WASHINGTON — Donald Trump, having propelled his presidential campaign to victory while often disregarding the truth, now is testing the proposition that he can govern the country that way.
In the first five days of his presidency, Trump has put the enormous power of the nation's highest office behind spurious — and easily disproved — claims.
He began with trivial falsehoods about the size of the crowds at his inauguration but has since escalated a more grave claim that undermines the trustworthiness of the nation's electoral system. In a White House reception Monday night for congressional leaders, Trump alleged that as many as five million undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election, denying him a popular-vote majority.
It was a claim that Trump had made in the aftermath of the election, with no evidence to back it up. As unsettling as that was in a president-elect, the implications are far greater when something clearly untrue is spread by a commander in chief - and when the weight and resources of his administration are brought to bear in amplifying such information.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, whose own credibility has been undercut during his first week on the job, offered no verifiable evidence Tuesday to back up the president's claim.
"The president does believe that," Spicer said. "He has stated that before. I think he's stated his concerns of voter fraud and people voting illegally during the campaign, and he continues to maintain that belief based on studies and evidence that people have presented to him."
Beliefs, however, are not the same as facts. Pressed to produce that evidence upon which Trump bases his assertion, Spicer said that a 2008 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts "showed 14 percent of people who voted were noncitizens. There's other studies that have been presented to him. It's a belief he maintains."
Pew made no such finding. Its study, it has noted, was issued in 2012 and dealt with inaccurate, outdated voter registration rolls. It did not address large-scale voter fraud.
Trump's attraction to conspiracy theories and his contempt for facts that tarnish his pride may have serious implications for his ability to govern.
At the California State Capitol on Tuesday, Governor Jerry Brown used his annual State of the State address to criticize the new president for his refusal to tether himself to the facts.
"Above all else, we have to live in the truth," Brown said. "When the science is clear or when our own eyes tell us that the seats in this chamber are filled or that the sun is shining, we must say so, not construct some alternate universe of non-facts that we find more pleasing."
Trump allies — and adversaries — had hoped that with his inauguration, he would leave behind the hyperbolic reality-show culture that made him a celebrity. In the late stages of his presidential campaign, Trump had disavowed his years-long promotion of the racially tainted falsehood that Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president, was born outside the United States and therefore an illegitimate president.
But the first days of his presidency show that, for Trump, old reflexes are hard to change.
Veterans of previous White Houses say they can recall no precedent for what Trump and his top aides are doing. They worry about the implications of this untethering from the truth when big decisions must be made about dealing with terrorism or charting the course of the economy.
"The degree to which they are creating their own reality, the degree to which they simply make up their own scripts, is striking," said Peter Wehner, a Trump critic who was a top strategist in the George W. Bush White House. "It's a huge deal, because in the end you really can't govern, and you can't persuade people, if you do not have a common basis of fact."
Trump daily fare? — Photo: Eleventh Earl
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who was a stalwart Trump supporter, told Fox Business Network on Tuesday that he was mystified by Trump's claim about illegal voters — and by his motivations for bringing it up.
"I have no evidence whatsoever, and I don't know that anyone does, that there are that many illegal people who voted," Huckabee said. "And frankly it doesn't matter. He's the president, and whether 20 million people voted, it doesn't matter anymore."
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that Trump's claim "undermines faith in our democracy. It's not coming from a candidate for office. It's coming from the man who holds the office. So I am begging the president, share with us the information you have about this, or please stop saying it."
What made Trump's claim more exasperating to fellow Republicans was that it had come as his new administration seemed to be getting back on track after a set of embarrassments during its first weekend.
On Saturday, the new president stood at CIA headquarters, before a wall of stars memorializing slain officers, and said that a dishonest media had refused to report the true size of the crowd on the Mall for his inauguration. Trump offered his own estimate of "a million, a million and a half people."
Later that day, he dispatched Spicer to the White House briefing room, where the press secretary - in his first formal encounter in that setting with the reporters who cover the president - rattled off another round of unproved figures and contended that the crowd represented "the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period - both in person and around the globe."
On Sunday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway compounded the damage in a contentious interview with NBC's "Meet the Press' in which she said: "Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts."
Show moderator Chuck Todd responded: "Alternative facts aren't facts. They are falsehoods."
Until Trump's comments Monday night about illegal voters, it had appeared that the new administration might be regaining its footing after that wobbly start.
During the day, Trump signed a set of executive orders and stayed on message during meetings with leaders from business and organized labor. Spicer had handled his Monday briefing with aplomb, taking questions from reporters for more than an hour.
The failure by Trump and his team to maintain that discipline will do long-term damage, said Matthew Dowd, who was the chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. "I don't think he realizes how much he is hurting himself."
Then again, Trump may well believe that this is the style which brought him to the White House, in defiance of every expectation. Americans knew what they were getting when they elected him.
Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.
SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.
The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.
It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.
Seoul housing prices top London and New York
In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.
According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.
Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.
One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.
According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.
Playing the stock market
At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.
A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."
In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.
42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s
Game of survival
In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.
But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.
This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.
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