Republican Donald Trump admitted this at a campaign rally last Friday, flaunting his well-documented strategy of saying something one day and denying he ever said it the next – and leaving news media fact-checkers scrambling in a never-ending game of catch-up to set the record straight.
In these last weeks before Election Day, Trump has received the most headlines for denying that he ever sexually assaulted women despite bragging about exactly that on an Access Hollywood video. But in the same time period, he also denied that he ever called climate change a “hoax,” even though he did so in many direct tweets over several years. He’s repeatedly denied he ever backed the Iraq War, even though he’s recorded on a Howard Stern show supporting it. And in all three presidential debates, when asked about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said “I don’t know Putin” – even though in 2013 he told MSNBC: “I do have a relationship [with Putin], and I can tell you that he’s very interested in what we’re doing here today. He’s probably very interested in what you and I am saying today.”
But Trump doesn’t just deny his own words; he also routinely denies statements made by U.S. officials. For example, national intelligence leaders have said that Russia hacked into the Democratic National Committee emails in an effort to interfere in the election, but Trump has refused to acknowledge this. In the second debate, he said, “Maybe there is no hacking.” And in the final debate, he said: “[Hillary Clinton] has no idea whether it’s Russia, China, or anybody else. … And our country has no idea.” The Director of National Intelligence the next day repeated his agencies’ previous statements, forced into the position of denying Trump’s denial.
Trump even goes so far as to deny simple facts. In July on ABC’s “This Week,” when George Stephanopoulos asked Trump about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea – an act Putin has called justified because the “territory itself is strategically important” – Trump said: “He’s not going into Ukraine, OK? Just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.”
Trump’s campaign strategy is strikingly similar to Putin’s own propaganda model, which a June RAND report dubbed a “firehose of falsehood.” From the RAND report:
“We characterize the contemporary Russian model for propaganda as “the firehose of falsehood” because of two of its distinctive features: high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions. In the words of one observer, “[N]ew Russian propaganda entertains, confuses and overwhelms the audience.”
Contemporary Russian propaganda has at least two other distinctive features. It is also rapid, continuous, and repetitive, and it lacks commitment to consistency.”
The “firehood of falsehood” technique that the Rand study attributes to Russia is precisely the method adopted by Trump. Once a falsehood is stated by Trump, whether on Twitter or at a rally, Media Matters notes that it quickly spreads through media outlets worried about getting beat on a story:
“Credible mainstream American outlets and journalists, perhaps concerned “they will be labeled ‘biased,’” as claims John A. Tures, adopt stories that often are cultivated in the right-wing echo chamber and given life by Trump. After Clinton’s September pneumonia diagnoses, several mainstream outlets went all-in on hyping how “talk of Clinton’s health [is] no longer just the stuff of conspiracy theorists.” Media outlets have time and time and time again parroted right-wing pseudo-scandals about Clinton’s use of a private email server and about the Clinton Foundation (stories that were also hyped by right-wing outlets like Drudge and Fox News).”
When disinformation is repeated, even when it’s later shown to be false, the result is a cynical American public that doesn’t know what to believe. Media Matters adds:
“Trump and right-wing media have ushered in an era of post-truth politics where voters have ‘been successfully persuaded that everything is a lie, so the only political choice you have is to select the fiction that most fits your self-conception,’ as explained by journalist Ned Resnikoff.”
The most disturbing place where these “post-truth politics” are playing out now is in Trump’s denial in the integrity of the U.S. election process, which he repeatedly calls “rigged.” His claims that dead people and non-citizens are used to commit voter fraud have been repeatedly debunked, but that doesn’t stop him from saying them again and again. And these statements are duly reported by the media again and again.
Trump’s denigration of the election process could have the effects of raising tensions at polling places, preventing a peaceful transition of power to the next president or weakening the next president’s authority to work with other leaders at home and around the world – all threats to the core values of the American democratic system.
And that may be exactly what Trump and his political idol Putin are hoping for. As The Federalist’s John Daniel Davidson wrote:
“After all, if Putin can convince Americans that liberal democracy is nothing but a sham, he will accomplish what no leader of the Soviet Union ever could. Decades after we thought it was over, Russia will have finally won the Cold War.”