A guest opinion by Gregory A. Raymond, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at Boise State University, where he held the Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs.
Dishonesty is one of the distinguishing features of the Trump presidency. The Washington Post has recorded over 20 thousand false and misleading claims that President Donald J. Trump has made during his first three-and one-half years in office, meticulously recording the frequency, range, and scale of his fabrications and half-truths. Some of Trump’s claims have been petty; others have been egregious; and still others, cruel. But regardless of how provocative they were, he rarely supported them with evidence. His defense was simply to spew out more bombast.
What explains this shameless behavior? Trump’s mendacity is bewildering to many Americans, particularly since the nation’s civic culture celebrates a Founder who purportedly refused to lie.
Pundits generally attribute Trump’s dishonesty to a rhetorical strategy based on deception. It’s a strategy so deeply rooted in the human experience that it defines some of literature’s most memorable characters. In Sophocles’ Philoctetes, for example, Odysseus, the legendary warrior-king of ancient Ithaca, proclaims that “words, not deeds, rule over men in everything.” Artful words, he explains, facilitate deception. They enable the cunning to shape themselves to suit the moment’s needs and dupe others whenever it is beneficial. “When one stands to gain,” he insists, “scruples are out of place.”
On the face of it, winning over listeners through any means—fair or foul—seems to account for Trump’s rhetoric. He regularly uses intentionally false and misleading statements to shift attention away from sensitive topics, duck responsibility for policy failures, and burnish his public image. What is more, he stonewalls and equivocates to mask these lies, as shown by his paltering about journalist Bob Woodward’s audio recording of him admitting that he deliberately downplayed the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) when he knew of its dangers.
Not only has Trump been able to dissemble with impunity, but his lying frequently works. According to a large body of psychological research, most people expect others to be truthful and are bad at detecting lies. Moreover, even after falsehoods are discredited, people tend to dismiss corrective information if the falsehoods are consistent with other things that they believe, and if they think that members of a salient reference group believe in them as well. Rather than reject erroneous beliefs, people often go so far as to imagine circumstances where a trumped-up story could have been true. Owing to these behavior patterns, dishonesty gives liars a significant advantage over principled individuals whenever they interact, which enables them to manipulate those individuals and gain benefits that might not be obtainable if both parties were sincere and transparent.
Because the liar’s advantage is a central element in the president’s rhetorical strategy, he bristles if someone calls attention to his prevarications. When fact-checked during press briefings by reporters Weijia Jiang (May 11, 2020), Kaitlan Collins (July 28), and Paula Reid (August 8), Trump abruptly terminated the meetings rather than defend his assertions. Likewise, when asked by S.V. Dáte (August 13) if he had any regrets for all of the brazen lying that he had done, he refused to respond. With numerous books and news reports exposing his duplicity, it is understandable that in an August 28-September 1, 2020 CNN poll only 36 percent of the respondents believed that Trump was honest and trustworthy.
Even his sister, retired federal judge Maryanne Trump Barry, has asserted that “you cannot trust him,” an opinion echoed by such diverse observers as Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney, and by Miles Taylor, a former chief of staff for the Department of Homeland Security.
Trump’s anger at mainstream print, broadcast, and online media is not surprising. Reporters who bring his disingenuousness to light undermine his ability to deceive. Still, a puzzle remains: Why does Trump continue to lie when he knows that the majority of his audience knows that he is lying?
One plausible answer is that his rhetorical strategy entails more than persuasion. In addition to making false and misleading statements to distract, deflect, and delude, there is another, less appreciated facet of Trump’s strategy—domination. Whereas he lies to bolster his support among ardent followers, his aim is different when speaking to those he cannot convert. Here he lies not to convince, but to control; not to entice, but to taunt. Implicit in his con is a boast: “I realize you know that I am lying, but I am powerful enough to do it anyway, despite your objections.” It is a form of bullying, writer-activist Masha Gessen notes, that characterizes many authoritarian leaders.
Flooding the civic arena with wild, sensational claims is a way that Trump flaunts his power. His relentless barrage of fictions, spurious accusations, and fallacious conspiracy theories attracts attention, which allows him to insert himself into people’s everyday lives, regardless of whether or not they believe his allegations. Debunking the confusing jumble of distortions that he propagates is mentally exhausting, like trying to unscramble the contorted images in a house of mirrors. Trump’s swarm of fraudulent claims can overwhelm the most indefatigable fact checkers, bogging down their efforts to hold him accountable for his wayward behavior. As his verbal onslaught obscures the boundary between reality and illusion, desensitizing people to the line between truth and fantasy, it is easy to grow cynical about politics and become resigned to living public life as a passive subject rather than as an active participant.
In short, jackboots and brownshirts are not the only tools for enervating civic engagement. Unremitting mendacity can also beget political acquiescence. By wearing citizens down, it offers a cheap, surreptitious way to demoralize opponents and discourage their involvement in public affairs. Over time, the torrent of lies erodes trust in democratic institutions and practices, which can lead all but the most fervent partisans to withdraw from civil society and seek solace in the quiet joys of private life.
Lying is pervasive among human beings, though most people do it for relatively harmless reasons, such as being polite in uncomfortable social situations. Donald Trump’s mendacity is more egregious and consequential.
While it may be tempting to believe that his outlandish claims are merely intended to shock and should not be should not be taken literally, the sheer volume of false and misleading statements suggests otherwise. Trump’s interminable lies represent more than simple waggishness. They are the leading edge of autocracy.