It’s as clear as it can be that Donald Trump’s first instinct, in almost any situation, is to reach for a lie, writes Fergus Finlay
THEY used to call me a spin doctor. That was back in the day, and it was seldom meant as a compliment. In the eyes of the journalists who used the expression most freely, spin doctors were people (working in politics) who twisted the truth and manipulated journalists.
Always, of course, other journalists. I never actually met a journalist who confessed to me that they themselves had been manipulated or charmed by a spin doctor. There was one journalist who interviewed me about being a spin doctor, and wrote afterwards that I was one of the most manipulative people he’d ever met, because in person I seemed to him to be reasonably honest and straightforward, and that was proof positive of how sinister I must really be!
Spin doctor was one of those labels that could get you into trouble. You might introduce yourself to someone at a dinner party, and they’d roll their eyes to heaven and say “ah, the spin doctor”. Kind of as if they’d just been introduced to a house burglar. And I did go through a period, after the collapse of a certain government, when it was perfectly OK to imply “sure who’d believe a word he says — isn’t he a spin doctor, after all”.
For a long time I hated the label, and didn’t much care for the people who flung it around either. I even went through a phase of quoting the little four-line poem by Humbert Wolfe, to sum up how I felt about journalists:
“You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! The British journalist.
“But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”
But you grow out of these things. I don’t know what the truth is about the great mass of British journalists, but it is certainly the case that we have been, and are, lucky in Ireland in the calibre of writers, reporters, analysts, critics and commentators we have. I could reel you off a list of names that have done huge public service through their research and writing, in this newspaper, in local and national newspapers throughout the country, and on radio and television. They mightn’t always have agreed with me, but that’s OK.
And yes, I was a spin doctor. I was an advocate for a point of view — and I would fight hard for that point of view. But I’ve always believed that if you want to be taken seriously, you have to tell the truth (even if the truth wasn’t always palatable). The advocate who tells lies, or distorts the truth, always gets found out in the end. A decent spin doctor is never a liar.
Truth is vital to public discourse. It’s vital even in the most vigorous of debates and conflicts within a democracy. When truth dies, democracy dies. And there is a real risk that it becomes replaced by a form of authoritarianism that thrives on conflict and secrecy and the sowing of seeds of fear and distrust.
It’s important to acknowledge that there’s a difference between truth and facts. The present government, for example, is clinging rigidly to a factual explanation of how Máire Whelan was appointed a judge (and by the way I think she’ll be a good judge). It’s factual, but it’s not entirely honest. It’s a fact that she was appointed in accordance with the Constitution, the law, and a particular set of procedures. But everyone who repeats those facts also knows that the procedures have changed in recent years, and the government ignored that change.
That’s an example of a certain kind of spin — one that uses facts to obscure a larger truth. There’s a sense in which that kind of spin, now and again, is reasonably harmless — because the real damage it does is to the credibility of the spinner. The damage it has done in this case is to a new Taoiseach. He needs to repair it — and certainly not repeat the same shifty behaviour again — if his longer-term credibility isn’t to be undermined. The Máire Whelan controversy isn’t one of those things that kills the truth — it just does bits of damage to the less than truthful.
But what happens to democracy when lies and untruths start to become the most common currency? And especially when that is the case in the most powerful democracy in the world?
The New York Times is one of the most respected newspapers there is anywhere. It has made mistakes, some of them grievous, in the past. It has always owned up to its mistakes, as far as I know.
A few days ago, the newspaper published a long article cataloguing the lies of Donald Trump. It has published a complete list, and (in brackets) the truth behind each lie. It’s an astonishing, frightening list.
According to the newspaper, Donald Trump, speaking as US president (not as candidate or as businessman or as celebrity) said something that was untrue on each of the first 40 days since he was inaugurated. You’ll remember he was sworn in on January 20. The first day after that that he didn’t utter an untruth was March 1.
Of course, he said some true things along the way. But it’s as clear as it can be that Donald Trump’s first instinct, in almost any situation, is to reach for a lie. Sometimes he tells them again and again. Sometimes he contradicts his lies with the truth. Occasionally he contradicts his lies with a bigger lie.
This has never happened in history before, except once. I know there’s a theory that says nobody should ever be compared to Adolf Hitler. But an organisation called the OSS once did a psychological portrait of Hitler. The OSS was the American intelligence operation during the Second World War — after the war it was changed to become the CIA. In their analysis of the German dictator, they said:
“His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”
Hitler came to power in a democracy. It was a fragile and young democracy, in a country that had been nearly destroyed by the First World War and a world shaken to its core by economic collapse in 1929. He built his regime of hate on one lie after another, with terrible consequences for the whole world.
Of course, Trump isn’t Hitler. But he believes in the power of the lie, and he’s willing to use lies to sow fear and capitalise on ignorance. More than any democratically elected leader in my lifetime, he is a threat to democracy, and the world needs to wake up to that fact. The European Union can’t just seek to manage this democratic threat. The time is coming when they need to confront it. Because ultimately, democracy cannot survive the collapse of truth.
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