In a meticulously reported and lengthy examination of President Donald Trump and his family’s financial empire, the New York Times has uncovered significant evidence of fraud and busted the mythology – pushed by Trump himself – of a self-made man.
The Times describes its investigation as “unprecedented in scope and precision, offering the first comprehensive look at the inherited fortune and tax dodges that guaranteed Donald J. Trump a gilded life.”
If every one of the 13,000 words of the report is true, if every comma is in the right place and every source is correctly cited – if the story is bulletproof and beyond reproach – I’m not sure that it will matter.
Our country has become so tribalized, our politics so contorted, that some significant slice of the population will simply dismiss the revelations as “fake news” or not care even if they think they’re true.
The president’s boast from the campaign, that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” is more true today than ever for millions of people, including many in Congress who have an obligation to hold him accountable and to protect the country.
The takeaways from the Times report are devastating to the story the president has been selling in his books, TV shows and during his presidential campaign and time in office.
In language that is frankly unusually blunt for a newspaper, the investigation talks about a pattern of deception, bailouts and shady practices meant to avoid paying taxes and to shield the Trump family’s business practices from scrutiny.
The reporting digs deep and offers a compelling reason why the president, breaking precedent, has refused to release his tax returns.
Trump refused to talk with the Times, but through a lawyer denied all the allegations and threatened to hold the newspaper liable for defamation.
For any other president – any other politician – a report like this would be devastating.
But Trump is like no other. His ability to divide the country into us and them, to capitalize on grievance and to turn facts into liabilities appear to be unlimited.
Consider the debate about Judge Brett Kavanaugh, nominated to the US Supreme Court. Kavanaugh faces credible allegations of sexual misconduct. His testimony before the Senate’s Judiciary Committee broke every taboo for a judge. He likely lied about details big and small. He was angry, partisan and emotional.
And yet, a substantial number of Republicans and a big majority of white, non-college-educated white men (according to a Quinnipiac poll) support Kavanaugh’s confirmation, believe him and not his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, and overall think Kavanaugh – who lied even about the drinking age when he was in high school – is honest.
The rot is deep and the truth is the biggest casualty.
On social media, my friend group leans to the left, but I have a lot of folks in my online life from my family and in rural Virginia where I grew up who are conservative.
Three times on Tuesday, conservative friends and family posted different memes about Kavanaugh, Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. A quick check of the Internet quickly debunked the information contained.
I think we all have an obligation to call out information that’s patently not true when we can. So I did, as politely as I could in a medium built for two things: Cat pictures and wars of words.
The responses were pretty similar, and the underlying message was the same: Whether the information was true or not didn’t matter.
It could be true. It was true enough.
I’m not sharing the stories to shame anyone for falling for a too-good-(or bad)-to-be-true meme.
But at a time when the balance of power in government is concentrated, when the president has no allegiance to the truth or honest government and when Congress refuses to do its duty and provide oversight, we are left with fewer and fewer places that can help us separate what’s real from what’s bullshit.
The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Bangor Daily News, the Portland Press Herald, and Maine Public do their best every day to tell us what’s happening in our world. They are not perfect or infallible. But without them, I’m not sure where we would be.
Frankly, my even bigger concern is where we are even with them. What if every word in the Times expose is true, what if Kavanaugh lied, what if he sexually assaulted a young woman – and what if none of it matters?
If we are so divided that large parts of our country prefer a lie – willingly, knowingly in some cases – to the truth, how do we come back?
We cannot allow the truth to become only what the powerful tell us. We have to be able to see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears and challenge our own beliefs – even if we love the president, or really want to share that meme.