For more than three years pundits and citizens alike have been trying to understand why President Trump spends so much time saying things that are not true; why he makes it an almost daily habit to say (or Tweet) information that is simply false. More and more, the answer seems pretty obvious: he is playing to his base supporters and he thinks those supporters are stupid.
Let me explain.
It’s hardly news that President Trump has a complicated relationship with the truth. Whether its misinformation about crowd sizes, exaggerations about his accomplishments, or flat-out lies about his own actions, Trump doesn’t seem to have a problem saying things that aren’t true. In just the past few months, tweets from his personal Twitter account have included claims that he had the “highest poll numbers in the history of the Republican party” (False), that “US Steel is building 6 new steel mills” (False), that after September 11 “the stock market was open the following day” (False), that “crime is way up in Germany” (False), that in the 2018 elections Republicans “dramatically outperformed historical precedents” (False), that we now “have thousands of judges” working immigration cases (False), that illegal immigration costs the US “more than $200 billion a year” (False), or that violent crime is going down for the “first time in a long while” (False).
These recent tweets don’t even include some of the most blatantly false things he has said since announcing he would run for president. Speaking about 9/11 during an interview on ABC’s This Week in 2016 he claimed “thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building [World Trade Center] was coming down.” There is no evidence that this happened. Just days after his inauguration Trump claimed that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because “millions and millions of people” voted illegally. There is no evidence that this happened. In the months immediately after he became president he made false statements about crime in Sweden (February 2017), that Obama had bugged Trump Tower (March 2017), that counter protesters in Charlottesville didn’t have a permit (August 2017), and that Americans pay higher taxes than any country in the world (August 2017).
The list could go on (and it does). A number of media sites, including the Washington Post, are tracking all of Trump’s false or misleading statements since he became President and the list now includes over 9000 statements!
But why does the President do this? Why does he so often make claims that are so easy to disprove? What makes him think that he can get away with it without (much) pushback from a significant portion of the population? Quite simply, because his strategy is to play only to his most ardent supporters and he thinks those supporters are stupid.
This must be the position of the President. He must believe his supporters aren’t sophisticated enough to decipher between fact and fiction; that they cannot exhibit the kind of behavior necessary to make informed decisions on their own; that they are so close-minded they are not capable of questioning what he says. He must believe that he can say (almost) anything and they will just believe him…because he’s Donald Trump. To put it simply, he makes no effort to tell the truth because he thinks his supporters will make no effort to find out whether or not what he is saying is true.
Sadly, there is some evidence to suggest Trump might be right. Recent polling has found that the more dishonest Trump is the stronger his support among his base. The more he promotes conspiracy theories and false claims, the more likely his supporters are to believe him. Blatant fabrications become ‘fact’ in the world of many Trump supporters. But it’s not just his core-supporters who are falling for Trump’s false claims. His popularity among the far Right-wing of the party has caused traditional Republicans (fearing primary challenges from the pro-Trump wing of the party) to tacitly go along with Trump’s misinformation campaign. Republicans in Congress rarely criticize Trump publicly and almost never correct his false or misleading tweets. During the mid-term elections, Republican candidates welcomed Trump at campaign events across the country and at those very events he continued to peddle untruths and misinformation. They didn’t seem to mind. And despite a clear repudiation from voters in the 2018 mid-term elections (where Republicans lost more seats than any election since Watergate) the President is showing no signs of changing his approach.
The recent controversy over funding for a border wall is a perfect example. Because the facts are not on his side, President Trump continues to push false narratives about immigration and crime along the southern Border. His own U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics show that illegal border crossings are at historic lows, that there is a net negative migration flow with Mexico, that the majority of illegal immigrants in the country are a result of visa-overstays — not illegal border crossings, that the vast majority of illegal drugs that enter the country come through legal ports of entry, that there is virtually no example of terrorists entering the country along the southern border, and on and on and on. Yet the President claims that other statistics are true when he’s out on the stump. When questioned on his OWN administrations’ statistics in February he said to a reporter, “You don’t believe those statistics do you?” But Trump continues to invent scary statistics because he must be certain that his base either won’t question the information or will choose to ignore it or claim it is ‘fake.’ Trump must be certain that his base will simply choose to believe what he says rather than what the evidence says.
Now Trump has convinced his supporters that there is a National Emergency along the border and he, as President, must override the will of the U.S. Congress and the American people (every poll shows that most American’s are against his wall and the National Emergency) and build the wall anyway. To garner support for this ‘emergency’ Trump (again) resorts to spreading information that is simply not true, saying at a rally last week that illegal immigration costs America “billions and billions of dollars a month” (False), that “the big drug loads don’t go through ports of entry” (False), that El Paso, TX “used to have extremely high rates of crime” and was “one of our nations most dangerous cities” (False), or that he has already, in fact, “built a lot of wall” (False).
To repeatedly make false claims like this Trump must be pretty confident that his supporters will not question his ‘facts’ and will have no interest in trying to find out if what he is saying is true or not or are incapable of doing so. In other words, he must think they are stupid.