Trump and his White House don’t argue on the merits. They attack the institutions that come up with facts and arguments they don’t like.
They even do it preemptively. Last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer warned that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office couldn’t be trusted to come up with accurate numbers about the costs and coverage of the Republican’s replacement for the Affordable Care Act.
“If you’re looking at the CBO for accuracy, you’re looking in the wrong place,” he said.
So what’s the right place? The Oval Office?
Bear in mind the director of the CBO is a Republican economist and former George W. Bush administration official who was chosen for his position by the Republican Congress in 2015.
No matter. The White House is worried about what the CBO will say about Trumpcare, so it throws the CBO under the bus before the bus arrives.
Trump couldn’t care less about the long-term consequences, but the rest of us should. For more than four decades the U.S. budget process has depended on the CBO’s analyses and forecasts. The office has gained a reputation for honesty and reliability under both Republican and Democratic appointees. Now, it’s tainted.
This has been Trump’s MO since he first met a fact he didn’t like.
When candidate Trump didn’t like the positive employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing the economy improving under the Obama administration, what did he do? He called the official unemployment rate “such a phony number,” “one of the biggest hoaxes in American modern politics” and “the biggest joke there is.”
It’s possible to take issue with the ways the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures unemployment, but why undermine public trust in the Bureau itself?
Of course, when February’s job numbers turned out rosy, Trump’s White House embraced the monthly employment report. But the damage has been done. The BLS looks political.
Spicer tries to wrap Trump’s institutional attacks in populist garb: “I think [Trump] addressed that in his inaugural speech when he talked about shifting power outside of Washington D.C. back to the American people because for too long it’s been about stats … and it’s been about, what number are we looking at as opposed to what face are we looking at?”
Rubbish. The only way we can understand the true dimensions of the problems real people face is with data about these problems, from sources the public trusts. But if the credibility of those sources is repeatedly called into question by the president of the United States, there’s no shared truth about the problem.
When Trump disagreed with judicial findings about his original travel ban, he didn’t offer any reasons or analyses. Instead, he called the judge who issued the stay a “so-called judge” and attacked the appellate judges who upheld it as “so political” they weren’t “able to read a statement and do what’s right.”
When he blamed the intelligence agencies for the downfall of his first national security advisor, he didn’t spell out why. He just attacked them, issuing disparaging tweets with “intelligence” in quotation marks.
When he dislikes press reports, Trump doesn’t try to correct them. He assails the press as “the enemy of the American people,” “dishonest,” purveyors of “fake news,” and “the opposition party,” and questions their motives (they “have their own agenda, and it’s not your agenda, and it’s not the country’s agenda”)
When polls show that he has a low approval rating, he doesn’t say he expects the rating to improve. He attacks the entire polling industry, asserting “any negative polls are fake news.”
When scientists come up with conclusion he disagrees with, he doesn’t offer other credible sources of scientific data. He attacks science.
Trump thinks climate change is a hoax. His new head of the Environmental Protection Agency asserted last week that climate change isn’t caused by human activity.
What does the Trump administration do to prove the point? Nothing. Instead, it tells EPA staffers to remove pages from the EPA’s website concerning climate change, threatens to review all the agency’s data and publications, and cuts the budgets of all scientific research in government.
Trump’s big lies are bad enough because they subvert the truth and sow confusion. But Trump’s attacks on the institutions we rely on as sources of the truth are even more dangerous, because they make it harder for the public to believe anything.
In a democracy, the truth is a common good. Trump is actively destroying the truth-telling institutions our democracy depends on.
About the Author
ROBERT B. REICH, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock" and “The Work of Nations." His latest, "Beyond Outrage," is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.
Books by Robert Reich
Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few -- by Robert B. Reich
America was once celebrated for and defined by its large and prosperous middle class. Now, this middle class is shrinking, a new oligarchy is rising, and the country faces its greatest wealth disparity in eighty years. Why is the economic system that made America strong suddenly failing us, and how can it be fixed?
Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.
Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it -- by Robert B. Reich
In this timely book, Robert B. Reich argues that nothing good happens in Washington unless citizens are energized and organized to make sure Washington acts in the public good. The first step is to see the big picture. Beyond Outrage connects the dots, showing why the increasing share of income and wealth going to the top has hobbled jobs and growth for everyone else, undermining our democracy; caused Americans to become increasingly cynical about public life; and turned many Americans against one another. He also explains why the proposals of the “regressive right” are dead wrong and provides a clear roadmap of what must be done instead. Here’s a plan for action for everyone who cares about the future of America.
Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.