Last week, the Washington Post’s tally of Donald Trump’s false and misleading claims hit a milestone, topping 10,000. His untruths, which lately average almost two dozen a day, have long since stopped being news, becoming instead irritating background noise. So when, on Saturday, he told a particularly lurid lie about infanticide at a political rally in Wisconsin, it was, like so much in this administration, at once shocking and unsurprising.
As his raucous crowd booed and screamed, Trump described a hideous scenario that he insists Democrats approve of. “The baby is born,” said Trump. “The mother meets with the doctor, they take care of the baby, they wrap the baby beautifully” — at this, he seemed to mime rocking an infant — “and then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.” He made a chopping motion with his hand.
Trump was elaborating on the willfully misunderstood words of Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, who, in a radio interview in January, responded to a Republican hypothetical about a woman requesting an abortion during labor. A pediatric neurologist by training, Northam described what actually occurs when a woman whose pregnancy may not be viable gives birth. If “a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen,” he said. “The infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
At the time, Republicans seized on Northam’s words to accuse Democrats of supporting infanticide. In a barrage of legislative propaganda, they put forward laws meant to prohibit murderous behavior of the sort Trump described, which is, of course, already illegal. The point of these proposals isn’t to right an existing wrong, but to put Democrats in a no-win situation. To vote in favor of them is to concede the premise that the bills address something real. To oppose them is to be accused of tolerating baby killing.
It’s tempting to ignore the president’s mendacity, since, as with so much of Trump’s malicious propaganda, it’s hard to counter it without amplifying it. Trump’s lies work to focus public attention on issues of his choosing; if Democrats are trying to explain that they don’t support infanticide, Trump has already won.
But leaving the lie unchallenged is also dangerous. Abortion providers are regular targets of domestic terrorism, and Trump’s lies serve as incitement. In 2016, a man fired an AR-15 inside a Washington pizzeria because he believed right-wing conspiracy theories that it was the epicenter of a child sex trafficking ring involving Hillary Clinton. Now the putative leader of the free world is spreading tales about unimaginable Democratic depravity toward innocent children.
It’s not a stretch to imagine an unstable Trump acolyte taking him both seriously and literally. Indeed, it seems that at least one already has. Last week, a 30-year-old Trump supporter named Matthew Haviland was arrested and accused of threatening to rape and murder a professor who supports abortion rights. According to an affidavit by an FBI joint terrorism task force officer, Haviland wrote in an email, “I will kill every Democrat in the world so we never more have to have our babies brutally murdered by you absolute terrorists.” He also made over 100 threatening calls to an abortion clinic.
Besides their potential to inspire violence, Trump’s words are a cruel insult to parents who have to make agonizing decisions about end-of-life care for babies that are born extremely prematurely or with serious anomalies. Doctors and mothers don’t choose to “execute” newborns. They are forced to decide, in excruciating situations, when to forgo medical interventions and provide palliative care instead. There are exceedingly rare cases where babies survive an attempted abortion, but federal law already extends the same protection to them due any other infant.
If you’ve ever had a baby, the absurdity of Trump’s words should be obvious. Try to imagine what would happen if, after giving birth, you asked your OB-GYN to kill your child. You’d probably end up committed.
None of this is likely to matter to the president or his fans. Trump’s lie gives them something too valuable to let go of — a sense of moral superiority over those who would condemn the president and his movement. As Haviland allegedly wrote in one seething email, “You who try to shut people up based on race, you who take a president who’s taking our country in a place of more freedom rather than less, you who would brutally murder a child after they were born (or before they were born). You are evil.”
This mix of thrilling self-righteousness and justified hatred is the effect incitement is supposed to produce. It won’t be undermined by debate or fact-checking. But ignoring Trump’s lies doesn’t make them disappear — if anything, his deceptions are becoming only more elaborate and grotesque. We will be lucky if the consequences aren’t deadly. It’s hard, after all these months, to get worked up about Trump’s fantasies, but there are still people in America unbalanced enough to believe their president tells the truth.