On Tuesday, Kellyanne Conway did the unthinkable: She admitted and then corrected a mistake. The catch: It wasn’t her own. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed on Sunday that in 2018 Customs and Border Patrol had stopped 4,000 terrorists or terrorist suspects at the U.S.-Mexico border. The problem? That statistic was from 2017 and included encounters around the world, which were, obviously, almost all at airports. The real number of immigrants stopped at the Southern border in 2018—whose names were on a government list of known or suspected terrorists—is six. Conway called the 3,994 margin of error “an unfortunate misstatement.”
Our most senior government officials are lying to our faces. It’s propaganda. Donald Trump had two years to get a border wall, but he failed to convince his Republican Congress. The White House now must make its desperate case to the people, but the only way they know how to do it is to stoke racist fears. Turns out there’s simply not much to fear in the real world, so they lie. And they’re lying about official government statistics.
All told, of course, Conway’s correction was a good thing. But it also indicates the administration knows there’s a danger in lying about official stats. They see it cynically, because the press can pretty easily dig up the real numbers.
Last week we learned that the U.S. Department of Justice published some wildly misleading facts about recent arrests of suspected terrorists. It appears the DOJ deliberately skewed some of those facts, because—unlike, say, a newspaper article that gets something wrong—the department refuses to retract or correct the errors, calling them “editorial.”
Among those “mistakes” was a claim that immigrants had committed 69,929 sex offenses in the last six years. But that data covered arrests—not convictions—over a 55-year period, from 1955 to 2010. Government Accountability Office, which provided the underlying data. A DOJ spokesperson said that “in future reports, the department can strive to minimize the potential for misinterpretation.”
This is crazy and dangerous. First, there’s the cynical and pernicious goal of these lies, which is to reinforce racist misconceptions about terrorism and immigration. This has profound and lasting societal consequences. Second, and equally if not more corrosive, we can’t trust our government—even its official statements and statistics.
The weird thing about the latter is that it’s me questioning them now, when at the beginning of the administration it was the administration casting doubt on its own government. In March 2017 Mick Mulvaney, for instance, said falsely that the Obama administration had manipulated its jobs numbers. Three months later, Mulvaney disputed numbers from the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office. At the time, given the success the administration had with the MAGA base when it lied about fake news, it seemed that the obvious next step, if and when needed, would be to sucker the base into mistrusting its own government if official data complicated Trump’s agenda. This could corrupt legislative debate and extend to reports such as the census and, perhaps most detrimentally, to voter fraud. Now, however, people on the left such as myself mistrust that data, and mistrust the government.
We can trace this back to the real fake news: The Russian government’s efforts to undermine the election by spreading completely false stories and conspiracy theories through American social media. That truly was fake stuff. Outright lies. But after the election Trump co-opted the phrase and applied it incorrectly to mistakes or sloppy reporting. Now his base has the impression that the press invents stories to make Trump look bad. They see this as a traitorous insurrection, which Trump tells them it is. They have in turn sent bombs to newsrooms, and they continually threaten the lives of journalists.
Look. Over the last two years I’ve operated on a default subconscious assumption that Donald Trump is a pathological liar you can’t trust, but I didn’t think he lied literally all the time. (“Literally” in the literal sense.) But in recent months that feeling changed, and it seems with reason: The Washington Post, which documents Trump’s false statements, reported that over those same months Trump has ramped up the number of lies he told per day. At the beginning of his administration he’d spit between two and four canards a day, but in 2018 he averaged about fifteen. FIFTEEN.
Trump doesn’t just lie. He also makes stuff up. That fictional ten percent tax cut for the middle class, for instance, which Trump said he was going to send to Congress a couple weeks before midterm elections, when they weren’t even in session. That one caught his own aides by surprise. He never sent the proposal, and after the election he hasn’t spoken of it again. This isn’t simply unethical and frustrating. It’s deeply cynical and belies the fact that he really doesn’t care about the middle class or his own supporters. If he really believed they should get a ten percent tax cut, he would actually try to get them that tax cut. Same with the wall: He had two years to get that done—it was a priority for his base—but he didn’t. Instead he spent about thirty percent of that time on vacation.
Trump tells so many lies that we have trouble holding him accountable for any of them. He gets away with it, and he’s so influential and present in our lives that it bends reality. As the ultimate decision-maker of the executive branch, he shapes the worldview. The audacity to lie has now spread from White House mouthpieces to departments that publish official government statistics, historically the most authoritative data available. That data has been corrupted specifically so it can be politicized, which not only leads to misinformed or successfully cynical policy decisions; it puts Americans at risk.
And this is what a world built on alternative facts looks like. It’s a dangerous place—for democracy, yes, but also for the people smeared with blame. Perhaps most importantly, though, is the government’s target: They want Americans to fear minorities. This is, obviously, a bad path that appeals to authoritarian crackdowns and the kind of violent xenophobic outbursts we’ve seen all too often over the last two years.
But we on the left can’t lose faith in our government, either. That foments apathy and, ultimately, authoritarianism. Unfortunately, our government is purposefully undermining its own credibility, leaving us little choice.