Any battle over the truth is a struggle to define the world in which we live. We can’t see or touch truth; we can’t point to it. That’s not to say that facts don’t exist or that there is no right or wrong, but rather to signal that by virtue of who we are as a species and by the laws and limits of the world around us, we’re always creating and negotiating truth together. When Donald Trump lies to protect and advance his own interests, we ought to be very, very concerned—because he’s not just lying, he’s shaping reality.
So the President of the United States is a liar. Considerable ink has been spilled in the past over what it means to lie rather than tell a falsehood. Recently, Adrienne Lafrance, writing for The Atlantic, explored these questions, and looked at how journalists are managing to write about Trump’s volumes of misinformation.
We can categorize lies and falsehoods as different things. A lie is deliberate; you tell a lie to obscure the truth. A falsehood can be understood as something that is stated and untrue, but which the person who communicates it believes (or, at least, doesn’t know to be false).
Presidents lie. Indeed, in more moderate times that fact would barely warrant a mention above the fold. Lyndon Johnson lied (with impunity). Richard Nixon lied (profusely). Ronald Reagan lied (with a twinkle in his eye). Bill Clinton lied (about sex). Plenty of presidents before Johnson were awful fibbers, and plenty after Donald Trump will be, too. President lies, dog bites man. What’s next?
Trump’s lies are different. For one, there are more of them than usual. Toronto Star journalist Daniel Dale has been keeping a running list of the president’s fabrications, which sat at an impressive 42 when we published this post. No doubt that by the time you read this, that number will have grown. Trump deploys hubris insofar as his fibs are so flagrantly false. The charm of a falsehood rests in its believability, or perhaps its slight unbelievability. America’s 45th president knows nothing of subtlety—not surprising for a man who compulsively gilds his life, and sullies marquees and buildings, with his name in giant lettering.
For instance, rather than claim that the weather during his inaugural address was simply fine, Trump claimed that there was no rain at all, ascribing the minor miracle to God himself. In fact, it began to rain just as Trump began to speak.
Instead of estimating that attendance at his inauguration was something plausible, or not guessing at all, Trump relied on his perception and claimed that “it looked like a million and a half people.” A crowd scientist—which, I swear to you, is a thing—suggested that attendance fell somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000.
What of the polls that showed increasing disapproval of Trump and distaste for his executive orders? Fake news, obviously.
Those are just some of the silly lies. If only all them were so fatuous.
The president’s mendacity stretches to far more serious matters. On Monday, he accused the media of not reporting on terrorist attacks while visiting the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command (that is, the president called the media liars in front of the military). Trump has also lied about voter fraud, his relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency, crime rates, the media’s coverage of him and other affairs of state, immigration and refugees, border walls, and the Iran deal. And more. But there’s only so much bourbon on hand to fuel the writing (or perhaps the reading) of this list.
If presidents have lied for centuries, politicians the world over have been spinning information for longer. Spin is used for the purpose of shaping perception, so that a politician can stay in office, maintain or gain political capital, or further their policy agenda. Overt and consistent lying isn’t spin: it’s a tactic that destroys reality, toppling previously settled truth, and replacing the rubble with something more conducive to the liar’s long-term plans (or the plans of those around him). If spin is a scratched bumper, Trump’s lies are a 12-car pile-up.
The German political theorist Hannah Arendt is enjoying a recent resurgence in popularity. It does her no good, having died in 1975, but the scholar of republicanism and totalitarianism—how fortunately apt for contrast they are—provides us with tools and a perspective that help us think through the dangers of Trump’s little lies. I could also cite Orwell and Huxley here, but you’ll forgive me if each is a little too on-the-nose.
Arendt warned that in a totalitarian society, truth becomes that which supports the regime, that which legitimizes it. Back in November, in his piece “Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality,” Yale professor of philosophy Jason Stanley drew on Arendt and ascribes a broadly similar motive to Trump:
Donald Trump is trying to define a simple reality as a means to express his power. The goal is to define a reality that justifies his value system, thereby changing the value systems of his audience … The simple picture Trump is trying to convey is that there is wild disorder, because of American citizens of African-American descent, and immigrants. He is doing it as a display of strength, showing he is able to define reality and lead others to accept his authoritarian value system.
I mentioned earlier that lying can be used to create conditions for the liar’s long-term plans, but I’m actually reluctant to assign a sinister version of this motive to Trump himself—if only because I’m doubtful as to whether the man has the capacity to be so clever. Indeed, whenever it comes down to whether a man like Trump ought to be sorted into the category of “crazy” or “crazy like a fox,” I default to the former, adapting Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Or something sadder. (Indeed, Trump often admits his lies.)
I had a childhood friend who lied constantly. During our high school years, he claimed to have built a working airplane in his backyard. In a tiny shed. His lies were constant and obviously false. We indulged him. We smiled and tried to find someone else to talk to. He was lonely and scared and he doubted himself at each and every moment; he was in desperate need of attention.
If any of that makes you feel better about the president’s lying, it shouldn’t. Whatever Trump’s intentions are when he lies, the potential effect of his lying is to pave the way for increasingly authoritarian politics. Trump is the president of the United States. When Trump lies, he shapes reality for the millions of people who support him and who are motivated, psychologically or otherwise, to believe what he says, however implausible or absurd.
Chronic lying by a president worsens the already dangerous polarization of American politics. The frequent telling of lies breaks down trust and fuels cynicism among those who don’t believe the lies, setting up a culture of constant political clashes. When lies and polarization meet, the country becomes further divided and ripe for conquer—either by the one telling the lie, those around him, or those who will come after him. The little lies normalize falsity and create the conditions necessary for the big lie to become believable—or worse, to become “true.”
David Moscrop is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia and a writer. He’s currently working on a book about why we make bad political decisions and how we can make better ones. He’s at @david_moscrop on Twitter.