What if Trump’s constant lying makes his false reality believable?

All the president’s little lies normalize falsity and create the conditions necessary for a big lie to become believable

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with county sheriffs during a listening session in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on February 7, 2017 in Washington, DC.  (Andrew Harrer/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with county sheriffs during a listening session in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on February 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Andrew Harrer/Getty Images)

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.

MORE: Donald Trump invites authoritarianism to America

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.

RELATED: Donald Trump imagines America is under siege

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.


What if Trump’s constant lying makes his false reality believable?

  1. It already has.

    People are posting things right on this site that aren’t remotely true. There has been a noticeable uptick in this behavior since Trump became the candidate.

    • Sorry Emilyone, I have no idea what point you are trying to make.

      • It answers the headline question.

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    • Emily-you are the best example!!

      • I source things. You just make them up.

  2. When you have to hire fact checkers to check all statements by the Potus and his crowd you know you have a major problem with them lying. I have always thought that nothing he or any of them should be broadcast live.
    Record it, fact check it and then broadcast with the results of the fact check subtitled. As for being ‘lonely and scared’ that is fine when you are just a nobody teen but in the President of a powerful nuclear nation it is darn scary.

  3. Obama lied all the time. You can keep your doctor. Lie. You can keep your insurance plan. Lie. His principal foreign policy advisor, Ben Rhodes, bragged in a profile about how they created a narrative about the Iran deal that was not exactly true.

    The Clintons lied all the time. I did not have you know what with that woman. Hilary and her expertise into trade pork bellies on the Chicago commodities exchange, on Whitewater, on Benghazi, etc.

    • Dubya lied, Harper lied and on and on and on the list goes. Why make this such a partisan issue?
      Alternative facts?

      • And Trudeau lies all the time-“last time for first past the post” the most recent. And just before that at one of his selfie outings- “It’s not my carbon tax that’s causing you harm. That’s the province of Ontario’s program” after he had stated publicly that Wynne was outstanding in leading the way for this type of new money grab.
        The one unique thing about Trump is that he is rapidly doing exactly what the American people elected him to do-how rare is that!! Trudeau should give that a shot some time.

        • Amazing. You guys think you’re being lied to about everything, all the time, by everybody.

          Maybe it’s not them….it’s you.

          • Not true!! I am far more suspicious of Wynne and Trudeau.

          • Well stop being suspicious of everyone…That’s just paranoia.

  4. The mainstream media portray themselves as honest, impartial reporters of news, but have consistently broadcast a steady barrage of biased reporting or commentary. Just a few examples. During the election campaign, the media broadcast constantly that Clinton was winning by significant margin. This turned out to be completely false. Promises that Trump made to make America safe are interpreted by the media as racism and broadcast as such. They constantly referred to a “Muslim ban” which it is not; it was to block immigration from countries which are terrorist havens. The promise to build a wall is another example where the media constantly reinforces the idea that it is racism when the purpose of it is to increase the security of America. One of the CBC journalists recently wrote an article where it claimed that many terrorists were white Christians. This has been refuted by a member of parliament to be completely false and a complaint has been filed through the complaint process. The names of some white terrorists that the journalist gave have been examined and it has been shown there was no evidence that they were Christians.

    • The vast majority of the media here in Canada and the US are left leaning and some like CNN, to the far left. Every time Trump advances one of the promises that got him elected, the left leaning media is very critical and uses terms like racism and bigotry to describe these. And they try endlessly to create the impression that EVERYONE is against Trump. Even with the most controversial of his actions to date-the TEMPORARY ban against migrants from countries known to openly support terrorism until Trump can be ensured that the vetting process is adequate-you would think from left leaning media reports that no one supports it. However, a recent Rasmussen poll in the US show that 53% of Americans are supportive; 25% aren’t and the rest aren’t sure.
      The reason FOX has more viewership than CNN and MSNBC combined is because it is the only station I am aware of which gives viewers the other side of the picture. If you go back and forth between CNN and FOX and average the two-you’re probably close to the real world.

      • Fox has the Nitwit factor

        That would be you.

  5. And with this article Mcleans has truly morphed into fake media. Did Trump say, “if you want to keep your doctor, you can keep your doctor”? But where is the article about Obama’s big lies.

    And as for Trump’s lies, there seem to be none of them mentioned in the article, it is just assumed that the reader will agree. In actual fact, most of What Trump has said has turned out to be true. For instance, all of the un and under reported terror attacks. We even have one in Quebec city where the police reported one thing, and the media was ordered by the PMO to remove it. They rolled over like lap dogs. So did Mcleans.

    • Trump lies all the time, in fact it is a deep character flaw.
      He lied when he said there were 3 to 5 million illegal votes (even mainstream GOP members say there was minimal voter fraud), he lied when we described the number at his inauguration (pictures proved the lie), he lied about the non-reporting of terrorist attacks (the BBC had a report indicating there was coverage of all of the incidents as did CNN). If you don’t realize he lies to the extend he does, the you my friend have a problem. America has a serious problem and it is Mr. Trump and we have a problem because they have Trump at the switch!

  6. Well, it seems from the comments that we all understand that all politicians lie. In democracies, it’s an age old meme that political promises are vapor. To some extent our desire to hear what we want to hear and to some extent only hear what we want to hear is causal. We should know that people who become politicians have an agenda. The bible says ‘You will recognize them by their fruits’ but we are much persuaded by words not deeds. Unfortunately, it is much simpler for media to report on what was said – the ever popular sound-bite’ – than what was done which requires investigative effort. To some extent, investigative reporting is a thankless task as politicians can shine this on by merely promising to do better in future or the ever popular obfuscation of offering a ‘study’. Steven Harper spent $90M on housing in Atiwapiskat, according to him, except he didn’t and the fact that a portion of the funds he was tossing around came from the province and from earnings of the people themselves was of no consequence; this whole episode points to a common meme for politicians i.e. that the money they spend and even the money spent by others is their money not the taxpayer’s; it also exposes another ploy that politicians know well which is to throw around large numbers knowing that the public can more readily conceptualize a $17 orange juice than a billion dollar boondoggle. So we get gazebos built in the name of national security … and we shrug; perhaps the lesson is the public has a high tolerance for bafflegab. Professional wrestling experienced a surge when they discovered the power of talking smack – an ancient art for politicians perhaps having a modern resurgence. So take that you ‘old-stock’ Canadians.

  7. “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
    The same could be said about confusing action and bluster with progress. Though the article above is quick to admit that other politicians and yes, presidents have lied, the lies have usually had more to do with broken promises or the selective use of statistics than an intentionally distorted reality. Whether done out of stupidity, egotistical pride or to defend poorly executed orders or to justify particularly contentious policies, when the leader of an influential/powerful country regularly and deliberately LIES and DEMANDS that his staff and citizens disregard their own eyes and ears, and see circles instead of squares, we are entering dangerous territory.
    There may be ALTERNATIVE explanations, but the FACT remains – The King has no clothes.

  8. So basically what you’re saying here MacLean’s is: Better the liar you know (Clinton) than the liar you don’t (Trump)?