“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” — John 18: 37-38
This has become the biggest question in the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency, “What is truth?”
Since becoming president, Trump — both directly and through his top aides — has made a number of demonstrably false statements. Rather than backing away from these statements when confronted with the truth, he and his team have doubled and tripled down on claims that defy reason, logic, evidence, and just common sense.
The first major example of this behavior came the day after his inauguration, when he and his press secretary both made wildly inaccurate and provably false assertions about the size of the crowd that attended and watched his inauguration, particularly in relation to the number of people who attended Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. It quickly became a highly sensitive thing for the new president, a source of personal insecurity and embarrassment that significantly more people attended President Obama’s inauguration.
It was no doubt disconcerting, not only to him but to many of his allies, that the nonviolent protests that occurred the day after he took office featured several million demonstrators (at least 3 million in the United States alone) in hundreds of cities and small towns all over the United States and world. Even using fairly conservative estimates, major media outlets have reported that the women’s marches marked the largest protest in the history of the United States. Such a massive protest in opposition to a new president is something that has never happened before in American history.
On “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd challenged Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s falsehoods in a conversation with Kellyanne Conway, one among Trump’s innermost circle of advisors, during which she said Spicer had presented “alternative facts,” a phrase that quickly went viral due to its Orwellian overtones. Alternative facts lead to alternative truths; and alternatives to the truth are more accurately called lies.
Trump also continues to propagate the false claim that 3 to 5 million undocumented immigrants (“illegals” he calls them) voted illegally for his opponent — another very sensitive subject for Trump, considering he lost the popular vote by almost 3 million. There is absolutely no evidence for Trump’s claims of voter fraud, and even the studies Trump and Spicer cite do not support the claims. However, in what could be a dangerous precedent, Trump may now be putting the force of government behind his hurt feelings, vowing an “investigation” into alleged voter fraud.
So what do these major, easily disproven lies mean in the first week of Trump’s presidency?
Trump’s own narcissistic personality makes him incapable of acknowledging his own unpopularity. More deeply, these lies and Trump’s determination to stick to them show that he is obsessed with the image of his own legitimacy as president, despite having won an electoral victory by the rules in an election that experts and authorities across the political spectrum agree was not tainted by major fraud.
Trump is not the first political leader who has trouble with the truth, nor is he the first with an overwhelming and sensitive ego. It’s something that almost all public figures have to deal with, and even the wisest among them do. But clearly, Donald Trump is a leader on the extreme end of the narcissism scale and, reportedly, spends a great deal of his time watching television to see how he is being covered.
I believe there is more here than Trump’s self-absorbed personality. He’s already shown himself to be an autocratic leader. Historically, the most autocratic and unpopular political leaders around the world often feel compelled to prop up their legitimacy with falsehoods, and actually try to change the political narrative by lying about it. I don’t think we should comfort or delude ourselves into treating Trump’s consistent lying simply as comedic or sad because his ego is so fragile. Donald Trump knows that a certain percentage of Americans, many of his loyal followers, will believe anything he says and will dismiss those, especially in “the media” who dispute Trump’s claims.
With respect to all the good people in the field of marketing, Donald Trump is the ultimate marketer — with his brand as his moral measure of life. Perhaps the lying isn’t just personality, but is also purposeful. Trump may not be an intellectual or someone who reads books or understands policy issues well. But he is smart and a savvy marketer and ran his campaign that way. Sometimes marketers lie in order to deceive, for the sake of their own agenda and brand. Perhaps this lying is ultimately intended to change the political conversation such that the narrative is no longer accountable to the facts. If you are successful in delegitimizing fact checkers and truth-tellers, pretty soon nobody knows what the truth is — and the strongest and most powerful voices, especially the one controlling the highest bully pulpit, get to define the truth as they see it.
How much could the “alternative facts” of Donald Trump change the expert-backed narrative that voter fraud is virtually nonexistent? How could his lying about voter fraud change “the facts” enough to justify his stated goal of “strengthening up voting procedures”? Could Trump and his allies use lies and deception to advance a false narrative that voter fraud is a major problem, which then could provide the justification and political cover to institute voter suppression on a massive scale in order to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters who are less likely to support Trump and his conservative Republican allies? Those allies have already been trying to use the myth of voter fraud to disenfranchise African-American voters with “surgical precision” as a federal court described Republican voter laws in North Carolina. Lying has a purpose.
Our national conversation about the brazen and shameless use of blatant falsehoods for personal and political reasons should go far beyond politics. This assault on truth should concern us spiritually as Christians. As Michael Gerson noted this week, conservative Christians in particular are in grave spiritual danger during this presidency. Gerson’s reasons — the need to reject racial nativism, the fact that religious freedom needs to be applied equally to Christians and Muslims, and the dangers of faith aligning itself with the power of the state — are all important.
White Americans in particular, including white Christians, are especially subject to untruths told about immigrants, refugees, Muslims, African Americans, and other minorities. Timothy’s second epistle warns against “having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” Those myths and lies can lead to justifications for practices and policies against “the others,” which is a principal fear now about a Trump administration — especially among people of color.
The disregard for what is true, and the cynical spreading of blatant falsehoods, presents great spiritual dangers, and not just political ones, to those who might acquiesce to or embrace these tactics. Christians are called many times in the Scriptures to be truth-tellers and to reject falsehoods, from scriptural commandments against bearing false witness to Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:
“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ … So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”
According to Stanley Hauerwas, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught us that politics “can never be divorced from truth.” Indeed, Hauerwas maintains that Bonhoeffer believed that “cynicism is the vice that fuels the habits to sustain a politics that disdains the truth.” The cynical use of blatant falsehoods, as well as using facts in incredibly misleading ways, were both hallmarks of the Trump campaign — and based on his first week in office, they seem likely to continue during his presidency.
This cannot be a political or partisan issue for people of faith. Truth-telling is a matter of faith for us and a fundamental principle of how we hold politics accountable. We cannot let our knowledge of both objective scientific facts and deeper spiritual truths become causalities of this administration. The free press has a critical role to play in protecting the truth — but so do people of faith and conscience.
As I finish the piece, Donald Trump has just said that torture “absolutely” works and that he would approve it in his administration if his team agrees. That torture works is a lie and a moral aggression that would directly lead to the use of torture again by the United States. As many diverse Christian leaders have said, torture is anti-Christian. Will the Christians who supported Donald Trump stand up against torture under his regime? “Speaking the truth to power” is a necessary and invaluable Christian practice and tradition that may become central again in our witness to the presidency of Donald Trump.
Perhaps Jesus puts it best in the Gospel of John: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, is available now.