For those who occasionally have dared me to say something nice about President Donald Trump, here you go: His first — and, I pray, only — term in office has taught me a lot.
The lessons began with Sean Spicer’s blistering insistence as the new president’s press secretary that the inauguration had brought out “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.”
The lie was laughably false, as anyone with vision could see by comparing his crowd with those of former presidents, particularly Barack Obama and Lyndon Johnson.
But I was one of many who could not laugh at the sense of menace in this bizarre announcement. The lesson confirmed repeatedly over the years has been that, to this president, the blatant obviousness of the lies doesn’t matter as much as how many people let him get away with them and actually become his enablers.
All presidents lie from time to time, Trump supporters have assured me, a reality from which I take no comfort. Some like to bring up as an example, “If you like your health plan, you can keep it.” That was Obama’s often-repeated promise about his proposed health care plan, quickly rebranded by Republican critics as “Obamacare.”
Actually, most of us were able to keep our health plans, if they offered enough coverage to meet the Affordable Care Act’s standards. But that’s not easy to squeeze into a catchy bumper sticker.
Still, we can only wish that President Trump’s lies were as easy to count on one hand. Instead they have been so frequent that The Washington Post’s Fact Checker keeps a running tally of “false or misleading claims” — by the end of August it topped 22,247 claims in 1,316 days.
More significant than the number of falsehoods or exaggerations is how easily he has gotten away with them. He dismisses media corrections as “fake news,” which tickles his base, the one group to which he gives top priority.
Previous presidents tended to campaign in the fashion President Richard Nixon reportedly described as “run to the right” in the primary campaigns then “run to the center” in the general election to pick up independent swing voters and moderate Democrats.
Trump, a newcomer to elective office but an old hand at salesmanship, broke that mold. He continued to run to the right during the 2016 campaign, reading and reassuring his base at every turn. That strategy won him 2.9 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton received, but enough votes in the Electoral College to win the White House — and rub it in the faces of anyone who didn’t vote for him.
This, too, was educational. His Electoral College victory led to divide-and-conquer policies and a strategy of political tribalism that would impress any old-school big-city political boss: Empower your base and they will protect you by intimidating any congressional Republicans who might get in your way — like, for example, the Grand Old Party’s elders who informed Nixon that it was time for him to resign.
Instead, today’s GOP leaders in Congress have become Trump’s enablers, protecting him from impeachment and innumerable other attempts to hold him accountable for his playful relationship with reality.
“Truthful hyperbole” is how Trump describes his frequent exaggerations in his bestselling “The Art of the Deal.”
Let the buyer beware. The skimpiness of his governing abilities appears to be catching up to him this year as he tackles such unexpected crises as the COVID-19 pandemic.
His long-held belief in Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking,” fortified with his “truthful hyperbole,” seems to have distanced him from negative realities. He repeatedly declares that we’re “rounding the corner” on the coronavirus, when plainly we are not. His White House science office even boasted this past week that one of his major achievements has been “ending the COVID-19 pandemic.” We wish.
In that fashion, the president’s avoidance of bad news becomes dangerous misinformation. He has divided Americans along tribal lines and, aided by some overly zealous conservative media, nurtured an alternative reality of conspiracy theories about a nonexistent “deep state.”
Ironically, this latticework of lies actually endangers supporters in his own base who are most likely to believe his cavalier dismissals of the need for masks, school closings and other precautions that can truly “round the corner” on the pandemic.
I’ve had some readers, detecting to their apparent delight that I’m a triggered liberal, sarcastically ask me what I’m going to do if I don’t have this president to kick around anymore. Good question. I’m eager to find out.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.