As I watch President Trump and his representatives distort the truth with what one of them dubbed “alternative facts,” I’m reminded of two words that forever changed the way the presidency is viewed.
Of all the acts of disrespect that Barack Obama endured during his eight years as president, that utterance from Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., reverberates loudest. And it’s the one Democrats must look to as they seek to counter Trump.
Wilson’s 2009 outburst rang out after Obama told a joint session of Congress that illegal immigrants would not receive government-funded health care from the bill that became the Affordable Care Act. But Wilson’s outburst was more than a childish insult. It was a political statement, which said that the office of the president no longer merited deference. That legislative decorum was a thing of the past. That truth was a matter of perspective.
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The gloves were officially off.
In that moment, Wilson was a member of a Republican Party that was in the minority in both houses of Congress, and the president was the antithesis of everything the GOP stood for.
Democrats responded to the slight by demonizing Wilson, and, at first, it seemed effective. The South Carolina congressman apologized, and the House voted along party lines to pass a formal resolution disapproving of his conduct.
But then a funny thing happened. Wilson was heartily embraced by a constituency that despised both immigrants and the nation’s first black president. Wilson’s re-election campaign raised more than $1 million in the week following his outburst. Republicans were emboldened to publicly challenge the president at every turn.
Now, the Republicans are in the majority in both houses, they occupy the White House and they are poised to overturn the very law Wilson spoke of when he yelled the infamous phrase, “You lie!”
It’s a lesson Democrats would do well to remember in the age of Donald Trump because just as Obama was opposed by the Republican Party’s conservative base in 2009, Trump is loathed by the Democrats’ liberal base today. And since Trump’s statements are often provably false, it is not only the media that should challenge him at every turn. It is legislators themselves.
When Donald Trump falsely claims that he would have won the popular vote if not for 3 million to 5 million votes cast by illegal immigrants, Democrats must stand up for the voters who legally handed Hillary Clinton a 3 million-vote margin.
When Trump falsely claims that his inauguration crowd was the biggest in the history of the presidency, or that he won the electoral vote by a landslide, or that his business dealings do not present conflicts of interest, Democrats must stand up to challenge every word.
Because this much is clear: Trump has a strategy regarding facts. He intends to determine what the facts are, and he will attempt to silence anyone who challenges his view of reality.
We saw that when the National Park Service retweeted a picture showing that Trump’s inauguration crowd was far smaller than the crowd that attended Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Trump reportedly directed the agency to stop tweeting until further notice.
If the president is willing to abuse his power to silence a government agency over something as inconsequential as the size of the crowd at his inauguration, what will he do regarding matters of greater importance? And will his tenuous relationship with the truth eventually threaten our national security?
I think it will and that’s troubling.
Trump and his staffers must be made to understand that “alternative facts” are lies. And every time our new president or one of his representatives dips into his or her bag of untruths, someone on the other side must channel their inner Joe Wilson.
They must stand up, red-faced and outraged, and shout that now-infamous phrase.
Solomon Jones is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.