Last week I ventured where few conservatives dare to tread — MSNBC. Washington Post fact-checkers had that very day proclaimed that they had documented 1,000 false or misleading statements from the mouth (or the Twitter account) of the president. The president, they insist, has trouble with the truth.
To those of us who voted for Trump, this sounds wrong from the start. We supported him partly because he resisted the lies that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the media have been telling us. "If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor," "Obamacare will reduce costs by 20 percent," "Global warming is a greater national security threat than terrorism," "Islam is a religion of peace."
Those are lies. They didn’t come from Donald Trump.
But what lies is Trump supposed to have told? Before looking at cases — two points. First, let’s set aside hyperbole, which is a figure of speech; a hungry child who tells his mother "I’m starving!" is exaggerating. He isn’t telling a lie. Second, lying is more than saying something false; it’s doing it intentionally, saying something the speaker knows is false. Talk of lying, in this context, is misleading. The issue is truth, as The Washington Post is careful to note — even if its readers are not.
Now, on to cases. On MSNBC, the example I was given concerned murder rates in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Trump said, in 2016, that they were going up. But in 2007, the host exclaimed, the rate was four times as high!
A moment’s reflection should show that those two claims are perfectly compatible. The murder rate might be climbing now after an earlier and larger decline. (For a graphic representation, draw a checkmark and look at it in a mirror. The line goes down, and then starts going up again.) In fact, that was Trump’s point: the change in policing following the Black Lives Matter protests swapped a successful strategy for an inferior one. Trump was right. Imagine a doctor who followed the logic of an MSNBC host:
Patient: "Hey doctor, my temperature’s rising. It’s now 101 degress."
Doctor: “That’s not true! Your temperature was even higher when you had the flu."
The doctor’s allegation wouldn’t fool anyone.
An interlocutor on the show gave a second example, saying, "Trump said people on both sides committed violent acts in Charlottesville, Virginia. But only one side had someone ram a car into a crowd!" Again, these claims are plainly compatible. People on both sides engaged in violence, but only one engaged in a certain kind of violence. (Let’s set aside the point that the perpetrator didn’t ram his car into a crowd but into another car, which hit a third car, which was pushed into a crowd.)
Again, in another context, this kind of reply would fool no one. "Both American and Japanese bombers attacked aircraft carriers at Midway," "Not true! Only the Americans used B-17s!"
The Post's examples are less overt, but just as incorrect. The president has touted "new highs in a stock market that he previously derided as being a 'big, fat bubble . . . " That’s not a contradiction. Trump quite reasonably believes that the economic fundamentals have changed for the better since his election. Reducing regulations and proposing tax cuts arguably justify price levels that previously reflected monetary easing more than economic prospects.
In instance afrer instance, the story is similar. The President asserts that P. The Post observes that Q — which is entirely compatible with P — and concludes that P is false.
Several examples concern announcements of job-creating investments. The president has taken credit for bringing jobs back to America, and the companies concerned have given him credit for their decisions. Yet the Post claims that because the companies had other incentives for making the investments, Trump’s statements are false. That’s absurd. People make decisions on the basis of many factors; one thing’s being a reason doesn’t preclude something else from being a reason.
Some examples concern disputed matters of fact. Did Hillary Clinton give the Russians control over 20 percent of our uranium supply? Well, the Russians ended up with that 20 percent, and the Clinton Foundation got $145 million. What happened in between remains mysterious. But it’s far from clear that the answer to that question is "No."
More absurd examples concern the future. Is Obamacare dying, as the president claims? Will Mexico pay for the wall? Maybe; maybe not. It’s outrageous to count Trump’s statements as falsehoods.
If anyone has trouble with the truth, it’s the so-called fact-checkers.
Harry Truman is reputed to have said, "I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's hell." I think he’d find a kindred spirit in Donald Trump.
Daniel Bonevac is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of five books, most recently, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," and editor or co-editor of four others, he has published over 60 articles in professional journals. He has also written for The Washington Post, The Critique, and The American Spectator. His massively open online course, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," has enrolled over 50,000 students. He is co-founder of BriefLogic, a marketing communication firm. He is also a contemporary Christian musician and songwriter; you can hear his music on his daughter’s debut album, "Transfiguration." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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