Trump’s lies: the exhaustion factor

Donald Trump may not be a fan of globalisation but in the past week or so he has globalised astonishment. His NATO allies were astonished at his attacks on them at the Brussels summit. Britons were astonished when he savaged their prime minister, Theresa May, in an interview published during his visit to the county. And there was global astonishment at his toadying to Vladimir Putin, during their Helsinki summit, in which he derided his own intelligence officials in favour of the Russian view.

It has been only 18 months since he was inaugurated. But it has been hard to keep pace with the sheer volume of dreadful things that have been said and done by the 45th President. To phrase the issue in the style of one of his own tweets, he does Something Awful Daily (SAD!).

First there are the lies. As of the end of May, he had made 3,251 false or misleading claims while in office and the pace seems to be increasing, with 103 in a recent week. At a Montana rally, he made 76 claims that were false, misleading or unsupported by evidence.

What is so remarkable is that he lies about matters which are so easily disproved. He said the German crime rate was “way up” when it is at a 30-year low. At the NATO summit, he said the US accounted for 90% of NATO spending; it’s 22%. He claimed that other leaders had agreed to increase defence spending after he berated them, but the French, Italian and Dutch leaders denied it; they had merely reaffirmed commitments made in 2014, when Obama as President. He said that he had won Wisconsin where Reagan failed, but Reagan won Wisconsin twice. In Britain, he dismissed a report by the Sun of an interview with him as “fake news”, even though the interview was recorded and the transcript published. He claimed to have arrived in Scotland on the day before the EU referendum and predicted the result, even though cameras and his own tweets show that he came the day after.

There are various ways of reacting. Some commentators, like Niall Ferguson in the Sunday Times, give world-weary shrugs, arguing that Trump either has a sound point (on low European defence spending) or is simply displaying a robust negotiating style. They tend to view constant liberal attacks on Trump as shrill. There is clearly a base of the US electorate (around 40% or so) who take the same view. They may not approve of everything Trump does but they like individual measures, such as tax cuts or his Supreme Court nominees, and are willing to give him a free pass.

There is little that can be done to convert his diehard fans. The real issue is the people in the middle; those who do not follow the news regularly and may have bored for Bill Clinton or Obama, but switched to Trump in the hope he would shake things up. Will they be exhausted by all the controversy and just give up? Or will their exhaustion result in the desire for “normalcy”, the slogan that won the Presidency in 1920 after the turmoil of the Woodrow Wilson years?

Trump has already survived scandals that would have sunk almost anyone else: his failure to publish tax returns; the “pussy” tape; his family’s business interests while in office; the hush payment to Stormy Daniels; and the revelations of the Muller probe. And that is before one considers his policies; the attacks on allies; kids in cages; and the bizarre belief that a trade deficit is the key measure of economic health, a theory disproved by Adam Smith back in 1776.

It is easy to get exhausted. But the rest of the world has to keep plugging away, pointing out his lies and idiocies. To use a cricketing analogy, a batsman may jeep snicking a ball through the slips. But if the bowlers keep the right line, aiming for the top of off stump, they will get him out in the end.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

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