Why It's So Hard to Fact-Check Donald Trump

September 17th 2016

Ian Gurvitz

Remember this quote — "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers" — from Mitt Romney pollster Neil Newhouse? You probably don't, but it stirred up some chatter on liberal blogs during the 2012 presidential election, especially among pundits striving to make a point about the Republican party's alleged tenuous relationship with the truth. 

Those were simpler times, but it highlights a problem that still persists today. What do you do about a candidate who disregards the value of facts?

Enter Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump

Democrats, media commentators, and political pundits on either side — you know, people who live in reality —reach near orgasm when they think they’ve busted Trump in a contradiction or falsehood.

It’s a triumphant gotcha moment, in which the fatal charge of “liar” is thrown down like an atomic mike drop, instantly vaporizing bullshit into intellectual rubble. And in ordinary reality, it works that way.

The problem is, in Trump World, it doesn’t.

Trump won't let his campaign be dictated by fact-checkers, either. 

Trump World is an alternative, parallel universe where words don’t have meaning; words have power. They’re not social conventions used for communication. They’re weapons in a rhetorical war, employed to evoke emotion, or create illusion.

It’s a world where lies become truth, and appearance becomes reality. Where even the most patently false statements live behind a reality distortion field that protects them from being debunked by facts. Trump knows this. So do his surrogates. Unfortunately, most people don’t. And apparently neither does the media, which, in a kind of information alchemy, has spent over a year presenting his staged events as reality, effectively turning bullshit into news.

Look at Trump’s recent photo-op trip to Mexico. Trump’s advisors told him he needed to take some of the ugly out of his immigration rhetoric and look more presidential, so he flew down for a “meeting” and press conference with the Mexican president, a man whose name he’d obviously just learned to pronounce. Yet, the media covered the trip like it was JFK in Berlin.

Then they gleefully jumped into the swamp of the “wall” narrative, spending days swimming in the intellectual muck of who told whom in public or private that they would or wouldn’t pay for a wall. In reality, there is no wall. There never has been a wall. There never will be a wall. The only wall that’s ever existed has been the big, beautiful, metaphorical wall in Trump World, which has already been built.

Then there was the Phoenix speech, where Trump’s people claimed the candidate would finally lay out his immigration policy. Set up with concepts like “pivot” and “softening,” the media raced to cover it under the guise of informing the public. But there was no information. No policy, just the same inflammatory rhetoric, and racist tirades. Trump pandered to swing voters in the morning then threw red meat to the base at night, and it was broadcast without interruption by a media sucked in by the centrifugal force of Trump World.

But even that wasn’t the end of it, because once Trump built his bullshit cake, the media had to discuss what flavor frosting to put on it. So, in came the Flying Monkey surrogates to create a reality distortion field by insisting that no one heard what they heard, or saw what they saw. And they all used the tools of Trump-Speak, which is to state your premise, reject any facts that counter your premise, talk over anyone who tries to reject your premise, then, when in doubt, blame Hillary. And never take a punch. Even if everyone sees you take a punch, never admit you took it, because it’s not the punch that makes you vulnerable, it’s admitting you got hit.

They even used Trump’s other rhetorical trick, which is to state that something is true, and then add “and everyone knows it.” Trump’s kids use that trick. Even Mike Pence tried it out, when he said, in defense of Trump’s man crush on Putin, “It’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.”

No, it’s not inarguable, at all, in actual reality. Or by any metric one might use to evaluate a president, particularly one with a 58 percent approval rating, according to the Washington Post. But it is easy to say. Just like I could say that that Mike Pence is a spineless, pandering, opportunistic vertical loaf of Wonder Bread who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a shot at power. He’s not here to argue with me, so that statement becomes inarguable.

Other more recent events clearly demonstrate the collision of Trump World and reality.

Trump needs more women to vote for him, particularly educated, suburban women. That’s why he rolled out his “plan” for maternity leave, with his daughter shilling by his side. As part of that effort, he also needs to take the curse off every misogynist statement he’s made over the course of his life, and to be perceived as likeable and non-threatening. So, he went on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, an appearance for which the word cringeworthy was invented.

Politicians go on talk shows to create the illusion that they’re human by feeding off the likeability of the host. And Fallon is likeable. So freaking likeable. And he instantly donated that likeability to Trump by asking probing questions like “do you think your business background helps you with campaigning?” And “what has changed since you first started running?” If Hitler were around, he’d probably have asked “If you’d been accepted at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, do you still think you would have gone into politics?”

This was legitimacy by association. And Trump was in all his glory, grinning like he’d just evicted a poor family from an apartment. The hair-mussing thing at the end was just so nauseatingly likeable, I wretched up a meal I ate in 2003. I hope the next time Tina Fey sees Fallon she punches him in the face.

But this was just a jovial, lighthearted romp compared to heart of darkness that was Trump’s “birther” press conference, where he finally stated, “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.” Five sentences crafted to whitewash five years of racism. But it wasn’t just racism as personal attack, it was racism as political tactic. For Trump, birtherism was the ultimate ratfuck, a tool to demean, and disenfranchise the first African-American president. And it worked, in the sense that it injected the narrative into the national conversation.

Even after the president released his birth certificate, Trump called it a phony document so he could get more mileage out of it. But, lately, it had begun to backfire on him, and his previous talking point, “I don’t talk about that anymore,” had become inoperative. So he staged an event in order to pivot. And true to form, the media showed up, and ate it up. While a few managed to put it in its proper context, others just didn’t seem to get that it wasn’t the content of the attack, it was the power of the attack.

They instantly launched into “team coverage,” tossing out probing questions like: “Why is Trump doing this now?” “What does he get out of it?” An MSNBC host interviewed Senator Harry Reid asking, “Do you believe it?” No. I don’t. I don’t believe she actually asked that question. I also don’t believe Trump ever believed that birtherism was anything more than a cynical political stunt that had finally outlived its usefulness. So like leaving a wrecked car on the side of the highway, he got out, dusted himself off, and moved on.

In Trump World, lies become truth. Everyone is played but no one is informed. Even worse, we get the illusion of being informed, which renders us ill-informed, and, ultimately, misinformed, which is exactly why Trump wants debates without moderators. He wants the debates to take place in Trump World, where there’s no truth, there’s only winning. He also knows that, as factually challenged as he is, the media has embraced the metric of “debate performance,” and his chances of achieving maximum performance go up in a scenario in which there’s no third party to bring up any annoying facts that might make him look stupid. In this case, though, he probably won’t get what he wants, and that may bring him down. Debates with moderators who don’t let him squirm or ramble his way out of lies, or vamp his way through with gibberish and nonsense — you know, moderators who aren’t Matt Lauer — is the one vulnerability in the death star that is Trump World.

Some recent polls state that the race is tightening. Others claim that, despite those polls, the election is essentially over — that the demographic cake has been baked. Maybe that’s true. Maybe Trump is losing, in reality. But in Trump World, he’s not. He’s winning, because he says he’s winning. And saying he’s winning means some will perceive him as winning, which means they can vote for him, confident that they’re voting for a winner.

There’s an adage in advertising about pitching clients a campaign. “Tell them what they’re about to see, show them, then tell them what they saw.” Create your reality, then tell them how they’re going to live in it. Because sometimes reality is what I can convince you it is. Ultimately, the question will be where those white, suburban swing voters are living, because that will end up determining whether the rest of us continue to live in actual reality, or in Trump World.