President Trump’s distortions, deceitfulness, and simple lies are so unceasing that to believe him on any specific matter is bad judgment. Strong allegation? I assure you I mean it. But first, a proviso: Being untrustworthy does not mean he never speaks the truth. It does not mean that his specific actions are always wrong or ineffective. Even pathological liars sometimes tell the truth and “get things done.” It makes no difference whether Trump’s constant fabrications are due to his insecurity, paranoia, narcissism, maliciousness, or pathological need to brag about himself in every situation. He seems devoid of a philosophical center other than himself, as demonstrated by his childish recitation of his actual election success and the even greater election success that he just made up.
Management guru Peter Drucker once pointed out that someone who works for a corrupt boss risks also becoming corrupt. Trump’s duplicity extends to those who work for him. Whether his subordinates were dissemblers to begin with or because of his influence became so, a number of them seem as devious as he. But whether the loyal fudging and outright lying by, say, Kellyanne Conway or Sean Spicer, is just the result of a basically honest person serving a dishonest master, the result is the same.
Previously in this blog I’ve said most of what I want to say about this unfit, devious, and authoritarian-prone president (“America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sep. 26, 2016; “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016; “Please, Mr. President-elect,” Nov. 15, 2016; “What does a proto-despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016; “Flirting with fascism in Trump’s America,” Jan. 23, 2017). My point in this brief post is that a president who is as prone to lie as to tell the truth is a dilemma for all of us. His disgraceful confounding of fact and fiction is not just a curious habit or laughable entertainment. Donald Trump’s lying endangers the nation.
Yes, I know that normal politicians often make promises about what they plan or hope to accomplish. A candidate for city council might convince voters he or she will bring the city a certain economic improvement, only later finding that council decisions are by a group, not an individual. Similarly, presidential aspirants announce great accomplishments while campaigning, only occasionally with the sober, sotto voce recognition “if I can get it through Congress.” As misleading as those rosy assertions can be, however, I will accuse persons of lying only when (a) they claim to be true that which they know to be untrue, (b) they intentionally couch technically accurate propositions to make it more probable that reasonable inferences are drawn that are untrue, or (c) their character is malformed such that they find the conceptual distinction of true/untrue obscure or unimportant. Lies that meet those definitions are my concern.
A president’s lies are not like regular lies. They are magnified by the enormous power of the office. A few words can swing the stock market, inspire hope in the hopeless, cause unnecessary interruptions to the lives of millions, bring down whole industries, and in general convince the gullible of practically anything. It is an ironic twist that this man whose lying is so blatant frequently uses the confidence-building phrase, “believe me!” as if he has earned any trust at all. So what problem does his character flaw of untruthfulness cause? Just as an exercise, let me pose questions to which the press and citizens might legitimately seek answers. Consider such questions and our subsequent dilemma:
- did a phone call with a foreign leader end in your hanging up rudely?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- is there an elevated danger from radical Islamists slipping through as refugees?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- were there were thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering as the World Trade Center fell?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- did you just become a practicing Christian during the campaign?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- had you or your representatives have any interaction with the Russian government during the campaign or prior to your inauguration that was not made public?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- would your tax returns, if we saw them, show lawful compliance and an absence of conflicts of interest?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- will you really keep your business activity separate from your role as president?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- on the many occasions “many people have told me” has been cited as evidence, did they really do so?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- were three million illegal votes for your opponent cast in the election?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- is crime in America at an all-time high?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- did your investigators seeking proof that Barrack Obama was foreign-born find so much as to justify your confident assurance that “you won’t believe!” how much they uncovered?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- do facts unknown to us show that the “dishonest media” refuse to report on major terrorist attacks?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- is the murder rate at the highest level it’s ever been in 47 years?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- have your actions already saved tens of thousands of jobs?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- did the travel ban go “very smooth” [sic] and only affect 109 people out of the hundreds of thousands of travelers?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- is your belief in democracy so strong you’d never take the country down the path to autocracy?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- if you were offended personally by a foreign leader, would that ever figure in your subsequent presidential actions?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- would you ever pressure any person or business to favor family interests?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- would you alter any part of our international posture in order to increase your fortune?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- what is your evaluation of a recent American military operation?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
- did you really already save $700m in F35 negotiations?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
In that list, some I made up, some are real. They vary, as I said, from trivial to crucial. Each day brings more items that could go on such a list, that is, items the answers to which would not be believable because the president has chosen to be untruthful regardless how evident his obfuscations might be.
One of the derivative problems with presidential lying or even just carelessness with facts is that he cannot avoid clashing with other sources of facts, specifically the daily progression of current news. So in order to protect his own misguided claims to truth, a president must contend with, criticize, and in the long haul delegitimize the press. Steps aimed toward the president’s becoming—despite his loss of the moral high ground—the dominant source of truth is one of the definitive steps in advancing authoritarianism. On that matter, see my recent posts, “What does a proto-despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016 and “Flirting with fascism in Trump’s America,” Jan. 23, 2017. A more studied depiction of steps toward authoritarianism can be found in Melik Kaylan’s January 10, 2017 Forbes article, “What the Trump Era Will Feel Like: Clues From Populist Regimes Around The World.” Trump has displayed not only the personality for despotism, but is following steps in its pursuit as if from a playbook. http://www.forbes.com/sites/melikkaylan/2017/01/10/what-the-trump-era-will-feel-like-clues-from-populist-regimes-around-the-world/#1f42ad8f61aa).
To reiterate, not being able to trust what the president and his minions tell us does not mean he and they will never tell the truth. It means we can’t trust on any specific matter that his choice will be to tell the truth. Consequently, we are forced to consider everything he says is suspect. The press should do so as well, but carefully, since the president can then use the press’s increasing diligence to prove its bias. We have no idea what the future holds and, therefore, what will arise about which we need truth. We don’t know what our president will be lying about next, but we and the whole world can see that it will be continually about something.
Still, should we not give the president the benefit of the doubt? Must his every utterance or those who speak for him be viewed with suspicion? Would that we could, as generally Americans have been willing to do for every president. Regardless of party, we want to trust our president. We take pride in the trust of General de Gaulle when, declining to examine America’s proof of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, said to Eisenhower’s emissary, Dean Acheson, “I do not wish to see the photographs. The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me.” Political trust today is different, to be sure, but Trump—whose long suit is not discernible integrity—broadcasts a massive, worrisome step in its further deterioration.
Yet it is still imperative for Americans to be able to believe their president, just as it is imperative that foreign countries can count on America to be what America claims to be. Having a chief executive already known internationally as a buffoon does great harm to America’s image and, perhaps more importantly, to world security. Current news outlets and opinion writers do examine individual instances of the president and his employees lying. That is necessary, but it is not sufficient. My point in this post is that exposing and refuting lies one at a time fails to address that this is an ongoing characteristic hardwired into the Trump administration’s DNA, not simply one episode of dishonesty following another. The problem is bigger.
Nothing the President of the United States says about anything can be trusted. Nothing.