Trump’s Adversary — Truth

by Lyle Harris Sr.

The president has no clothes.

David Brooks, the respected conservative columnist for The New York Times, wrote that Trump has the “dangerousness of an immature man” under the headline, “When the World is Led by a Child.” Then a Washington Post opinion writer responded, “The president is not a child. He’s something worse.”

Alexandra Petri wrote that “columnists lately have been calling President Trump a child, or a bull in a china shop. This is, I think, unfair to children, and to bulls. Bulls have done a good job running Wall Street. Sometimes children are not cruel on purpose. Children can sit still and are often unable to stick their feet into their mouths, and sometimes will let you get more ice cream than they get. He is something more terrifying than a child. Children can learn.”

In the same week in mid-May, Ross Douthat, another well-regarded conservative, questioned whether Trump has “fitness” for office. He said the presidency is “the final stopping point for decisions that can lead very swiftly to life or death for people the world over.” The president needs “some basic attributes: a reasonable level of intellectual curiosity, a certain seriousness of purpose, a basic level of managerial competence, a decent attention span, a functional moral compass, a measure of restraint and self-control. … Trump is seemingly deficient in them all” and lacks the “very normal human gifts” needed.

What made these writers, and dozens of others, reach these conclusions? Easy. Among many things, Trump apparently disclosed highly classified information to senior Russian officials at a White House meeting. The Post, which broke the story, called his actions “childishly boastful” and said the information “could allow Moscow to identify the source of the intelligence, which came through a foreign government with which U.S. spy agencies have a special relationship.” Governments that work with the CIA might decide not to share information with us because the disclosure endangers agents on the ground.

Subverting the Truth
John Cassidy, writing in the New Yorker Magazine, does not blame Trump alone for his blatantly irresponsible acts. He has helpers.

Under the headline, “Donald Trump’s Craven Republican Enablers,” Cassidy writes that Trump’s history is to “say and do things that most people would shy away from because they are constrained by social norms, or ethics.” He cites examples from Trump’s history in which he gets an idea and just orders it done — no thought about its negative impact. “That is who the Republicans are enabling. Until they stop doing it, they will be complicit in the erosion of American democracy,” he wrote.

Outside the White House, other groups are trying to subvert truth.

A conservative think tank in Paul Smiths, N.Y., has sent its book, “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming,” to public school teachers across the United States, and says it will send out 200,000 copies to reach every science teacher in the country. Curt Stager, professor of natural sciences at Paul Smith’s College, wrote that the Heartland Institute presents “the false premise that evidence for human-driven climate change is deeply flawed.”

The book is unscientific propaganda from authors with connections to the disinformation-machinery of the Heartland Institute, he said. And David L. Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, called mass mailing the book an “unprecedented attack” on science education.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns KOMO TV in Seattle, has a policy of “must runs” for its short video segments that support Sinclair’s ultra-conservative politics. Stations around the country are told to run often its “Terrorism Alert Desk” segments about terrorism around the world. Last fall one of its segments said the Democratic Party was pro-slavery, and the company’s vice president for news said the national news media published “fake news.” Some irritated KOMO staff members see the segments as “politically tilted.”

And Timothy Egan, a New York Times columnist from Seattle, worries, but says “the truth will out. The journalism of the past few days — those labeled Enemies of the People by Trump now doing the people’s work, as envisioned by the founders — has been extraordinary.”

Data, Not Truth
We now live in a time when anyone can find a source to claim “facts” that depend on “data,” that widespread phenomena brought about by the Internet in which anyone can claim anything and pass it on: Truth is no longer the bedrock of information.

William Davies of the University of London addresses a key question: How did we get to the point where facts no longer matter? “Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation. But they seem to be losing their ability to support consensus,” he wrote.

PoliticFacts, the Pulitzer Prize winning fact checker, says about 70 percent of Donald Trump’s “factual” statements turn out to be “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire” untruths.

“The problem is the oversupply of facts in the 21st century: There are too many sources, too many methods, with varying levels of credibility, depending on who funded a given study, and how the eye-catching number was selected,” Davies wrote.

Adam Alter of the New York University Stern School of Business researches psychology and marketing and writes that many of us are addicted to digital devices — literally addicted. Anyone.

In an interview with Claudia Dreifus about Alter’s new book, “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology” and the “Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” Alter said,

“We have this phenomenon of behavioral addictions where, one tech industry leader told me, people are spending nearly three hours a day tethered to their cellphones. Where teenage boys sometimes spend weeks alone in their rooms playing video games. Where Snapchat will boast that its youthful users open their app more than 18 times a day.”

Codes for Nuclear Weapons
Nicholas Kristof, writing in The New York Times, said what many people worry about right now: Trump holds the codes to nuclear weapons. “Another danger is the risk of an erratic, embattled, paranoid leader at home who feels that he may be going down the tubes anyway. In domestic policy, presidents are constrained by Congress and the courts about what damage they can cause, but in foreign policy a president has a largely free hand — and the ability to launch nuclear strikes that would pretty much destroy the world.”

He wrote that as Richard Nixon’s presidency was collapsing in 1974, aides worried that he was becoming unstable. Nixon’s defense secretary, James Schlesinger, directed the military not to carry out any White House order to use nuclear weapons unless confirmed by him or by Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.
Do we have that protection in the White House today? Sleep well as you ponder this.

Correction: In the May issue of Whatcom Watch the commentary “Denying Climate Change and Attacking Science” misstated that Doug Ericksen was appointed by Scott Pruitt. Ericksen was appointed earlier by Donald Trump.

Lyle Harris, a former reporter in Washington, D.C., is Journalism Professor Emeritus, Western Washington University.