Why Trump Lies

Why does Donald Trump lie so freely? I consider several good explanations, one moral-psychological, several strategic, one philosophic:


At some level, Trump seems not to be able to tell the difference —or not to want to tell the difference—between the truth and his lies. Generally (barring physical disability) a person reaches such a state by habitually blurring the lines between fact and fiction. In a word, Trump is a subjectivist.

Ayn Rand offers a helpful description:

Subjectivism is the belief that reality is not a firm absolute, but a fluid, plastic, indeterminate realm which can be altered, in whole or in part, by the consciousness of the perceiver—i.e., by his feelings, wishes or whims.

We can see Trump’s subjectivism on display in his continual and casually lying, as with the absurd accusations that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of JFK and the obvious falsehood that “millions of people . . . voted illegally” in the presidential election.

It is, of course, an open question to what degree Trump actually believes his own lies (leaving aside the old trick that “it’s not a lie if you believe it”). In The Art of the Deal, Trump(’s ghostwriter) writes,

[A] little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration.

The ghostwriter was a little more blunt: “It’s a way of saying, ‘It’s a lie, but who cares?'” Of course, while some of Trump’s claims can be counted as exaggerations (as with his claims about his “sunny” inauguration, his crowd sizes, and who will pay for “the wall”), the claim about Cruz’s father was a lie manufactured from whole cloth.

But Trump’s lies aren’t all about his subjectivism; I think political strategy also has something to do with them.

The Squirrel Effect

Many of us have watched the scene in Up in which the dog is in the middle of having a perfectly reasonable conversation, when he sees a squirrel, shouts “Squirrel!,” looks intently at the squirrel for a moment, and totally forgets his train of thought.

Trump’s pettier absurd claims are the media’s squirrels—and I have little doubt that this is one fact that Trump firmly grasps.

You know what matters to the lives of Americans? Hint: It ain’t how many people attended Trump’s inauguration. The details of, say, the Trans-Pacific Partnership are vastly more consequential—but you wouldn’t know that based on the relative media coverage.

The Overload Effect

Trump overloads some people’s capacity to track the truth and overloads many people’s capacity to track important issues.

I think Maria Konnikova is on to something when she writes for Politico:

When we are overwhelmed with false, or potentially false, statements, our brains pretty quickly become so overworked that we stop trying to sift through everything. . . . But Trump goes a step further. If he has a particular untruth he wants to propagate . . . he simply states it, over and over. . . . Keep repeating that there was serious voter fraud, and the idea begins to seep into people’s heads. Repeat enough times that you were against the war in Iraq, and your actual record on it somehow disappears. . . . Repetition of any kind—even to refute the statement in question—only serves to solidify it.

That’s depressing. But Konnikova sneaks in some deterministic premises: Whether a particular individual is susceptible to repeated lies depends on that individual’s mental habits. When you hear someone repeatedly stating the same lie, the proper approach is not to listen passively and wonder if the lie is true; it is to remind yourself that it’s a lie (assuming you’ve already checked it out) and that the person stating it is a known liar. When people have the right mindset, repeated lies only have the effect of reinforcing the liar’s reputation as a liar. Unfortunately, in all eras there are those who care little for getting to the bottom of things, and that hardly has changed now that many people fancy themselves as living in a “post-fact world.”

Then there is the simple overloading of people’s capacity to follow important issues. Most people already are woefully ignorant of political matters. Trump multiplies the issues at play, spreading people’s attention ever thinner.

For example, the integrity of our election systems is crucially important. But has something happened recently to make it an especially important issue now? Trump’s bloviating aside, no—there’s no evidence that voter fraud is somehow a special or critical problem now.

I think Trump realizes at some level that he could not get much done if he took on issues one at a time. For example, he pushed the country (further) away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership with hardly any substantive public debate on the matter. If we all had a sustained and serious discussion of Trump’s mercantilist economic ideas and policy proposals, most people would realize that those policies are ludicrous (which is not to say the TPP is the best alternative). But I don’t expect such a national discussion ever to take place—at least not until and unless we suffer serious and obvious economic harm from anti-trade policies. We’ll be too worried about crowd sizes, the weather, wall height, the latest Twitter flame war, phantom voter fraud, and the like.

Screw the Media

When Barack Obama said, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it,” none but the most self-deluded thought that was anything other than an outright lie (or “truthful hyperbole,” as Trump might call it).

I don’t recall a New York Times headline calling Obama a liar. But at least every American whose insurance got cancelled—as mine did—knows that Obama lied. And his lie was vastly more consequential than Trump’s lie about voter fraud.

When Hillary Clinton initially blamed the terrorist attack in Benghazi on an internet video, she was lying. At best, her remarks on the subject were willfully misleading half-truths. I don’t recall a New York Times headline calling Clinton a liar. (David Harsanyi addresses these and other cases of obvious media double-standards.)

Some journalists can’t even cover Trump’s remarks about voter fraud truthfully. For example, CNN recently Tweeted, “The White House says its probe into voter fraud may not be limited to 2016. There’s no evidence of voter fraud.”

Really, “no evidence?” Except that in Colorado credible journalists “found multiple cases of dead men and women voting in Colorado months and in some cases years after their deaths.” Journalists also discovered “voting records [that] show the same people voting twice in Colorado elections.”

CNN’s lie that there is “no evidence of voter fraud” is just as ridiculous—and just as dangerous—as Trump’s lie that voter fraud is rampant.

Trump’s supporters—and a lot of people who are not Trump supporters—are sick of the double standards when it comes to exaggerations, lies, and fake news. Someone in the right circles can get away with lying continually if the lies are the accepted sort, and most journalists will ignore, excuse, or downplay the lies. But if you’re not part of the right crowd, the media will pounce on your every misstatement and perceived misstatement, even if innocent, trivial, or rationally debatable.

In part, Trump lies arrogantly to signal to his supporters that he’s not playing the usual games. Because (goes the attitude) screw the hypocritical, two-faced media and their double standards.

The Bad Boy Image

In the wonderful film Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a man and boy on the run gain celebrity status for their success at evading the authorities. Even Bonnie and Clyde had their cheerleaders. A certain segment of the public seems to be fascinated with people who can get away with stuff in sensational form. A large part of Trump’s appeal is that he bucks established norms, brags about it, and gets away with it. His lying is part of that.

The media, like piranhas, will tear apart some candidates if they poke an imperfectly trimmed toe in the water. Trump splashes through the waters like a joyous schoolboy, taunts the piranhas, and, unscathed, laughs about the free pedicure.

In Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky advises,

Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. . . . It should be borne in mind that the target is always trying to shift responsibility to get out of being the target. . . . Let nothing get you off your target.

Trump discovered that the answer to Alinsky’s tactics is to glory in being the target. His lies are, in part, a way of painting the target on his own back—and on his stomach, and on his forehead—in neon-red paint, and shouting, “Bring it on, motherflippers.” And Trump’s opponents and critics do bring it on and cannot stop themselves from bringing it on.

To run through the usual metaphors, Trump’s critics are moths drawn to the flame. Fact-checking Trump is grabbing the tiger by the tail when the tiger also has you grabbed by the you-know-what. Trump is the pig who enjoys wrestling in the mud.

It is true-this is not a fake-news conspiracy theory—that Saul Alinsky praises Lucifer (as a myth) in the introductory text to his book (which is sitting in front of me as I type): “[T]he first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom [is] Lucifer.”

Well, now one of Alinsky’s acolytes knows someone else who rebelled against the establishment so effectively that he won his own kingdom—she attended his inauguration.

Loyalty Tests?

Tyler Cowen seems to agree with some of my reasoning above in terms of Trump’s lies misleading the public, displaying power, and cutting against establishment lies.

Cowen offers another explanation too:

Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters. If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you. That too is a sign of incipient mistrust within the ruling clique, and it is part of the same worldview that leads Trump to rely so heavily on family members.

There might be something to this, but, aside from Trump’s appointed flacks, Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway, I don’t see most of Trump’s supporters falling in line behind Trump’s lies. I don’t think Trump needs the sort of loyalty test that Cowen describes, because he already has a powerful tool against the disloyal: fire them or otherwise cut them out of the power loop. Chris Christie did some spectacular groveling but still lost his seat at the table. So I don’t think Trump is quite as conniving as Cowen makes out.

Now that we’ve run through some of the likely strategic motives for Trump’s lies, we should consider the cultural Zeitgeist that made possible Trump’s political rise.

The Postmodern President

How should we judge the danger of Trump’s lies, and how should we respond to his lies?

Perhaps I’m not quite as disturbed by Trump’s lies as others are because I expect many politicians to lie continually—they just usually lie in more sophisticated ways than Trump does. I think Clinton is at least the liar Trump is—certainly her lies are more calculated. So, after the primaries, to my mind it was a foregone conclusion that the president would be a liar; I just had to wait to see which liar would become Liar-in-Chief.

There were those on election night who sobbed hysterically and those who laughed hysterically, and I confess I was in the latter camp—although I also did a lot of nervous sighing. I see Trump as bad but not much worse than the norm—and in some ways not quite as bad as the norm.

Despite his reputation as a rebel, Trump’s success is a manifestation of dominant cultural and political trends.

Remember that postmodernism is the normal playground of the political left (identity politics or “intersectional feminism,” anyone?). Trump is playing by the rules laid out by the postmodern left. Consider this passage:

For Trump, language cannot be cognitive because it does not connect to reality, whether to an external nature or an underlying self. Language is not about being aware of the world, or about distinguishing the true from the false, or even about argument in the traditional sense of validity, soundness, and probability. Accordingly, Trump recasts the nature of rhetoric: Rhetoric is persuasion in the absence of cognition.

The passage is from philosopher Stephen Hicks’s book Explaining Postmodernism—except I altered the original by replacing “the postmodernist” and “postmodernism” with “Trump.”

Trump lies and largely gets away with it, ultimately, because he is part of a culture that rejects facts and the very possibility of discovering facts. (Thankfully that trend represents only part of our culture.)

What can we do about Trump and the broader trends he represents? Ultimately, we need to help foster a reason-oriented philosophical and cultural revolution. That’s an ambitious goal and a huge topic.

On a more modest scale, we can insist that truth matters and that it matters for our allies no less than for our enemies; we can offer and demand the relevant context and decry “gotcha” politics based on half-truths, innuendo, and out-of-context comments; we can call a lie a lie and a liar a liar, even if the lie superficially furthers our agenda; we can applaud and promote fact-based, context-sensitive journalism; we can graciously correct honest errors and accept good-faith retractions and corrections.

Long term, we can preserve liberty only by renewing a culture that has a fundamental respect for the facts of reality. Hopefully we can learn to see Trump and his lies as a blaring reminder of that.

Image: Gage Skidmore