In the 1967 movie “A Guide For the Married Man,” a philandering husband is told to “Deny, deny, deny,” even when his wife walks in on him in bed with another woman. Eventually, in the face of his calm insistence he did nothing wrong, she gives up accusing him and moves on with their day.
Donald Trump appears to be applying this sort of strategy in his run for president, counting on the antipathy conservatives feel for mainstream media to cause them to side with him. And media outlets, eager to get on with the next big story, look somewhat flummoxed in terms of how to deal with it.
Admittedly, there’s nothing new in Trump’s approach, which capitalizes on a longstanding trend in which partisans on both sides can find like-minded expressions of their beliefs if they just know where to direct their remote or Internet browser. Moreover, politicians have generally earned their reputations for cherry-picking statistics and spinning facts to buttress their views.
Still, Trump has taken the tactic to what feels like a new extreme – to borrow the words of Bruce Springsteen, a “No retreat, no surrender” approach, which wins cheers from his supporters because of how much they despise the messengers saying it’s not true. Never mind that some of the second-guessing is coming from what on the surface would appear to be friendly sources, including Trump’s periodic skirmishes throughout the campaign with Fox News Channel and some of its anchors and commentators.
News organizations, meanwhile, seem confused regarding how to handle a candidate who dismisses any attempts to fact-check his pronouncements or tweets as partisan attacks. Even during interviews where Trump is confronted about false statements, the line of questioning usually allows for one or two follow-up questions before moving on to a new topic.
Conservatives and liberals have long struggled to agree on basic facts, which has contributed to the polarized nature of the debate. Yet Trump’s steadfast determination to stick to his guns – even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary – has not only widened the divide but threatens to make an already nasty political environment even more toxic. And thanks to years of being told not to trust the other side, Trump can wear condemnation of his “applause lies” by the New York Times; or being referred to as the “post-truth candidate” by NBC News; or fact-checking efforts by the Washington Post, as a badge of honor.
Even many of Trump’s defenders, including radio personality Rush Limbaugh, seem to acknowledge that he has at the very least exaggerated his incendiary claims about “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating on Sept. 11. But on one score, Limbaugh was right, addressing the media reaction to some of Trump’s more outlandish comments: “When they think Trump says something that’s the equivalent of stepping in it, they think everybody reacts that way, and so when it doesn’t happen, when Trump is not harmed and when he’s not hurt, in fact, when he gains ground, they are left stymied.”
That might be good news for Trump, who, when challenged about what might be called infidelity to the truth, has mastered the art of “Deny, deny, deny.” But it’s bad news not just for the media, but anybody who likes to think that the definition of fact should be more than merely the opposite of whatever it is your ideological opponents say.