Danger of lies and manipulation under Trump

Sunday 29/01/2017
People hold signs as they protest against President Donald Trump’s planned ban on Muslim travel in Washington Square Park in New York, on January 25th. (AFP)

People beyond the United States who live in authoritarian regimes from the Middle East to Asia, from Africa to South America are scratching their heads in disbelief. The US presidential campaign and the first days of Donald Trump’s presidency remind them of presidential or general election campaigns at home. Suggestions that the intelligence service is involved in smearing one of the candidates, talk of foreign interference in the election, let alone conspiracy sound familiar in many Middle East countries, Turkey, Eastern Europe and Asia.
The new president’s utter con­tempt for the traditional media is a familiar situation but less noticed is the talk of rural voting against urban bastions. Foreign corre­spondents resorted to the puzzled look they often have when report­ing in the Arab world, betraying their contempt for the ordinary people they were interviewing, a familiar scene to those who watch many Western channels’ coverage of the Middle East.
“Sectarianism” and “tribe” are new words being used to cover US elections although their reality has been there for some time for anybody who wanted to see. Major Western media outlets seem to be discovering small town and rural America with the same bewilder­ment they discovered that a few hundred miles from the Tunisian coast and its hotels that attract tourists from all over, areas of great poverty were there for every­one to see.
When the deep state is evoked in the United States, that hardly surprises seasoned onlookers. The existence of the deep state is a reality in the United States and in most other major countries, be they democratic or not.
Trump has accused the main­stream media of lying and engag­ing in secret conspiracies to under­mine him. He refused to take questions from a CNN reporter, a departure from standard practice in the United States. The media accuse Trump of lying. The new president’s relation to the truth is indeed devoid of the political correctness that passes as good manners in many Western capital press rooms.
Lies, however, are hardly new in the West. Many of the United States’ friends might have been willing to believe that the coun­try had blundered in Iraq in 2003 on the basis of false intelligence, rather than deliberately lying to make the case for war but across Africa, the Middle East and much of continental Europe, people have lost faith in the United States and many of their leaders speak­ing the truth for some time.
Threatening whistleblowers and wayward journalists is not new in the United States. The lies of Trump are frequent and flagrant but the dishonesty of former vice-president Dick Cheney and former president George W. Bush with regard to Iraq started the rot and immensely damaged the image of the United States abroad and the future of democracy in that country.
The truth is that the accuracy of news in print and on the air has declined in the West in recent years and the Middle East has been the focus of much manipula­tion. Be it Iraq, Syria, Iran or Libya, distinguishing truth from false­hood in Western news is becoming increasingly difficult.
If Trump increases the lies out of the very top echelon of power in the United States, he will only open the door for floodgates of Russian dishonesty. Russian Presi­dent Vladimir Putin claims that everybody lies and manipulates but he was unable to convincingly deny that Russian weap­onry was used to shoot down the Ma­laysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.
Were Trump to resort to system­atic lying, he would quickly reach a point during an interna­tional crisis when the world would be no more inclined to believe him than Putin. Trump’s seeming indifference to the truth, let alone human rights, effectively weakens those dissidents in authoritarian states such as Russia and China who point to the West as a better place to live. No one, not even the German chancellor, could do much to stand up for honest politics.
Some Arab audiences, in par­ticular many of those following the US elections, will have had a familiar feeling and maybe ad­mired the creativity involved. Was the election of Trump a Russian conspiracy or was talk of such a conspiracy a sophisticated liberal effort to bring down the Repub­lican candidate? Did the FBI leak information about inquiries it was conducting on Hillary Clinton to help Trump or was the reporting of Trump’s FBI conspiracy accusa­tions a good way of getting back at him? The beauty of conspiracy theories is that they are complex and can be made to fit the politi­cal or ideological foil of those who believe in them.
The love of conspiracy theo­ries is growing in Europe and the United States but nowhere are conspiracy theories more beloved than in many parts of the Middle East. Less free news, more manip­ulation, more lies, if that is what America under Trump is in for, will make managing real international crises that much more difficult.
For all the faults of the West and the misrepresentation of the world some of its media indulged in, Eu­rope and the United States offered and still offer media that could and can be trusted. If America under Trump begins to look like the old Middle East and Russia, the risks of a crisis getting out of hand are huge.
It is ironic that Trump’s America is reviving the conspiratorial tradi­tion at a time when the United States should be offering the example of rational thinking and tolerance for free expression.