The third week of January in 2018 felt like a perfect time to join the "girther" movement. You know, the growing number of Americans who refuse to believe the official report from Washington, by way of enthusiastic and amiable White House physician Ronny Jackson, that President Trump is who he says he is … a man who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs in at 239 pounds.
At first blush, how could anyone doubt this tale of the tape? After all, Jackson — who served in the same role under Barack Obama, with rave reviews from Team Trump's Democratic predecessors — came into Tuesday's no-holds-barred press briefing with a stellar reputation. The weird problem is this: No one has ever seen anyone else with Trump's seemingly expanding, um, girth — fueled by a two-scoops diet of Fillet-O-Fish sandwiches and KFC — who clocks in at that same height and weight. The comparisons quickly ping-ponged across Twitter.
It was soon noticed that Trump's driver's license has always listed him as 6-foot-2 — which matters because at that lower height, his weight of 239 pounds would have placed the president in the "obese" category. But other criticisms of Dr. Jackson's bizarrely obsequious performance — in which he went out of his way to repeatedly say the health of this lifelong fast-food addict is "excellent" — were more pointed. The New York Times spoke afterward with several top cardiologists who said that based on the actual numbers, including his high cholesterol count even after taking powerful medication to reduce it, Trump's heart health is nowhere near "excellent." The Times said these top doctors opined that the president "has a real risk of having a heart attack or stroke, especially considering his weight and lack of exercise."
In other words, who you gonna believe? The actual lab numbers, plus what you see with your own lyin' eyes? Or the smiling doctor in the white lab coat, appearing in high-def to praise the amazing (although not from Sweden) gene pool and stamina of our Dear Leader? The Trump medical follies arguably provided some slight comic relief at a time when the news was otherwise uniformly grim, from American "Dreamers" facing deportation and kids who can't get health insurance to the blatant racism of our president, despite his "great genes." But it also drove home the real crisis in American life: People don't know what to believe anymore.
To the brilliant 20th-century political thinker, and author of the always-too-relevant 1984, George Orwell, blowing up the fundamental meaning of truth was a bigger threat to humankind than the atom bomb. Here's what he wrote in an essay in 1943, at the peak of World War II:
America is having its "two and two are five" moment right now, and, frankly, it is every bit as frightening for the future of democracy as Orwell once imagined.
Let's back up for a split second. It's not as if Washington, D.C., has always been the beacon of truth. Personally, I've always adopted the mantra of the late great investigative journalist I.F. Stone, that all governments lie. And just in my lifetime, I've seen some doozies: The "credibility gap" over who was winning the Vietnam War (exposed by the Pentagon Papers, recounted in the new flick The Post), Richard "I am not a crook" Nixon's Watergate cover-up, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that weren't. All terrible lies, some of them leading to death and misery. Each of them involving massive manipulating of the facts on the ground.
But there's a very real difference between twisting facts and blowing them up, to create a state where objective truth not only no longer matters but doesn't even really exist — where if President Trump or his minions say that such-and-such-an-event never happened, then it never happened. That is the precarious precipice at which we stand as the Trump presidency crosses its one-year anniversary.
The Rand Corporation — which, ironies of ironies, is where whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg worked and purloined the Pentagon Papers — just came out with a report that America is suffering from what it calls "Truth Decay," arguing that recent trends — the rise of social media and the opinion bubbles that they can create, lack of trust in institutions (fostered by those earlier lies like the Iraq war) and increased partisan bickering — have created a vacuum in which objective reality is in deep peril. And Team Trump is feeding on that void.
Consider the flap over Trump's shocking "shithole countries" slur against African nations, part of a larger Oval Office rant against immigrants from places where natives are mostly dark-skinned. The remarks were confirmed, essentially, by two U.S. senators in the room, not initially denied by the White House press office and, reportedly, even bragged upon by Trump himself as something his base would love. But when the fallout was worse than expected, supporters of The Donald stepped forward to tell America that two and two are five.
Two conservative senators who were at the Oval Office meeting raced to the Sunday shows to defend the president. "I didn't hear it," Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton told CBS's "Face the Nation," adding: "And I was sitting no farther away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin [the Democratic Illinois senator who confirmed Trump's remarks] was, and I know what Dick Durbin has said about the president's repeated statements is incorrect."
Later it was reported that what Cotton and Georgia Sen. David Perdue meant was simply that instead of calling African nations "shithole countries," he called them "shithouse countries." I'm sure that distinction, if true, has people dancing in the streets of Nairobi. (That was sarcasm.) The real purpose of the senators' remarks, of course, was to create a fog of uncertainty, to muddle any objective truth of what happened and to move forward on their broader goal of making American less welcoming to refugees and to other immigrants.
The senators soon got backup from a not-so-unlikely source: a Trump cabinet member, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who told Congress that she, too, took issue with reports on the comment that had been widely attributed to the president. "I did not hear that word used," she told Vermont Democrat Sen. Pat Leahy during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. "No, sir." Leahy moved on to another comment attributed to Trump — that desirable immigrants are ones from Norway — and asked Nielsen if she knew that Norway is a mostly white nation.
"I actually do not know that, sir," Nielsen said, quickly adding that, OK, it probably is. What is even the point of all this lying and blatant know-nothingism? It's to show utter contempt for the very concept of facts — much like when Trump himself, despite a well-documented history of racist remarks and acts, says, "I am the least racist person you will ever interview," or sends out a spokesman to boast about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, proven by photos to be much smaller than those of his predecessors. That disdain for an objective, provable truth — as Orwell so correctly noted — is the most powerful defining trait of authoritarian regimes.
Increasingly, Trump and his minions use lying as a bizarre way to bond him more closely to members of Congress like Perdue and Cotton, to his inner circle, and to his most loyal political base, the 36 Percent. Listen to what Xavier Marquez wrote in the Washington Post last January, that "lies can help ensure the loyalty of subordinates who are forced to repeat them. These kinds of lies need not be credible at all to people outside the regime. The more incredible a lie is, the more it can credibly signal loyalty to a political leader in conditions of low trust. When a subordinate repeats an obviously ridiculous claim he or she is degraded, and bound more closely to the leader."
That's not all. The Big Lies that increasingly are becoming the calling card of the Trump White House are meant not to win political debate but to destroy it, by discouraging all of those who are inclined to fight for the truth but who over time — lie by lie by lie — become so discouraged that they simply give up. And this is why it really matters, because that indifference is what drives good people to say nothing when political activists or sick children are rounded up for deportation, or when Congress acts to take health care away from the poor or from little kids at the same time there is plenty of money for billionaire tax cuts. When the people are too beaten down to fight back.