As the debate continues raging among journalists about how aggressively to call out Donald Trump’s lies, Monday morning brings a new episode that reminds us why it’s so important not to flinch from reckoning with the possibility that conventional journalistic techniques just aren’t going to cut it during the Trump era.
At the Golden Globes ceremony Sunday night, actress Meryl Streep tore into Trump, depicting him as a bully who takes borderline sociopathic pleasure in abusing and belittling others. As Exhibit A, Streep cited Trump’s now-infamous mockery of a disabled reporter, Serge F. Kovaleski, and made the case that this sort of public performance sets a tone by example:
“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence.”
On Monday morning, Trump responded with a series of tweets:
Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a...
Hillary flunky who lost big. For the 100th time, I never “mocked” a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him...
“groveling” when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!
Here Trump is telling two lies about a third lie. A quick review: Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter came after he claimed “thousands and thousands” of Muslims living in America celebrated 9/11. Kovaleski had written an article just after 9/11 that claimed law enforcement “detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks.”
Under fire for his falsehood about celebratory Muslims, Trump cited that article to push back, even though an “alleged” “number” is hardly proof of “thousands.” In response to that, the reporter put out a statement saying he did not witness Trump’s version of events.
But Trump cited that statement as proof that the reporter had dishonestly backtracked on a story that backed Trump’s position (a lie Trump repeated in Monday’s tweets). That’s how Trump’s mockery of the reporter arose: He waved his arms and mock-quoted the reporter saying, “I don’t know what I said!” (See Glenn Kessler’s extensive anatomy of the full story. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2016/08/02/donald-trumps-revisionist-history-of-mocking-a-disabled-reporter/?tida—inl&utm—term.1efe27ddc6f3 )
To recap: Lie No. 1 is that thousands of U.S.-based Muslims celebrated 9/11. Lie No. 2 is that the disabled reporter’s original story backed Trump and that the reporter backtracked on it. Lie No. 3 is that Trump didn’t mock that disabled reporter (in fact, he flapped his hands around frantically after saying, “you gotta see this guy!”).
The claim about celebrating Muslims was one of Trump’s biggest lies — one that was central to his key campaign narrative about the Muslim Enemy Within. And so, Streep wasn’t merely calling out Trump’s bullying and abusiveness. She was also calling out his uniquely uncontrollable lying, and the extent to which Trump will go to attack reporters in service of it. Indeed, in the rest of her remarks, Streep segued immediately to a shout-out to “the principled press” that will be necessary to hold Trump accountable and “safeguard the truth.”
It’s often argued that we should perhaps give less attention to Trump’s tweets. But Monday’s barrage gets at something important. Yes, all politicians lie. But with only days to go until Trump assumes vast power, Monday’s tweetstorm is a reminder that we may be witnessing something new and different in the nature and degree of the dishonesty at issue. Here again we’re seeing Trump’s willingness to keep piling the lies on top of one another long after the original foundational lies have been widely debunked, and to keep on attacking the press for not playing along with his version of reality, as if the very possibility of shared reality can be stamped out by Trumpian edict, or Trumpian Tweedict.
Some journalists are arguing that we need to take care in labeling Trump’s falsehoods as “lies,” because that imputes motive and intent. If some feel more comfortable labeling them “false,” that will probably suffice most of the time, with the crucial caveat that it must be done squarely and prominently. But the broader point here is that, in the debate over how to handle Trump’s profound and unprecedented dishonesty, let’s not underplay the possibility that the usual conventions of political journalism may prove woefully insufficient to conveying to readers and viewers what Trump is really up to here.