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Fifth column

January 6, 2018

Trump, truth and fake news

Opinion

January 6, 2018

America’s septuagenarian president, Donald Trump, in his New Year tweet scolded Pakistan for only offering ‘lies and deceit’ in return for aid money, that he put at a staggering $33 billion, given in the last 15 years.

Trump’s tirade seems to have united Pakistan’s fractured political system, perhaps only momentarily, as Islamabad lambasted the US for ignoring Pakistan’s contribution in the fight against terrorism and extremism in the region, including losing thousands of its people and billions of dollars. With Pakistan’s limited ability to manoeuvre a deal with the US, the ruckus will ultimately die down, much to the advantage of the US. Pakistan’s political elite has already agreed to negotiate the issue with studied patience and endurance, shorthand for embracing the fait accompli, a decades-old standard practice in the Pak-American relationship. For ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis, the apparent and only consolation might come from Trump declaring all the complex systems of the military-industrial complex in the US and its leaders as ‘foolish’.

Trump’s tweet has, once again, exposed the massive gulf between the American and Pakistani perceptions of their mutual roles in the war on terror. It has also uncovered the levels of mistrust between the so-called allies in an equation that remains perpetually and heavily in favour of the US as it continues to demand to ‘do-more’. This is not for the first time that the US authorities have poured scorn on Pakistan’s ‘duplicity’. However, Trump’s vulgar bashing is the first for a US president – by no means the first for Donald Trump, though. His criticism of Pakistani policies is not new. In August last year, he accused Pakistan of providing ‘safe havens to agents of chaos, violence and terror’ while vowing to be tougher on the country. Prior to Trump’s foolish tweet, his administration had warned withholding $225 million in aid to Pakistan over the country’s ‘handling of terrorism’ – a threat that has now been executed.

Around the time Trump was publicly pillorying Pakistan for the alleged ‘lies and deceit’ to the US authorities, the ‘Washington Post’ revealed that in his first year as president (348 days to be precise), Donald Trump has made nearly 2000 claims that are misleading or simply false, with an average of 5.6 misleading or false claims made every single day. A CNN report on the issue highlighted Trump’s “casual relationship with the truth and utter lack of regard for being factual”. The Fact Checker blog at the ‘Washing Post’ highlighted 24 falsehoods in President Trump’s recent interview with a ‘New York Times’ reporter during the Christmas and New Year holidays. Trump has not shied away from repeating or recycling his falsehoods. The ‘Post’s’ Fact Checker claims that the US president repeated more than 60 falsehoods at least three times during his opening year as president. This not only shows his utter indifference towards facts but also for the whole world that he addresses through his tweets, impromptu press interviews or other forms of sudden and public outbursts.

According to George Lakoff, a former professor of linguistics and the current director at the Centre for the Neural Mind and Society, “Trump uses social media as a weapon to control the news cycle. It works like a charm. His tweets are tactical rather than substantive”. Lakoff identifies four categories by which Trump influences his audience and the new media: “pre-emptive framing, diversion, deflection, and trial balloon”. If we borrow from Lakoff’s definition, Trump’s latest tweet could be framing Pakistan for the continued American failure in Afghanistan, despite investing billions of dollars in war and bombing and droning the country to the stone-age. Lakoff describes Trump’s use of ‘trial balloon’ to test, “the public’s reaction to something and perhaps their tolerance for aggression”. Again, this could be applied to the Pakistan tweet, wherein Trump is testing Pakistan’s tolerance for humiliation and aggression – something Pakistan has continually suffered at the US’s hands for well over the last two decades.

Notwithstanding President Trump’s own ‘casual relationship with the truth’ he announced ‘awards’ for the ‘dishonest and corrupt media’; they are to be revealed this coming Monday. The ‘honour’ will be dispensed under three categories, Fake, Faker, and Fakest News, according to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee. The committee has suggested three news stories for the awards, one from CNN, Time Magazine and ABC News each.

The US president had been continuously slamming the media even before he assumed office. He popularised the use of the term ‘fake news’ both in his tweets and public speeches for stamping out criticism and discrediting the negative media coverage. In the process, he has conflated unfavourable journalism with disinformation, according to The Atlantic. The same Atlantic report also accused Trump of deploying the term “so promiscuously” to have “also licensed the right to use it worldwide”. Commenting on Trump’s obsession with fake news, a report in USA Today maintains that, “Trump’s definition of ‘fake news’ is subjective,” as he, “often attacks well-sourced stories containing potentially embarrassing details about his administration”.

Stephen Colbert, the Late Show host at the top American TV network CBS, launched his campaign to be considered for Trump’s awards. Colbert purchased a billboard in Times Square, New York for a ‘For Your Consideration’ ad, hoping he would be “nominated in all categories”. According to Colbert, who compared Trump’s presidency to, “watching a snake swallow democracy”, “Nothing gives you more credibility than Donald Trump calling you a liar.”

Postscript: Susan Campbell, well-known American writer and author of several books including ‘Dating Jesus’, a book that chronicles Christian fundamentalism in the US, in her piece about Donald Trump that appeared in ‘The Guardian’, described him as. “A man-baby, a failed businessman who lurches from tantrum to tweet storm and back again, who shows no impulse control, who won’t take responsibility for his actions, and who whines – a lot – when things don’t go his way.”

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli