By Robert Reich
A normal president and a normal White House respond to facts or arguments they disagree with other verifiable facts and arguments that make their case.
But Trump and his White House don’t argue on the merits. They attack the credibility of the institutions that come up with inconvenient facts and arguments.
They even do it preemptively. Last Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer warned the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office couldn’t trusted to come up with accurate numbers about the costs and coverage of the Republican’s replacement for the Affordable Care Act.
“If you’re looking at the CBO for accuracy, you’re looking in the wrong place,” he said.
Bear in mind the director of the CBO is a Republican economist and former George W. Bush administration official who was chosen for his position by the Republican Congress in 2015.
Attacking the credibility of an institution that delivers unwelcome data has a long-term cost: It undermines the capacity of that institution to function in the future.
For more than four decades the U.S. budget process has depended on the CBO’s analyses and forecasts. Under both Republican and Democratic appointees, it’s gained a reputation for honesty. The trumped-up attack will make it less able to do its work in the future.
This has been Trump’s MO.
When as a candidate Trump didn’t like the positive jobs numbers emanating from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, what did he do? He called the official unemployment rate “such a phony number,” “one of the biggest hoaxes in American modern politics” and “the biggest joke there is.”
It’s possible to take issue with the ways the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures unemployment, but why undermine public trust in the Bureau itself?
Spicer has tried to wrap Trump’s institutional attacks in populist garb: “I think [Trump] addressed that in his inaugural speech when he talked about shifting power outside of Washington D.C. back to the American people because for too long it’s been about stats … and it’s been about, what number are we looking at as opposed to what face are we looking at?”
Rubbish. By all means consider real people, real faces, real problems. But the only way we’re going to understand the true dimensions of problems real people face is with data about them from sources the public trusts.
If the public stops believing those sources are reliable, where else can it look? Presumably, only Trump himself.
On a few notable occasions the intelligence agencies at times have been notoriously wrong but over the long haul they’ve been competent and professional – and a president and the American public need their assessments.
So when Trump sends out disparaging tweets with “intelligence” in quotation marks and blames the intelligence agencies for the downfall of his first national security advisor, he’s impairing the ability of these agencies to do their jobs in the future.
When he labels a member of the judiciary who stopped his original travel ban a “so-called judge,” and attacks the appellate judges who uphold the stay as a judicial system “so political” it’s not “able to read a statement and do what’s right,” Trump isn’t just disputing their specific findings. He’s calling into question the legitimacy of the judicial branch of government.
When the press disputes Trump’s claims – that millions attended his inauguration, he won by a landslide, the election was marred by massive voter fraud, undocumented immigrants account for a disproportionate number of crimes – he doesn’t respond with data to back up his assertions.
Instead he calls the press “the enemy of the American people,” “dishonest,” purveyors of “fake news,” and “the opposition party,” and he questions their motives (they “have their own agenda, and it’s not your agenda, and it’s not the country’s agenda.”)
When pollsters show Trump has a low approval rating, he doesn’t say he expects the rating to improve. He attacks the pollsters, asserting “any negative polls are fake news.”
When scientists come up with conclusion he disagrees with, he doesn’t offer other sources of scientific data. He attacks science.
Trump thinks climate change is a hoax. His new head of the Environmental Protection Agency said last Wednesday that climate change isn’t caused by human activity.
What does the Trump administration do? It tells EPA staffers to remove pages from the EPA’s website concerning climate change, and threatens to review all the agency’s data and publications, and cuts the budgets of all scientific research in government.
Trump and his administration aren’t just telling big lies. They’re also waging war on the institutions we depend on as sources of truth.
In so doing, they’re undermining the basic building blocks of American democracy.
Shame on them.