BuzzFeed reported recently that fake news stories about the election generated more engagement on Facebook than the top election stories from 19 major news outlets – combined.
And that’s not the half of it.
Not only is fake news getting more attention than actual news but the leading purveyor of fake news in the United States is now the president-elect.
For 17 months, Donald Trump treated the nation to a series of outlandish promises. He'll eliminate the $19 trillion federal debt in eight years. He'll balance the budget without cutting Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements. He'll bring back lost coal jobs. He'll make Mexico pay for a border wall. He'll deport 11 million illegal immigrants while growing the economy by at least 6 percent.
Never miss a local story.
Now Trump is the president-elect, and it’s time to deliver on the impossible. No wonder his transition is racked with chaos and infighting. Scripture tells us you can’t serve both God and mammon. Yet Trump proposes to be served by both Reince Priebus and Stephen Bannon – one a chief of staff who is a paragon of the establishment and the other a top adviser who is a leading voice for white supremacists. The array of impossible promises and false claims has all the appearances of a Ponzi scheme, with the $18 trillion U.S. economy in the balance. Bernie Madoff’s scheme lost only $50 billion.
Early indications are that Trump plans to continue to fake it. On Thursday night, he tweeted that as a result of his work with Ford, the automaker would keep a plant that makes Lincoln SUVs “in Kentucky – no (sic) Mexico.”
But Ford had never planned to close the Kentucky plant. It was merely planning to make more Ford Escapes instead of Lincolns there – a change that would have resulted in no job losses. Ford is proceeding with its previously announced plan to build a new factory in Mexico.
We see the Ponzi scheme unraveling in the substance of what Trump is proposing, too. One of Trump’s surrogates, Carl Higbie, caused a furor last week by saying the infamous internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II provided a legal “precedent” for Trump’s plan to create a Muslim registry. But for all the outrage Higbie caused, the actual policy being floated – reinstatement of a George W. Bush-era policy – is far more modest than Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration and threat to register American Muslims.
This is the best-case scenario – that Trump’s fake-news presidential campaign really was all a con. Preposterous promises give way to modest proposals. This would disappoint his supporters, but perhaps save the country.
Trump’s vow that Carrier would reverse its plans to move a factory to Mexico and eliminate 1,400 U.S. jobs by 2019? Carrier is continuing with its plans.
Trump’s bold threats to appoint a “killer” ambassador to Japan and to force Japan to pay for U.S. military protection? Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, after visiting Trump on Thursday, thinks otherwise; he said he has “great confidence” in Trump.
Many of Trump’s absurd promises will come due soon. Trump spoke of abolishing the Education Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, said he would rebuild American roads for one-third the current price, monitor mosques, prosecute Hillary Clinton and never take a vacation. He said he would “bomb the s–- out of” the Islamic State, kill the relatives of terrorists, shut down parts of the internet, reinstate waterboarding, dramatically increase tariffs, eliminate Wall Street reforms, cut the budget 20 percent and end birthright citizenship.
No surprise that the transition is chaotic. Lobbyists are in, then out. Chris Christie and Mike Rogers are in, then out. Frank Gaffney is in, or perhaps not. Eliot Cohen withdraws his cooperation, predicting “ugly” things ahead.
And Trump says everything is proceeding “so smoothly.”
The British are fuming because at least nine foreign leaders, including Egypt’s, reached Trump before theirs. Trump plays cat-and-mouse with the national press corps and continues to tweet like an internet troll, complete with bad spelling. His advisers give contradictory accounts about personnel decisions. Qualified candidates are rejected in favor of loyalists.
You can’t make this stuff up. Or maybe you can. Paul Horner, the leading purveyor of fake news on Facebook, told The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey he was stunned by Americans’ gullibility: “I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything.”
But surely you can’t fool all the people all the time.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank. Washington Post Writers Group