By Lee McIntyre* – The Conversation
Most politicians lie.
Or do they?
Even if we could find some isolated example of a politician who was scrupulously honest – former President Jimmy Carter, perhaps – the question is how to think about the rest of them.
And if most politicians lie, then why are some Americans so hard on President Donald Trump?
According to The Washington Post, Trump has told 6,420 lies so far in his presidency. In the seven weeks leading up to the midterms, his rate increased to 30 per day.
That’s a lot, but isn’t this a difference in degree and not a difference in kind with other politicians?
From my perspective as a philosopher who studies truth and belief, it doesn’t seem so. And even if most politicians lie, that doesn’t make all lying equal.
Yet the difference in Trump’s prevarication seems to be found not in the quantity or enormity of his lies, but in the way that Trump uses his lies in service to a proto-authoritarian political ideology.
I recently wrote a book, titled ““Post-Truth,” about what happens when “alternative facts” replace actual facts, and feelings have more weight than evidence. Looked at from this perspective, calling Trump a liar fails to capture his key strategic purpose.
Any amateur politician can engage in lying. Trump is engaging in “post-truth.” Beyond word of the year
The Oxford English Dictionaries named “post-truth” its word of the year in November 2016, right before the U.S. election.
Citing a 2,000 percent spike in usage – due to Brexit and the American presidential campaign – they defined post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Ideology, in other words, takes precedence over reality.
When an individual believes their thoughts can influence reality, we call it “magical thinking” and might worry about their mental health. When a government official uses ideology to trump reality, it’s more like propaganda, and it puts us on the road to fascism.
As Yale philosopher Jason Stanley argues, “The key thing is that fascist politics is about identifying enemies, appealing to the in-group (usually the majority group), and smashing truth and replacing it with power.”
Consider the example of Trump’s recent decision not to cancel two political rallies on the same day as the Pittsburgh massacre. He said that this was based on the fact that the New York Stock Exchange was open the day after 9/11.
This isn’t true. The stock exchange stayed closed for six days after 9/11.
So was this a mistake? A lie? Trump didn’t seem to treat it so. In fact, he repeated the falsehood later in the same day.
When a politician gets caught in a lie, there’s usually a bit of sweat, perhaps some shame and the expectation of consequences.
Not for Trump. After many commentators pointed out to him that the stock exchange was in fact closed for several days after 9/11, he merely shrugged it off, never bothering to acknowledge – let alone correct – his error.
Why would he do this? Ideology, post-truth and power
The point of a lie is to convince someone that a falsehood is true. But the point of post-truth is domination. In my analysis, post-truth is an assertion of power. As journalist Masha Gessen and others have argued, when Trump lies he does so not to get someone to accept what he’s saying as true, but to show that he is powerful enough to say it.
He has asserted, “I’m the President and you’re not,” as if such high political office comes with the prerogative of creating his own reality. This would explain why Trump doesn’t seem to care much if there is videotape or other evidence that contradicts him. When you’re the boss, what does that matter?
Should we be worried about this flight from mere lying to post-truth?
Even if all politicians lie, I believe that post-truth foreshadows something more sinister. In his powerful book “On Tyranny,”historian Timothy Snyder writes that “post-truth is pre-fascism.” It is a tactic seen in “electoral dictatorships” – where a society retains the facade of voting without the institutions or trust to ensure that it is an actual democracy, like those in Putin’s Russia or Erdogan’s Turkey.
In this, Trump is following the authoritarian playbook, characterized by leaders lying, the erosion of public institutions and the consolidation of power. You do not need to convince someone that you are telling the truth when you can simply assert your will over them and dominate their reality.
————– *Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and an Instructor in Ethics at Harvard Extension School. He holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor). ————————————- Related: Scaramucci says Trump lies for a purpose By Aaron Blake* – The Washington Post
Former White House communications director-for-a-few-days Anthony Scaramucci was very upset that CNN ran a recent headline quoting him calling President Donald Trump a “liar.”
So when he was on Bloomberg TV the next day, he decided to clarify.
“Yes, the president is speaking mistruths,” Scaramucci said after accusing the network of pursuing “clickbait.” “Yes, the president is lying. He’s doing it intentionally to incite certain people, which would include left-leaning journalists and most of the left-leaning politicians.”
Scaramucci added: “He’s an intentional liar; it’s very different from just being a liar liar.”
O . . . kay?
Points for honesty. This is a former White House communications director admitting that his ex-boss, the president of the United States, is in fact a prolific liar and someone who wields lies for political gain. That’s no small thing.
But Scaramucci is also drawing a weird distinction.
A lie is, definitionally, an intentional act. Saying someone is an “intentional liar” is redundant. If you don’t know what you are saying is false, it’s not actually a lie.
This is why much of the media, including The Washington Post, continues to decline to label Trump’s false statements as “lies.” It’s generally impossible to prove Trump knew better when he said the many false things he’s said. Perhaps he is simply living in an elaborately constructed fantasy or doesn’t grasp basic facts (which I’ve argued might be worse than being a liar!) — and you don’t write what you can’t prove.
Scaramucci’s main point, then, seems to be that Trump’s lies are deliberate — as part of a strategy. He’s basically arguing that Trump lies for a purpose — to goad his opponents into overreacting — and that this is somehow better than other kinds of lying. It’s not like Trump has little or no control over his lying. It’s that he’s doing it proactively.
All of this seems quite likely.
Trump, whatever you think of him, is a savvy media operator. He will often say controversial things in just such a way as to allow himself plausible deniability, inviting tough coverage while giving himself an out. He has built a hugely loyal base, and a big part of that has been stoking feuds with the already much-hated media, often by saying so many false things that reporters are forced to cover them endlessly. Trump has seized upon the media’s obsession with facts (which it is their job to pursue, first and foremost) to prop up an extremely convincing boogeyman.
But it’s also quite a commentary on our political day and age when one of the president’s former aides and biggest promoters feels the need to argue that the president’s lies are actually smart lies. Scaramucci says Trump’s base is in on the joke and views the media as an overzealous “hall monitor.”
That might well be the case, but I don’t think it’s nearly as much of a mystery to the press as Scaramucci suggests.
And if the president truly views lying as such a weapon. and so much of the country views it simply as the price of “owning the libs,” that’s a pretty sad state of affairs.
——————————– *Aaron Blake (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior political reporter for The Washington Post.