I began writing a column for The Times way back in 2000. My beat was supposed to be economics and business. But I couldn’t help noticing that one of that year’s contenders for the presidency was systematically making false claims about his policy proposals. George W. Bush kept insisting that his 1%-friendly tax cuts were targeted on the middle class, and his plan to privatize Social Security just wished away the system’s obligations to older Americans.
At the time, however, my editors told me that it wasn’t acceptable to use the word “lie” when writing about presidential candidates.
By now, though, most informed observers have, I think, finally decided that it’s OK to report the fact that Donald Trump lies constantly.
Many of the lies are trivial, often bizarrely so, like Trump’s repeated claims to have received an award that doesn’t even exist. But the president has closed out this year’s campaign with two huge, dangerous lies — and there’s every reason to fear that this week he will roll out a third big lie, perhaps even more dangerous than the first two.
The first big lie is the claim that America is being menaced by hordes of “rioters, looters, arsonists, gun-grabbers, flag-burners, Marxists.”
Anyone who walks around the “anarchist jurisdictions” of New York or Seattle can see with their own eyes that nothing like this is happening. And the data bear out the obvious. One systematic study found that the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, and that “most of the violence that did take place was, in fact, directed against the BLM protesters.”
Oh, and Trump keeps claiming that Joe Biden won’t condemn the small amount of violence that has actually happened — when Biden has, in fact, done exactly that.
So Trump wants Americans to be terrified of a menace that exists only in his imagination. At the same time, he wants us to ignore the very real menace of COVID-19.
Over the past few months Trump has effectively abandoned any effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, he has been actively promoting that spread. One credible Stanford study estimated that Trump rallies, which involve large numbers of shouting people packed closely together, most unmasked, have caused around 30,000 infections and 700 deaths.
But Trump wants Americans to believe that the pandemic — which killed more Americans last month than are murdered in a typical year — is fake news. We’re “rounding the corner,” he insists, even as infections and hospitalizations are rising at a terrifying rate. The news media is going on about “COVID, COVID, COVID” only because it’s out to get him. Doctors are inflating the reported death toll because they want to make more money.
These big lies are immensely destructive, and not just because they lead to bad policies. Like it or not, presidential rhetoric affects how millions of Americans behave.
Trump’s lies about an anarchist threat have given encouragement to white supremacists, including domestic terrorists. His dismissal of the pandemic threat, his mocking of precautionary measures like mask-wearing, have done a lot to help the coronavirus spread.
But the worst may be yet to come.
It’s possible — barely — that Trump will legitimately win reelection, although this would require that the polls be much further off than they were in 2016. If that doesn’t happen, however, it’s a near-certainty that he will refuse to accept defeat quietly.
Unless he loses in an overwhelming landslide, he has indicated he will try to steal the election by blocking the counting of Biden votes, with the aid of partisan judges. I don’t think he’ll succeed, but I wish I was sure of that.
What if he doesn’t manage to hang on to office? We all know what’s likely to come next: claims that he was robbed. He’ll claim that millions of people voted illegally — after all, he did that following the 2016 election, denying that he lost the popular vote. He’ll probably claim that millions of Trump votes were somehow discarded — after all, he has already made the false claim that ballots are being “dumped in rivers.”
And he’ll find a receptive audience. Professional forecasters have considered Biden the heavy favorite for a long time, but according to a late September Gallup survey, 90% of Republicans expect Trump to win. If he loses, our conspiracy-minded right will react with shock and rage.
The immediate result may very well be a wave of violence and property destruction — Trump supporters engaging in the behavior they falsely attribute to Black Lives Matter demonstrators. But that’s actually the part that worries me least.
No, the really big danger is that millions of our citizens will probably buy into an American version of the “stab in the back” myth that loomed large after Germany’s defeat in World War I, claiming the military was betrayed by the civilian government. And those voters may well end up choosing the GOP’s next presidential candidate.
Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.