WASHINGTON — Born amid made-up crowd size claims and “alternative facts,” the Trump presidency has been a factory of falsehood from the start, churning out distortions, conspiracy theories and brazen lies at an assembly-line pace that has challenged fact-checkers and defied historical analogy.
But now, with the election two days away, the consequences of four years of fabulism are coming into focus as President Trump argues that the vote itself is inherently “rigged,” tearing at the credibility of the system. Should the contest go into extra innings through legal challenges after Tuesday, it may leave a public with little faith in the outcome — and in its own democracy.
The nightmarish scenario of widespread doubt and denial of the legitimacy of the election would cap a period in American history when truth itself has seemed at stake under a president who has strayed so far from the normal bounds that he creates what allies call his own reality. Even if the election ends with a clear victory or defeat for Mr. Trump, scholars and players alike say the very concept of public trust in an established set of facts necessary for the operation of a democratic society has eroded during his tenure with potentially long-term ramifications.
“You can mitigate the damage, but you can’t bring it back to 100 percent the way it was before,” said Lee McIntyre, the author of “Post-Truth” and a philosopher at Boston University. “And I think that’s going to be Trump’s legacy. I think there’s going to be lingering damage to the processes by which we vet truths for decades. People are going to be saying, ‘Oh, that’s fake news.’ The confusion between skepticism and denialism, the idea that if you don’t want to believe something, you don’t have to believe it, that’s really damaging and that’s going to last.”
Indeed, the very idea of truth is increasingly a fungible commodity in a political environment that seems to reward the loudest voices, not the most honest. In a recent poll for Newsweek, 54 percent of Americans agreed that lying has become more acceptable in American politics in recent years, while only 13 percent said it was less acceptable and the rest said it was about the same or did not have a view.
Nancy L. Rosenblum, a Harvard University professor emerita who wrote “A Lot of People Are Saying” with Russell Muirhead, said that may not change even if Mr. Trump leaves office after one term because he proved the advantages of truth-bending politics and helped build up an information infrastructure where reality is like an à la carte menu from which Americans can pick their favorite variant.
“Conspiracy charges and a certain amount of lying have proved to be good weapons in political fighting where you have deep, deep divisions, and there’s no reason to think other parties won’t take it up under desperate circumstances,” she said. “So we can expect it to go on but without the same effect.”
The lasting impact may be most evident in terms of the coronavirus pandemic that has already killed more than 230,000 in the United States. Even as the outbreak surges to new peaks, Mr. Trump has been falsely insisting that it is “rounding the corner” to an end, telling Americans not to worry rather than urging them to take precautions.
The disconnect has tangible consequences. Republicans who support Mr. Trump are more likely to dismiss the threat of the virus in surveys and less likely to wear masks or maintain social distance. A poll last week by Axios and Ipsos found only half of Americans could correctly respond to six factual questions about the virus, indicating how far misinformation linked to reckless behavior has pervaded the public.
Scientists have concluded that 130,000 lives could be saved in the United States in the coming months if there was universal mask wearing. But Mr. Trump mocks facial coverings and disparages medical experts, undercutting their credibility with the public, most notably Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the federal government’s chief epidemiologist who now has to have a security detail after vilification by the president and his allies. With views of the virus increasingly falling along party lines, many Americans express distrust over a possible new vaccine, which could lead to widespread resistance to inoculation.
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Beyond the health crisis, Mr. Trump’s successor, whether next year or in five years, could face a broader crisis in faith, challenged to re-establish credibility with overseas allies and adversaries, while presiding over a country where truth has been broken down into tribes and much of the public has been conditioned to distrust institutions of all sorts.
Mr. Trump has spent four years telling Americans not to trust anyone other than him, whether it be public health experts, scientists, journalists, judges, career government officials, investigators, generals, intelligence agencies, election officials and even mail carriers. “Just remember,” he told a crowd one summer, “what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”
Trust, once lost, is hard to restore. “We know a lot about the delegitimation of democratic institutions over the last two centuries,” Ms. Rosenblum said. “But we know nothing about how you relegitimate institutions that have lost their main value and authority for an awful lot of people. That’s the real question.”
Dishonesty has been a defining hallmark of the Trump presidency. The sheer volume of untruths, both petty and profound, has been cataloged and quantified time and again, the subject of a shelf full of books and endless hand-wringing over the “post-truth” world.
This is a president who casually accused a television anchor of murder, who spread the claim that Osama bin Laden is not actually dead and that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 killed, who literally took a Sharpie to a map to create his own fake weather forecast and reprimanded meteorologists who dared to correct him.
When challenged, Mr. Trump simply brushes it off. After a reporter in August asked “do you regret at all, all the lying you’ve done to the American people,” the president sought to clarify the question and then once he understood it called on another reporter without replying.
It is often left to aides to try to re-engineer what he says to fit the facts or dismiss facts altogether, often simply turning the tables by complaining about biased nit-picking by the news media.
“The American people never have to wonder how the president feels about a particular topic, which is one of the many reasons they chose to elect him over the same, old, recycled politicians who just use the poll-tested talking points,” said Judd Deere, a White House spokesman. He asserted that “the media routinely manipulates the president’s words and takes him totally out of context, but that will never stop him from unapologetically calling out their biased reporting, raising important questions or suggesting common sense ideas to solve problems.”
There is, of course, a long history of presidential prevarication. Franklin D. Roosevelt was hardly straight with the American public before World War II, nor was Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War. Richard M. Nixon lied about a burglary and was forced to resign. Ronald Reagan conflated movie memories with real life and regularly spun out favorite stories with no apparent basis in fact. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his affair with a White House intern. George W. Bush went to war based on false intelligence even if he did not actually know it to be false.
Mr. Biden, now the Democratic presidential nominee, has had his own misadventures with misstatements, caught on several occasions during his career in politics puffing up his own record. His first presidential campaign blew up in 1987 after he lifted lines from another politician’s speech without credit, overstated his academic accomplishments and was revealed to have been accused of plagiarism in law school. Mr. Biden, unlike Mr. Trump, admitted the errors, while calling them innocent mistakes. Still, he has been prone to exaggeration since then as well.
But as with so many things, Mr. Trump takes matters to his own Trumpian extremes. Many of his falsehoods may be minor, but others would have created days of headlines under any other president. And when other presidents got caught, there were corrections or consequences or at least an effort to avoid repeating the misstatements. Not so with Mr. Trump.
The American system has never figured out quite how to respond to a president who gives the conspiracy theorists of QAnon a hearing at the White House. For four years, a cottage industry of debate has raged about postmodernist theory and whether Trumpian truth is simply the most extreme manifestation of an American tendency to write our own reality, that there is no universal truth, only individual experiences with it.
Publishers have pumped out books with titles like “The Death of Truth,” “Truth Decay” and “Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth,” while newsrooms wrestled with the question of when to use the word “lie” and social media giants began applying warning labels to the president of the United States lest Americans actually believe what he says.
Fact-checks could never keep up with the avalanche of assertions and many people simply chose camps. Only 40 percent of Americans see Mr. Trump as honest and trustworthy, according to Gallup, compared with 52 percent who find Mr. Biden to be so. (In their re-election years, 45 percent judged Mr. Clinton honest, 55 percent considered Mr. Bush so and 60 percent believed Mr. Obama was.)
“We don’t even blink at this stuff anymore. Nobody blinks,” said Amanda Carpenter, a former adviser to Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who wrote the book “Gaslighting America” about Mr. Trump’s deceptions. “We have to not pay attention to it just in order to survive. You can’t sustain the outrage. At the same time then, people will push this further and further and there are real world effects.”
Many Republicans who once called Mr. Trump on his falsehoods gave up and some even jumped on his train. Mr. Cruz, whose father Mr. Trump bizarrely linked to John F. Kennedy’s assassination during the 2016 campaign, called the future president a “pathological liar” at the time. “He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies,” Mr. Cruz said then. “He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth.” But Mr. Cruz became one of Mr. Trump’s staunchest defenders during his impeachment trial.
Where Mr. Trump is oddly most honest, it often seems, is in explaining his own motivations. He openly admits self-interested calculations that other presidents would at the very least shroud behind high-minded, gauzy justifications. He told a crowd in Erie, Pa., recently that he would not have bothered to visit if he were doing better in the polls. He leaves no doubt that he wants his attorney general to investigate his opponents in order to help his campaign and that he wanted his nominee confirmed to the Supreme Court before the election to gain another vote in case the justices decide the result.
Many supporters acknowledge that some of what he says is not literally true but consider him more honest than typical politicians because he seems to say what he actually thinks, rather than sticking to safe, poll-tested, milquetoast talking points. His bracing, hold-nothing-back performances strike admirers as more real and, yes, more authentic, a word that is gold to the political class.
“How can it be that someone we all know is such a liar is also seen as authentic?” asked David Greenberg, a professor at Rutgers University and author of “Republic of Spin,” a history of White House image-making that preceded Mr. Trump. “It’s because authenticity isn’t exactly the same thing as truthfulness. It’s also about a truthful presentation of yourself and what yourself is — and it may be that his authentic self is a liar.”