[Part 1 in a series]
We are sent to school to be civilized—to be introduced to the essential machinery of human society. Early on in our lives we are sent out of the home into the world. To school. We have no choice in this. Society judges it so important that we be educated that we must go. It is the law. And when we get to school we are taught the fundamentals on which civilization rests. These are first explained in language a small child understands.
Across the course of our lives we will wrestle with questions of right and wrong, good and bad, truth and lies. Again and again and yet again, we will come around to that place where we came in—to that room where the elemental notions about humanity were handed to us with great care when we were very young.
Of course it wasn’t literally all you really needed to know. Certainly not. But if you didn’t get this basic stuff to begin with, you and society will pay a heavy price for your failure. If you did learn it and do practice it, then all the rest of what you needed to know has a lasting foundation.
“All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum
We all know people who obviously missed or have forgotten those early fundamentals. At least some of them. We could all use reminders. The consequences of such lapses may be minor for us and irritating for those around us. Or they may be major and, as Fulghum says, we and the society in which that person moves pay a heavy price.
But how heavy might that price be if the person who “didn’t get this basic stuff to begin with” occupies the highest and most powerful office in the country? Arguably the most powerful in the world? The initial answer to that question may be coming into focus in these first 100 days of the Trump presidency.
Yesterday’s post suggested that this president poses the challenge of learning how to filter out all the intentional static he generates in order to distract and manipulate. This will be an ongoing challenge, as long as he is in office. To focus on what he does rather than what he says. To direct our own responses constructively. Still, executive orders and legislation, however objectionable or damaging they may seem to some of us, can be tempered or reversed down the road. This is the way of politics in a democracy.
The deeper danger, the more serious threat– to our society and our democracy, to the global community, even to the planet itself– is posed by the exercise of presidential power and influence by someone who evidences a profound lack of those “fundamentals on which civilization rests.” Starting today and with the next few posts, we will look at the effects of Donnie skipping kindergarten.
Lesson One: Tell the Truth
Donald Trump is a liar. Donald Trump lies. There it is. Not exactly a newsflash nor an original observation. But for our purposes we need to be clear. No point pussy-footing around. Sorry, poor choice of words there. No point beating around the bush. Shoot, not good either. Let’s just say it is important to label him bluntly because this fact may be his most obvious defining characteristic.
No point throwing stones either. Who among us qualifies to pick up that first one? We all lie sometime, at least in some way. We all expect politicians to lie. So what sets Trump apart? Why and how does this matter? This isn’t about condemning, it’s about understanding that one of “the fundamentals upon which civilization rests” is under attack and is already seriously injured.
Lying and politics have been natural bedfellows forever, elevating to a profession something that we civilians practice as amateurs. But, this profession has normally been governed by rules that define the distinctions between lying and telling the truth. Rules that impose penalties when the lies are of a certain kind or trespass certain limits.
Once, practitioners of this profession mostly adhered to the rules. The truth remained a valued standard. It might have suffered plenty of stretching, but it was still recognizable.
That began to change a couple of decades ago. While other factors have contributed, the explosive growth and reach of cable news and the Internet have played a crucial role. In that time, news outlets have proliferated, diluting the influence and authority of the major networks we Boomers grew up with, with Fox News making the greatest impact. Further, web-based campaigns from email to Facebook to Twitter, have become primary sources of “information” for many millions, never mind where they originate.
This environment, where support and “proof” for any opinion or bias is just a click away, was fertile ground for Donald Trump. Decades of honing his skills in the tabloids of New York City were the dues he paid to enter this era’s political arena. His trial run was the false campaign to delegitimize the first African-American President. Finding that obvious lies were no obstacle for millions who wanted to believe them, he did what he does even now: he doubled down on the lie. He ran for President.
Is Donald Trump a greater liar than any other politician? Than a president like, for example, Richard Nixon? I don’t know how to gauge that. But, I do know that we are seeing something we have never seen before. This president lies as easily as you or I might discuss the weather. He lies so often, I suspect that neither supporters nor opponents take his words seriously and the supporters shrug while the opponents rage.
Worse, we may start to accept the lying as normal and stop giving weight to it at all. It may have been his strategy all along.
I have begun to believe that his lying is so much a part of him that Trump himself may not always keep track or care whether he is lying or not. Losing the ability to know the difference is truly an ominous situation when we are talking about POTUS. Not only do we worry whether he can distinguish his own truths and lies, we have to seriously question whether he has the capacity to discern when an advisor or a foreign official (cue Russia red alerts) is being honest with him. Bizarrely, the Commander-in-Chief, with the most extensive intelligence apparatus in history, tweets impulsively based on baseless conspiracy theories he finds on TV or the Internet.
All right. Time to check in on our theme. Children learn the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. The lesson was the importance of trust and how it is lost through lying and that the results can be devastating, even fatal. (Sheep can die!) Tell the truth!
That’s the price. Trust. Remember the original question? How heavy might the price be for our president to have gotten an ‘F’ in Tell the Truth? To have missed Kindergarten altogether?
Think of it. The leader of the free world is widely believed to be a liar. How do we, citizens of the United States, follow someone whose word we do not trust? How can our allies trust our participation in the alliance, let alone have confidence in our leadership? What response is prompted in our enemies? How can our diplomats, if there are any left, negotiate in good faith?
Oh, and remember. There was something else lost in the story beside trust. Yeah. Some sheep died too.