, does it take to break the democratic camel’s back?
“This is the question of the moment, isn’t it?” emailed Jennifer Mercieca, an expert on political discourse at Texas A&M University, responding to my question about how democracy can function when the president is a constant source of lies.
It’s complicated, of course, (because presidents have always bent the truth), but what we’ve seen from Trump is unlike any previous president … . The good news is that the president is just one person in a democratic government. While the president occupies a central place in our political discourse, if our institutions hold, then he should ultimately be held accountable. That’s a big “if” and folks are rightfully concerned.
Mercieca’s qualified optimism has much to support it. After more than 18 months in office, rampant dishonesty is still largely confined to Trump’s executive branch. While key administration personnel including his press secretary, Commerce secretary and secretary of Homeland Security have minimal credibility, the lying game is not a contagion raging across the political landscape. Other institutions are holding up.
The courts, which continue to value evidence over propaganda, have arguably been the most successful defense against Trump’s assault. The news media, which still struggles to convey Trump’s unique unfitness, has embraced fact-checking — a truth test — as a useful, if incomplete, heuristic for Trump’s undemocratic ways. (Although Fox News and some other right-wing outlets seem more devoted than ever to propaganda.) Even Congress, which has a rich history of hypocrisy, evasion and untruths, appears to be no more fertile ground for lies today than in the pre-Trump era.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “Deeds Done in Words,” emailed:
“In a world in which a president questions or dismisses evidence that he finds inconvenient, checks and balances can still forestall or prevent unjustified action in domestic affairs (assuming that those in the Congress and the courts retain their respect for the knowable and known). The courts did that on the travel ban. The Congress did that in passing Russian sanctions with a veto-proof majority.”
All is not well, of course. “American democracy continues to erode,” concludes the latest research report from Bright Line Watch, which surveys expert and public opinion on the state of U.S. democracy.
An executive branch that produces falsehoods at an astonishing rate remains a serious threat. But in an elegant, concise argument on Twitter last week, my colleague Jonathan Bernstein made the case that Trump’s inability to conform to the demands of the presidency is, so far, a larger threat to Trump than to American democracy. For Trump to be more successful as a president, Bernstein maintained, he’d have to be less contemptuous of democratic values and conduct. It’s a confident line of thought. Trump’s desperate reversal on the Trump Tower meeting — the collusion, that is — is evidence that Bernstein’s confidence may be justified.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.