By Roger Bowen
Maine’s own prize-winning novelist Stephen King reminds us that “The trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool.”
A couple weeks ago the New York Times, drawing from research by Politifact, Factcheck.org, The Washington Post Fact Checker and the Toronto Star, reported on every lie, falsehood and misleading statement that President Donald Trump told from his first day in office through June 21. A full page, using small print, was required. In all, the Times concluded, Trump “said something untrue” on 74 of the first 113 days of his presidency.
The casual reader or listener cannot be expected to discern every lie by Trump. But once armed with facts such as Trump’s unpardonable list of lies, can any American forgive the President’s repeated violations of their trust?
Apparently the answer to that question is “yes.” Survey Monkey reported poll results a few days ago that shows 50 percent of Americans trust CNN (the target of Trump’s notorious body slam) more than they trust Trump, while 43 percent trust Trump more. Party affiliation is key here: 89 percent of GOP members trust Trump, while 91 percent of Democrats trust CNN more and 55 percent of independents trust CNN while only 40 percent of them trust Trump.
Trust is a fragile thing in politics. Our Constitution’s motto could have been Ronald Reagan’s dictum, “Trust but verify,” since the founders of our nation created institutions that were biased against trusting government, hence the three branches and separation of powers, checks and balances, the Bill of Rights and the possibility of impeachment. Much of our Constitution, in brief, is premised on the danger of government power being concentrated and further presumes that not all government officials can be trusted to protect the public good.
How can a liar be trusted? “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters,” Albert Einstein wrote, “cannot be trusted with important matters.” Yet in poll after poll, Trump’s base — non-college educated, rural white Americans — continue to stand by him even as such elected officials as Maine’s Susan Collins and Angus King warn that “Trumpcare” will result in thousands upon thousands of them losing Medicaid health care while simultaneously rewarding the very rich with huge tax breaks.
The innocent may well deserve that attribution because they do not read the Times or the Washington Post. They may well prefer Fox News to CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS or ABC; they may prefer Rush Limbaugh over NPR. If so, their innocence is earned, but then so too is their ignorance. Only the ignorant will trust a liar.
But in a democracy dedicated to erasing ignorance through public education — “the truth shall make you free” — the consequences of purposeful ignorance are enormous. Sure, public education devotes less attention to civics and government than it used to, but in the age of mass communications, ignorance requires an act of will. A willing suspension of disbelief by Trump supporters has permitted the President to tell lies, and perhaps worse (collusion with the Russians), and shown that it is indeed possible to fool some of the people all of the time.
To recover the public trust in politics and in government, Republicans must reclaim their ideological roots and extend their wariness of government to the President himself. Republicans, not Democrats, are traditionally the political party most distrustful of concentration of power, whether it is government or the undeserving rich. Trump represents both.
Roger Bowen is a Gouldsboro selectman.