We Still Don’t Know What to Do With the Endless Stream of Trump Lies

It’s not just that he’s making things up, but that he’s distracting us from very real, very consequential problems.

An empty lectern at a Trump rally
Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post / Getty

An empty lectern at a Trump rally

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Did you hear how Donald Trump didn’t know about the most important U.S. defense alliance before he became president? Don’t take it from me. Take it from the man himself.

“I didn’t even know what the hell NATO was too much before, but it didn’t take me long to figure it out, like about two minutes,” he said Tuesday at a rally in Florida. “And the first thing I figured out was they weren’t paying. We were paying. We were paying almost fully for NATO. And I said, ‘That’s unfair.’”

It’s a good story, and it’s totally false. Trump has been complaining that other NATO members aren’t paying their rightful share for nearly four decades. “I’ve always felt that NATO and West Germany—I mean, we have all those troops over there; I feel that they should pay their way,” he told CNN’s Larry King in 1987. “If you look at the payments that we’re making to NATO, they’re totally disproportionate with everybody else’s.” In a series of videos around the 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya, he repeatedly discussed American funding for NATO. In March 2016, he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “It’s costing us too much money, and frankly, they have to put up more money.”

I could go on, but what’s the point? As I wrote back in 2019, Trump is a master of what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt called “bullshit.” As a technical term, this is speech that might be false, but deception isn’t the main point. The bullshitter “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

The stream of bullshit, in the Frankfurtian sense, remains one of Trump’s most potent tools. On the one hand, reporters can’t quote Trump’s false comments without caveat; on the other hand, the time spent debunking statements that were never designed to be true anyway distracts from important, fact-based conversations about actual problems. The issue with his NATO remarks is not that the anecdote is false; it’s that he is undermining America’s key alliance at a time when Russia is fighting a brutal war of annexation in Ukraine and threatening other European states, and Trump is, by his own account, happy to tell the Kremlin to go ahead.

Any Trump appearance has more in common with a comedy set than with a typical political speech. As in a comedy routine, listeners don’t necessarily expect everything he says to be strictly true. Hasan Minhaj learned that a comic can get into trouble when his fans believe that he is strictly telling the truth and he is not, but Trump’s fans are not so fastidious about facts. They are taking him seriously, not literally.

“People were destroyed with the inflation,” Trump said at another moment in his Florida rally. “I don’t even order bacon anymore. Bacon’s gone up like five—I said, ‘It’s too expensive; I don’t want it.’ I don’t want it. No, it’s gone up many times, right?”

Well, no. The price of bacon is up about 17 percent since Joe Biden took office. That’s actually less than the overall rate of inflation; pork producers are concerned about a glut of pig meat. Maybe Trump just picked a random food item, but in any case, the story serves to illustrate an attack on Biden’s handling of the economy. No one outside the pork industry cares a great deal whether the details are right, but the crowds listening to Trump do care about inflation. And those crowds are large. By his account, tens of thousands of people attended. By independent accounts, the number was just in the thousands. Does it matter?

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