Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Nine hours on Tuesday provided a useful snapshot of America’s headlong rush into moral relativism.
At noon, President Trump spoke to a VFW convention in Kansas City and told the crowd: “Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
Even for a president who tweeted “any negative polls are fake news,” three weeks into his administration, this flat-out appeal for people to ignore what they see with their own eyes was jarring. Observers quickly pointed out that the American president’s syntax was uncomfortably close to an infamous line from George Orwell’s “1984:” “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
In “1984,” the Ministry of Truth is dedicated to teaching citizens to accept sinister nonsense, like 2+2=5 and War is Peace. The test of a loyal party member is “a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.”
In other words, the test of loyalty is not only to lie for the regime but to convince oneself to believe the lies, or at least to dismiss any meaningful difference between truth and lies. And that’s where the real danger with the hyper-partisan defense of Trump is emerging.
Increasingly, you hear a normalization of the idea that President Trump’s lies are merely matters of style and not substance. This is accompanied by the exhausted excuse that Americans shouldn’t worry about what Trump says but instead watch what he (or his administration) does. This requires buying into the moral relativism at the heart of Trump’s deny, distract, deflect and divide rhetorical strategy. The last and laziest defense is a shot of whatabout-ism accompanied with the chaser that says a fact-based debate is itself is divisive.
It is a fact universally acknowledged that Donald Trump is not really into reading books and so I would never suggest that he was consciously borrowing from Orwell’s script. But the unconscious parallels are undeniable; in the dystopia of “1984,” the Ministry of Truth devoted itself ruthlessly to revising the historical record to back up Big Brother’s pronouncements.
Which is a reasonable segue to Trump’s adjacent attempt at reality distortion on Tuesday, when he tweeted, “Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election. Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don’t want Trump!”
This tweet, of course, contradicts everything we know about Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election on Donald Trump’s behalf and runs counter to virtually all of Trump’s previous statements (or lack thereof) about Russia. But it does muddy the otherwise clear facts of this ongoing national security threat. If, like the President, you’re disinclined to take the US intelligence community’s word, then you might actually have been persuaded by Vladimir Putin’s answer at the Helsinki press conference, when the Russian president was asked, “Did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?” Putin’s response? “Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.–Russia relationship back to normal.”
But you would not know that infamous exchange occurred if you were looking for it on the official White House transcript – because it was literally absent from the record and the accompanying video. As of Wednesday morning, the White House still had not corrected or explained the omission.
A few hours after Trump’s about-face on Twitter, his administration compounded this impulse to erase or obscure inconvenient facts. CNN reported that the White House has suspended the practice of publishing “readouts,” public summaries of President Donald Trump’s phone calls with world leaders. This move brings “an end to a common exercise from Republican and Democratic administrations” of providing what in some cases is the only public record of conversations between the President and other leaders.
This move is not just another hit by the Trump administration to bipartisan presidential norms that aim to ensure transparency, like regularly publishing White House visitor logs or releasing the President’s tax returns. Because tone comes from the top, we’ve seen a similar approach taken by administration agencies, from the EPA’s attempt to ban employees use of the phrase “climate change” to efforts to hide former EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt’s meeting with industry lobbyists to the Interior Department’s issuing a factually false report about the economic impact of national monuments.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the Trump administration doubled down Tuesday on its abandonment of free trade in favor of trade war tariffs to enact subsidies for suffering farmers to offset political pain. Some usually compliant conservative senators cried foul, with Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson sputtering, “This is becoming more and more like a Soviet type of economy here: Commissars deciding who’s going to be granted waivers, commissars in the administration figuring out how they’re going to sprinkle around benefits.”
When conservatives accuse a Republican president of pushing policies that create a “Soviet type of economy” you know we’re through the looking glass.
But Tuesday’s litany of lies and obfuscation reached a new peak with the release on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time” of a 2016 tape between Trump and his consigliere Michael Cohen, discussing a $150,000, possibly “cash” payment to the owner of the National Enquirer to quiet Karen McDougal, who’d alleged an affair with Trump. The Trump campaign and later the White House had outright denied this affair and the alleged payoff. Perhaps President Trump’s earlier admonition for his VFW crowd was meant as anticipatory defense: “Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
This desperate search for an alternate reality is not a hallmark of democracy or past Republican presidents. But it is evident in another news story that quietly dropped Tuesday night: The President has banned the viewing of any cable news station on Air Force One other than Fox News, after he allegedly caught the First Lady watching CNN.
These actions, a snapshot of less than 24 hours in the Trump presidency, and the increasingly absurd defense of the indefensible, leads someplace far more dangerous. It ends up endorsing the idea that truth doesn’t matter and that a president’s litany of lies should not be over-indexed or seen as destructive to our democracy. In sum, “get over it – our guy won.” In this world view, power and nationalism provide their own imperatives – an idea more commonly advanced by the Chinese government, which also on Tuesday imposed their final deadline on US airlines to change the name of Taiwan on their maps and websites – a move which the Trump administration had previously (and accurately) described as “Orwellian nonsense.”
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Reality Check: Truth does matter. History shows that the honesty of the president matters. Clear-eyed confrontation of any attempt by a modern day “ministry of truth” to blur the distinction between fact and fiction is a core responsibility of citizens and journalists alike. Democracy depends on facts made available to citizens in a self-governing society. That’s the gospel of truth at the heart of what Abraham Lincoln once called our “political religion.”