Neither Take His Bait, Nor Erase His Lies
In today’s news, our president lied again. Sadly, this is not new or exceptional.
Oct. 11: "I can tell you Matt Whitaker's a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker," the president told Fox & Friends.
Nov. 10: "I don't know Matt Whitaker," the president told reporters as he left the White House for a trip to Paris. In fact, he had met with his attorney general appointee more than a dozen times.
There are at least three tough issues raised in this story.
First, if the president does not know him that is a problem.
If the president 'does not know' the man he just appointed acting Attorney General, that is a problem because he just made this man the top law enforcement official in the nation.
Second, if the president does know him that is a problem.
If the president saying he 'does not know' the man he just appointed directly contradicts the same president saying he did know the man on Fox recently, this is a problem because we no longer know what is accurate AND because it raises serious doubts about whether or not we can believe anything this president says.
A second reason this is a problem is the fact that this appointee is clearly unqualified.
Third, this problem creates a tough challenge for us and for reporters.
Since merely pointing out that this president lies more than 30 times a day since taking office clearly has no impact on either his behavior or the loyalty of his (shrinking) base, this is a problem that puts journalists (like Jim Acosta, April Ryan, Abby Phillip, and Yamiche Alcindor) in a no-win situation.
Does a professional journalist create her own echo chamber by choosing to call the president a liar? Not because this is inaccurate or lacks objectivity, since that is now merely an objectively true observation not even his defenders bother to challenge, but because only those who already dislike the president will continue to listen to this journalists reporting.
Some might argue calling the president a liar (daily) is as uncivil as the lying itself. Perhaps, but I doubt that it is useful to think of civility as an obstacle to clear political communication.
For me the important dimension is to what degree does highlighting presidential bullshitting advance the president’s agenda? Does doing this further polarize political communication (thus, maybe re-entering the civility conversation)? Do we need to link the lies together to highlight the president's instability, insincerity, and dangerousness?
Tough questions. And we need to recognize how tough these questions are, because treating these as obvious (just call him out all the time) is likely to mean we are playing a role he has cast for us in his movie.
In the spirit of all White House reporters should preface their questions with “Jim Acosta wants to ask...” we need to see that responding effectively here, when a skilled huckster and showman has his finger on our launch codes, requires creativity and imagination.
And we need shorter blog posts (sorry).
In conversation, I suggest we just use this 'preface' approach. Start every comment with, 'While we cannot trust anything this president says...as with any policy question it takes some time to sort out the trade-offs involved....’
Then do not engage in ‘did he or did he not lie,’ but move to a focus on what would be a better policy, carefully respecting the trade-offs and competing perspectives embedded in any serious policy debate.
Neither take his bait, nor erase his lies.
We need to avoid contributing to the creation of daily news cycles that only focus on 'did he lie or not,' ceding to him even more capacity to frame and control the news.
While we cannot trust a word that this president says, most policy challenges do in fact require time and patience to sort out because there are usually competing interests and multiple communities with overlapping concerns connected to all sides of a debate.
We have good reason to suspect that the president does not understand the complexities of most policy debates, or respect the importance of trying to speak truthfully. Even so, we need to respect those who fall on competing sides of complex policy debates if we want our participation in these debates to more likely result in both better policy and a stronger anti-trump coalition.
It is frustrating, but dwelling on the president's stupidity is dumb.
We should note his lying in an effort to frame a real conversation, but when we dwell on his stupidity (as right and righteous as this feels) we poison the policy conversation, because those who see the policy question differently than we do hear us telling them that they are stupid.
And that is a recipe for our failure.
To secure better policy and a stronger governing coalition, we need to maximize our capacity to be both 'right' and 'in relationships.'