ESTERO, Fla. – Last Wednesday afternoon was typical for Donald Trump over these past weeks: The president was en route to a rally where he would let loose a torrent of falsehoods and outright lies about everything from trade to immigration to even the name of the opposing party.
Just don’t bother telling that to the lady who wore the New England Patriots socks at the very front of the line to get into Hertz Arena on the outskirts of Fort Myers. Presented with a short list of Trump’s most frequent falsehoods, she countered with a homemade placard with a photo showing Louis Farrakhan with former Democratic President Barack Obama and demanded to know why the media wasn’t covering that.
She added that she was not interested in whether or how many times Trump might lie that evening. “I don’t care if he sprouts a third dick up there,” she said.
(She declined to give her name or to elaborate on her views of the president’s anatomy.)
Her response, though, was typical of fans so committed to Trump that they take time off from work and spend hours in the rain or under a blazing sun to listen to his speeches. And it highlights the other half of the president’s destruction of the truth: As Trump has passed through the looking glass into a make-pretend world of invented facts, legions of his fans have happily followed him.
Jennifer Petito, who drove across the state from Melbourne to see Trump, was similarly dismissive of proof that Trump’s claims are false.
“I don’t believe that,” she said, joining in with the verbal assault on HuffPost for daring to challenge Trump’s version of reality. “I don’t believe he would lie like that.”
Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College and the author of the recent book, “The Death of Expertise,” said the Trump supporters’ response does not surprise him in the least.
“There are a lot of scientific explanations for it, but most of them boil down to ‘shooting the messenger.’ Deep down, they know that these things are false. They don’t care,” Nichols said. “What they object to is the sense of inferiority created when someone tells them that the things they know to be false are actually false.”
As those monitoring Trump’s speeches even casually have noted, Trump began ramping up dishonesties in service of GOP candidates about two months ago. The Washington Post found that Trump’s more frequent speeches combined with more prevarications per speech have raised his average number of false statements per day to 30 – making these past seven weeks a veritable festival of falsehoods.
Trump supporters’ efforts to defend these untruths often put them in the position of denying the existence of any objective truth at all. Everything becomes a matter of opinion or perspective.
Four days later and 600 miles northwest awaiting Trump’s rally at Pensacola airport, Gene Ponder, a high school government and politics teacher in Daphne, Alabama, wound up arguing that there was no real difference between having built a wall and falsely claiming to have built one.
“It’s a matter of semantics,” he said, and pointed out that falsely claiming to have built a wall was an effective campaign tool. “It’s wonderful campaigning for the Republican Party in congressional seats around the country, to stimulate the base.”
What they [Trump supporters] object to is the sense of inferiority created when someone tells them that the things they know to be false are actually false. Tom Nichols, professor at the Naval War College
To be among the first handful of attendees to get into the Fort Myers hockey arena, Virginia Alonso drove across Alligator Alley from Fort Lauderdale the previous afternoon. She and a friend slept in lawn chairs under the stars, and a few hours before the start of the rally were in place right outside the entry doors.
With only a short time left before the doors were opened, the Cuban-American retiree was in little mood to hear about Trump’s falsehoods. She regarded the single page HuffPost had asked her to review with suspicion.
While Trump typically has been putting out many dozens of falsehoods and exaggerations per hour-long rally, HuffPost curated five with which to interview rally-goers: 1) Trump has received nearly $5 billion already to build his wall; 2) military veterans got the ability to see private doctors in the event of long waiting lists thanks to Trump; 3) his recent $716 billion military budget is the largest ever; 4) U.S. Steel is opening as many as eight new plants thanks to Trump’s tariffs; 5) and the real name of the Democratic Party is the “Democrat” Party.
All five are flatly untrue and easily disproven. In reality, Trump has received zero funding from Congress for wall construction; veterans received that choice under President Obama; the largest recent military budget was also under Obama; U.S. Steel is opening zero new plants; and the real name of the Democratic Party is, in fact, the Democratic Party.
“Why should I believe you?” Alonso said. “I don’t believe you.”
Others near the entrance doors who had likewise spent a chilly night and then a steamy, hot afternoon outside so that they could get in first were similarly outraged by HuffPost’s list.
“He doesn’t like fake news. Why would he say things that are not true?” asked Barbara Guzman, who owns a label-making business in nearby Cape Coral. “Most of the things he says I agree with, and I believe.”
Further back in line, even those who had invested far less of their time to see Trump were just as defensive.
One man who would not give his name said HuffPost’s list of falsehoods was unfair because it had only five items and because it did not contain an equal number of good things Trump had done.
“This is fake news!” he shouted, repeating the line Trump regularly uses to describe reporting that does not flatter him.
Marie Brausan, who lives in the Chicago suburbs but winters in Fort Myers, said if the news media didn’t like Trump’s words, it was their own fault for criticizing him all the time rather than giving him positive feedback, as a parent does with a toddler.
“Of course I want him to be truthful and honest,” she said, but added: “The bottom line is he is not a politician, he is doing what he said he’d do, and I trust him.”
Most of those approached by HuffPost at Trump’s second Florida rally in four days in Pensacola Saturday had similar reactions.
“He does what he says he’s going to do,” said a Penscola woman who would only give her first name, Diane. But after learning that Trump had not, as he has claimed, started building a wall, she said that it didn’t really matter. “No, it doesn’t bother me, because he’s going to make everything balance out in the end.”
Once a con man cons somebody, there is a bias among the marks not to admit that they’re that stupid. In this particular one, they want it to go on and on. They love it. Longtime GOP consultant and Trump critic Rick Wilson
Rick Wilson, the author of the recent “Everything Trump Touches Dies” and a longtime GOP consultant in Florida who opposed Trump from the start, said the president’s supporters are the victims of a con artist.
“Once a con man cons somebody, there is a bias among the marks not to admit that they’re that stupid,” he said. “In this particular one, they want it to go on and on. They love it.”
Nichols, also a Trump critic, said that the gulf between what supporters believed Trump would bring and what he has actually delivered is clearly causing mental anguish for them. “When you start from the assumption that they know they’re wrong, and how the immensity of the cognitive dissonance makes them deeply uncomfortable, the rest of their reactions start to make a lot more sense,” he said.
That cognitive dissonance was visible among some Trump supporters who seemed disappointed at learning the facts belying Trump’s claims. Yet even those who told HuffPost that they are troubled by his falsehoods almost always found some mitigating factor to excuse them. Hillary Clinton. Democrats generally. The Bernie Sanders supporter who opened fire at a congressional Republicans’ baseball practice. Planned Parenthood.
In Pensacola, retired Defense Department project manager Armando Hernandez shrugged off Trump’s falsehoods entirely. “Well, a lot of people believe him,” he said of Trump, and then unloaded on Democrats. “Democrats say whatever they want to say, even if it’s false. The last Democrat I voted for was Jimmy Carter and that was the worst mistake I ever made.”
Denny Elkins, a technician with the local Glass Doctor franchise, said he couldn’t explain why Trump felt compelled to lie so much but that, in the end, it wasn’t important. “I’m more comforted having him as president, even if he doesn’t tell all the truth all of the time,” he said. “It makes me ill to think that Hillary could have been president. In my opinion, you can’t trust a thing she says.”
Back in Estero, retired economist Tom Walton said that Trump’s advanced age might factor into all his untruths – the way Ronald Reagan’s dementia was affecting his words and decisions in his second term. Like many others, Walton, who is 73, said that the strength of the economy and Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court and efforts to roll back business regulations outweighed his negatives.
“It doesn’t bother me. No one’s got a perfect memory,” Walton said of Trump’s propensity for falsehoods. “He’s got a lot on his mind.”
One 75-year-old woman who declined to give her name said she supported Trump because Obama had doubled the national debt in his two terms in office. But when it was pointed out that Trump was on track to have $1 trillion annual deficits during a strong economy, she demanded to know why the media has not covered that. She added that she watches Fox News religiously and had not seen that mentioned.
One rally-goer who attended more out of curiosity than adoration for Trump, though, said the falsehoods of what he had accomplished could come back to bite Trump – particularly regarding his singular promise from the 2016 campaign, that he would build a wall along the border with Mexico.
“If in another year or so there hasn’t been a wall started, he’s going to have a big problem,” said Phil Deems, a commercial real estate broker in Naples, who added that that could serve as a consequence for all the dishonesties. “It kind of fixes itself.”
In the meantime, however, Deems’ point of view appears to be in an exceedingly small minority among the universe of Trump supporters.
Virginia Alonso, walking out of the arena after hearing Trump repeat four of the five falsehoods on HuffPost’s list that evening, said the day-and-a-half wait to see him had been worth it.
“I loved it,” she said.