One of the worst habits among the D.C. commentariat is the tendency to treat President Trump’s lies as if they possess magical qualities. We are constantly told that Trump’s lying “works,” a claim that rests on the idea that no matter what Trump says, his supporters will believe him.
It’s true that Trump supporters generally accept what he tells them. But the reverence accorded to Trump’s powers of deception sometimes seems to imply they have an almost paranormal quality. And this takes things way too far.
Case in point: American farmers. There are indications that they are now getting genuinely angry over Trump’s efforts to gaslight them so shamelessly over the impact of his trade war with China.
The New York Times has a good report that fleshes out the damage that farmers are sustaining right now — and their reaction to it. China’s retaliatory tariffs are closing off the biggest export market in the world — leading to a massive drop in exports of soybeans, pork, wheat and other agricultural products.
The administration has rolled out billions and billions of dollars in aid to farmers. But farm loan delinquencies and bankruptcies are rising, and the ripple effects are spreading, with one major manufacturer of agricultural equipment cutting its profit outlook this month.
And Trump’s trade war is only escalating: Trump has increased tariffs on Chinese products yet again, and China slapped new tariffs on $75 billion in U.S. exports. As the Times puts it, “farmers are beginning to panic.”
What seems notable is that farmers’ representatives are growing angry about what Trump is telling them about all this. Trump frequently makes such claims as “farmers are starting to do great again.”
That’s a lie. But don’t take my word for it. The New York Times reports that the head of a major farm group forcefully challenged that claim at a recent gathering with Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue:
“We’re not starting to do great again,” Brian Thalmann, the president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, told Mr. Perdue at the event. “Things are going downhill and downhill quickly.”
This anger has been echoed by rank-and-file farmers, too. Even worse, Perdue tried to make a joke about farmers’ travails, but it backfired:
“What do you call two farmers in a basement?” Mr. Perdue asked near the end of a testy hourlong town-hall-style event. “A whine cellar.”
A cascade of boos ricocheted around the room.
Let’s stipulate up front that there is likely zero chance that farmers — or rural voters — break with Trump in 2020. Still, this illustrates the limits on Trump’s lying powers: If they stick with Trump, it isn’t because he mesmerized them into ignoring reality; it’s that they still see other reasons for sticking with him. Those are likely rooted in partisanship more than anything else; farmers are overwhelmingly Republican voters.
A contrast with Obama
All of this brings to mind something about Barack Obama’s presidency: that Obama long hesitated to go too far in trumpeting the recovery. As one reporter noted in 2015, for years Obama “has been cautious in welcoming positive economic news by noting that more work needed to be done to recover from the financial crash of 2008.”
To be sure, this was partly rooted in political calculation. Obama advisers long thought talking up the recovery would grate on voters who were still struggling and backfire.
But it was also rooted in adherence to a norm — the idea that it’s ultimately disrespectful to voters to gaslight them too shamelessly, that we should operate from some sort of shared acknowledgment that factual reality should matter, and that this is necessary for something approximating deliberative democracy to function. Obama misled voters, to be sure, but he engaged in a kind of conventional political lying that Trump has left far behind.
Notably, neither of these concerns applies with Trump. As I’ve noted, serious political theorists such as Jacob Levy and Jack Balkin have demonstrated that Trump’s lying has crossed over into a form of autocratic disinformation and propaganda that is deliberately designed to render shared agreement on facts and reasoned deliberation impossible.
But Trump also seems to have zero fear that gaslighting his own constituencies might cost him politically. Why?
One possible answer: Fox News. According to indefatigable Fox tracker Matthew Gertz, as of Tuesday morning Fox hadn’t said anything about the report of farmers getting angry at Trump’s agriculture secretary for accusing them of “whining,” but it did feature a farmer who pledged his undying “trust” in Trump’s handling of the trade war.
Thus, the political damage from this anecdote — and from the anger of farmers more broadly — will likely be contained. Which leads back to our original point: If Trump’s lying does have a good deal of sway over his voters — even if it’s not absolute — Fox and right-wing media helping to prevent contrary facts from spreading too widely might be a key reason.
Nor is this anecdote — or farmers’ anger at being gaslit — likely to gain much traction outside right-wing media. It probably won’t be a big story that Trump’s agriculture secretary got booed by farmers for being dismissive of their travails — or that some farmers’ reps don’t like it when Trump lies about their difficulties.
That’s because the notion that Trump has contempt for voters in Trump country doesn’t slot into any easy media narratives. By contrast, even a mildly inartful quote about those voters from a Democrat can easily be slotted into a narrative of sneering liberal-elite disdain for them.
Yet for all of that, farmers do appear to be tiring of Trump’s gaslighting of them. How much that will matter in the long run is unclear, but at least we know that Trump’s magical lying powers are not absolute.