By Mike O’Brien
From historian Michael Beschloss to distinguished journalist Bob Woodward, all those familiar with the Trump administration and its antics can say is that they’ve never seen anything like it. Patent lying, relentless tribalism, and a barefaced disregard for the truth have become cornerstones of the administration’s communications strategy. To anyone paying attention, it can seem bewildering – and perhaps terrifying – that Trump’s approval rating is still hovering around 40%.
Last month on NBC, Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani explained why he instructed the president not to testify in the Mueller probe. “I’m not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury”, Giuliani says. “When you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well, that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth.” When told ‘truth is truth’ by journalist Chuck Todd, Giuliani said the following:
‘Truth isn’t truth’.
A bemused Todd laughed, and in the days that followed, political commentators and media figures alike lamented the Orwellian implications of denying the existence of truth altogether. But in a piece for Fox News, economist and gun rights advocate John R Lott. Jr. criticised the ‘anti-Trump’ media for taking Giuliani wildly out of context. ‘Giuliani wasn’t disputing that there is an ultimate truth’, Lott Jr. writes. ‘What he said is that being truthful won’t necessarily protect you from perjury charges.’
Giuliani later elaborated on Twitter:
‘My statement was not meant as a pontification on moral theology but one referring to the situation where two people make precisely contradictory statements, the classic “he said, she said” puzzle. Sometimes further inquiry can reveal the truth, other times it doesn’t.’
These may seem like reasonable and measured follow-ups from Giuliani and Lott Jr., especially when compared to the louder mouthpieces of the conservative media. But in actuality, these responses are deceptive political communications, and perfect examples of how the Trump administration and the far-right political machine succeed in public disinformation and misdirection. For many, the debate has become an argument predicated on Giuliani’s curious semantics rather than their foreboding implications.
Consider how Giuliani contextualises the truth. In isolation, his statements can seem hard to disagree with; a trial is, after all, a process in which two opposing parties construct conflicting narratives, and the more persuasive of the two becomes the basis of the court’s verdict. Giuliani is correct in that the factual truth and the verdict are not always one and the same – but whilst he is not denying the existence of truth, he trivialises the prosecution and the administration of justice with shameless reductionism.
Giuliani likens the case to the ‘he said/she said puzzle’, which might have been an appropriate comparison in a trial lacking compelling evidence where neither side presents much more than their own account – but it has no place here. This is the Special Counsel Investigation, a historic inquiry of Watergate proportions in which swathes of tangible evidence surface daily. Paul Manafort, chairman of the Trump campaign, has been charged with eighteen counts ranging from fraud to bank fraud conspiracy, whilst deputy and close ally Rick Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the United States. Former allies and staff, like ex-Trump lawyer Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort himself, are flipping on the President. If any side of the court is relying on anecdotes and hearsay, it’s the accused.
The trail of offences extends beyond the current 218 charges administered by the court. Each head of the USA’s six intelligence agencies agreed unanimously that collusion between Russia and the Trump team was a legitimate threat to American democracy. US intelligence agencies also cooperated with authorities in France to combat Russian electoral interference, whilst corroborating with UK sources to charge two G.U. suspects with the chemical poisoning of multiple civilians on British soil. Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, and his eldest son Donald Trump Jr., separately met with Russian officials to secure ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton, whilst Kushner spoke with senior Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak to build secret communication channels between the Trump administration and Russia. The list grows endlessly, with even Trump’s ex-lawyers jumping ship to testify – but Donald Trump, the president of the United States, refuses to condemn Russia for any of its demonstrable meddling, instead denouncing his own country’s intelligence agencies and democratic institutions.
It’s no surprise then that Giuliani, as Trump’s lawyer, is abusing logical fallacies to redirect the conversation. It’s true that he’s not arguing that there is no such thing as the truth – but the actual content of his message is somehow even worse: it’s that the truth doesn’t matter. He is patently aware that the only way to create a remotely defensible position from his camp is to undermine the credibility of truth and its agents. Giuliani depicts a distorted reality in which his defendant finds himself in the seedy and amoral confines of the truthless courtroom, where the pernicious prosecution lusts baselessly for a conviction at all costs. The dissonance between reality and Giuliani’s victim-complex narrative also informs his objectionable suggestion that Trump’s testimony might ‘trap him into perjury’. Filter out the nonsense and what you’re really left with is Giuliani’s fear that a guilt-ridden Trump’s verbose and wandering candor will incriminate itself as it so often does.
Giuliani may reduce the Special Counsel investigation to a ‘he-said-she-said’ conundrum all he likes – but there’s no escaping the fact it’s a magnitudinal false equivalence. Trump and his machine are fighting a forlorn battle against the overwhelming litany of evidence against it, resorting to tribalism to slander the institutions of justice and democracy to defend themselves. Of legendary journalist Bob Woodward, whose investigative journalism broke Watergate and toppled the Nixon administration, Trump could only call him a ‘liar’ and a ‘Dem operative’. In just two months, Giuliani went from praising ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen as an ‘honourable lawyer’ to branding him a ‘pathological liar’ after he agreed to testify. And how could one forget the ‘failing New York Times’ or the ‘fake news media’? Trump, Giuliani, and the parties representing their agenda are the harbingers of what some call the ‘post-truth era’ for a reason; the truth is simply inconvenient for them. Facts are their kryptonite, an indelible tapestry of their offences. Their only defence is to communicate viscerally to their base, preying on their insecurities, fears, and ignorance to deliver a convenient worldview which undermines the parties holding them to account.
It’s so easy to laugh at Giuliani, and many of us have been. But these tactics resonate with enough of the American public to win their most prestigious office, and it’s not because American conservatives are simpletons driven by prejudice. It’s because this administration abuses the loyalty and faith of its supporters to deceive them. For the most part, Trump supporters – regardless of how one may feel about the man himself – are not mindlessly evil; they are compelled by a love for their country and its associated values. Their political involvement is not comprised by critical engagement and nuanced perspectives on policy – it’s almost wholly comprised of fundamental beliefs, emotion, and faith.
That’s why all of this works: Trump and his cohorts speak a language that fundamentally driven, fatally uncritical, and politically disenfranchised citizens understand. The truth is complicated; can one realistically expect the American public, whose political disaffection is at an all-time high, to unravel the complexity of the Mueller probe? The Trump administration’s reductionism is tempting simply because it is conceivable to the everyman. When you find yourself lost in a maze of voices, it’s only natural to gravitate to the one you understand.