President Donald Trump is such a hard-core liar that Wednesday morning on Twitter he quoted a Marc Thiessen column defending his honesty that literally contains the line, “Don’t get me wrong, Trump lies all the time.”
“Trump could be the most honest president in modern history. When you look at the real barometer of presidential truthfulness, which is promise keeping, he is probably the most honest president in American history. He’s done exactly what he said he would do.” Marc Thiessen, WPost— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2018
Thiessen downplays Trump’s routine dishonesty with the dismissal that “in part, it’s a New York thing — everything is the biggest and the best.”
As a New Yorker, I have to say that it is not actually true that people in New York act like sociopathic liars (and imagine the uproar in conservative media if I sniffily dismissed complaints about Bill Clinton’s dishonesty by saying he’s from Arkansas).
But more to the point is Thiessen’s argument — quoted by Trump — that he delivers on his promises. That’s important since one big problem in politics with having a well-deserved reputation as a liar is that if a liar leads your political movement, you are liable to be betrayed. Thiessen, and Trump himself, wants to reassure supporters that even though Trump may be a huge liar, he won’t break faith with them.
Trump fans are supposed to believe that they are in on the con and it’s the rest of us who are the marks. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how a well-run con works and the truth is Trump’s record in office is littered with broken promises.
Trump has broken lots of promises
Thiessen, of course, can’t actually deny that some of the things Trump promised as a candidate have not, in fact, happened. But he writes that “where Trump has failed to keep promises, such as building the wall or repealing Obamacare, it has not been for a lack of trying.”
On the wall, however, it’s not just that Trump hasn’t persuaded Congress to appropriate the staggering amount of money his pointless border wall would cost.
The thing he promised as a candidate was to make Mexico pay for the wall — i.e., to brush aside the fiscal concerns that have in fact made wall-building impossible by asserting that there was a way to get the wall for free. This idea was so mind-bogglingly ridiculous that it’s probably for the best that Trump hasn’t actually tried to do it. But he definitely hasn’t tried, and he’s not going to be able to deliver on his promise because the promise was fundamentally dishonest.
The larger lie about Trump, however, is that he tried to keep his promise on the Affordable Care Act. It’s true that he repeatedly promised to repeal the Obama-era legislation. But what he specifically promised, as late as a January 2017 interview with the Washington Post, was that “we’re going to have insurance for everybody.”
“There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us,” he elaborated. Under his proposed reform, he promised, people “can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”
There’s a lot more where that came from:
- As a candidate, Trump promised to raise taxes on the rich; as president, he promised tax changes that at a minimum wouldn’t benefit the rich.
- Trump promised to break up America’s largest banks by reinstated old Glass-Steagall regulations that prevented financial conglomerates from operating in multiple lines of business.
- Trump promised price controls on prescription drugs.
- Trump promised to “take the oil” from Iraq to reduce the financial burden of US military policy.
- Trump promised many times that he would release his tax returns and promised to put his wealth into a blind trust.
- Trump vowed rollback of climate change regulations but said he was committed to upholding clean air and clean water goals.
- Trump promised a $1 trillion infrastructure package.
The larger betrayal is that Trump portrayed himself as a self-financed candidate (which wasn’t true) who was willing to take stances on domestic and economic issues that his donor-backed opponents wouldn’t. In terms of position-taking, that was true.
Trump’s fusion of cultural conservatism to a relatively moderate set of economic policy positions was politically potent and helped make up for some of his personal failings as a candidate. But what he’s done in office is betray the bulk of that promise, operating as a tool of the GOP donor class that he once scorned now that that very class has began to shower him with money.
Trump only looks out for No. 1
Thiessen actually alludes to the truth when he writes that there are “a few rare instances” where Trump back-tracked on a campaign pledge, “such as when he admitted that he was wrong to promise a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and reversed course. I’m glad he did.”
Thiessen, by way of context, is a former mid-ranking official in the George W. Bush administration who’s deeply invested in the institutional conservative movement. His perspective reflects the main wellspring of opinion among elite Republicans — Trump has mostly kept the promises they agreed with (cutting taxes, defending gun rights, appointing conservative judges) and mostly abandoned the promises they disagreed with.
The idea that this makes Trump trustworthy, however, is absurd.
The truth is that Trump can’t meaningfully break from congressional Republicans on policy because he’s enmeshed in tons of financial conflicts of interest that Republicans in Congress are helping him cover up. The donor class, meanwhile, is now directly funneling huge amounts of cash into Trump’s pocket through his hotels (as is the government of Saudi Arabia).
If conservatives are happy with this bargain that’s their business, but I think the basic common sense principle that people of all stripes should regard a dedicated liar as a betrayal risk makes a lot of sense.
Consider two signature episodes from Trump’s career.
One is the story of how Trump recovered from the mismanagement of his Atlantic City casinos by launching a publicly traded company called Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts. Shareholders in this company wound up losing all of their money, but Trump engaged in a savvy series of moves that allowed THCR to assume his personal debts, pay him a lucrative salary, and buy tons of services from other Trump-owned businesses.
The Trump University scam was in some ways a more simple-minded fraud (it wasn’t a real university, and the courses didn’t really teach what they said), but it was likewise profitable and effectively executed. The key thing about these scams is that in both cases the snobby cultural elites who Trump professes to disdain didn’t lose anything. When you rip off your shareholders or run a fake university, you are ripping off your own fans.
That’s not to say that Trump won’t inflict harm on other people, too, given the opportunity to secure personal gain by doing so. The point, however, is that Trump has no loyalty to anyone but himself. At this point he’s told so many lies that he’s not actually going to trick any of his political opponents with new BS.
The lies — up to and including the lie that he’s delivered on his promises — target Trump supporters and are designed to set them up to take some kind of fall for him. So far, it’s been populists attracted to his moderate economic profile who’ve been betrayed. But next year will come a whole new set of political circumstances, and there’s no telling who will end up with a knife sticking out of their back.