Donald Trump’s “toothpaste politics”

There weren’t any Muslims in New Jersey cheering after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001. But Donald Trump’s inaccurate description of such an event will likely do him more good than bad in his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.

That’s because Trump doesn’t care about how factual his statements are. He only cares about how entertaining they can be, and how long they can linger to his benefit.

Trump understands the base of the Republican Party better than any other candidate seeking the nomination. He is part of the base of the Republican Party: Angry, red-blooded and ready to believe anything absurd so long as it fits their narrative.

So when Trump suggests that “thousands” of New Jersey Muslims were cheering on the 19 hijackers on 9/11, the base is more than willing to forget about facts and accept his fable as truth, even without evidence that backs it up. Even Ben Carson, when asked about the non-event, felt compelled to lend credence to the conspiracy theory before walking it back.

What’s more, the media gets stuck in the trap as well. Instead of reporting on the facts, the media produces an “objective” storyline, treating Trump’s tall tales on an equal playing field with the truth. For instance, when Trump tweeted a neo-Nazi meme with made-up stats about black-on-black homicide rates, Buzzfeed’s headline called the infographic “Questionable” (it has since been changed to “Made-Up” following heavy criticism). And while some may report his stories as inaccurate portrayals, it doesn’t matter: they’ve reported it, and their headlines merely perpetuate the message that “the Donald” is trying to disseminate.

Donald Trump, screenshot via 60 Minutes

Donald Trump, screenshot via 60 Minutes

I call this “toothpaste politics,” because once a story is out, no matter how absurd it is, it’s hard to put back in the proverbial tube. I once used the term to describe Scott Walker in Wisconsin, who was adept at creating narratives that didn’t necessarily match reality.

Walker had claimed, for example, that the union-backed system of seniority had cost a teacher-of-the-year her job, when in fact that particular teacher hadn’t won that honor (the teacher also frequently asks Walker to stop telling the story). Walker also said that, during a visit to the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron had expressed doubts about President Barack Obama’s leadership on international issues. Cameron disputed these allegations, and said he had never mentioned any such qualms with the president to Walker.

Neither the fabrication of the teacher-of-the-year story, nor what Cameron had actually said to Walker, mattered. The lie runs through the general public faster than the truth can catch up. The base continues to forward narrative-confirming lies — be it through social media or in talking with their neighbors — until they might as well be true in the minds of their supporters.

Part of the reason why Walker floundered so fast in his own campaign for president is because Trump out-toothpasted him in the polls right away. And since then, Trump has only squeezed harder on the tube. Whether it’s doubling down on support for a fascist Muslim database, or suggesting that black-on-white crime is higher than it actually is, Trump doesn’t care about trampling on the facts. He only cares about scoring points, which he’s certainly doing against his fellow Republican candidates.

None of whom have figured out how to fight back.


Chris Walker has been a political writer for more than ten years, contributing freelance opinion pieces to several online publications as well as managing his own blog, Political Heat, for more than six years. With a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism, Chris tries to bring a unique angle to every article he produces, including Millennial perspectives on the issues he's covering. Chris resides in Madison, Wisconsin, and proudly owns both a cheesehead and stock in the Green Bay Packers.

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