Donald Trump’s Lyin’ Eyes
- January 22, 2019
If there’s one thing that has defined Donald Trump’s presidency more than anything else, it’s his startling propensity for lying.
According to the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker database, Trump has made 7, 645 ‘false or misleading claims’ since taking office. Last October alone, the WP found that he said ‘1,200 things that were false or misleading.’
It isn’t as if American presidents haven’t lied before. Successive American administrations routinely lied about the Vietnam War. George Bush, with the support of the British government and many of the same politicians who now attack Trump, lied about WMD in Iraq. But Trump’s lies are on an entirely different scale and they also have a different purpose.
Unscrupulous politicians lie to hide their misdemeanours or advance their careers. Democratic governments may deceive the public in order to achieve specific outcomes. But Trump lies compulsively about big things and small things, and he isn’t the only one. Only this week the arch-charlatan Boris Johnson claimed that he had never claimed that Turkey was about to enter the EU, even though various videos and interviews record him saying it.
Like Trump, Johnson he is a fraud and a charlatan, who lies for his own advancement, and knows that he can do so with impunity.
Such men aren’t as new as we might think. In 1712 Jonathan Swift wrote a satirical review of a non-existent book entitled The Art of Political Lying. In a subsequent essay for The Examiner on ‘Political Lying’, Swift wrote of
a certain great man famous for this talent, to the constant practice of which he owes his twenty years’ reputation of the most skilful head in England, for the management of nice affairs. The superiority of his genius consists in nothing else but an inexhaustible fund of political lies, which he plentifully distributes every minute he speaks, and by an unparalleled generosity forgets, and consequently contradicts, the next half hour. He never yet considered whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company to affirm or deny it.
Swift would not have been surprised by Trump or Johnson. But the problem that we are currently faced with isn’t simply the alarming proliferation of sociopaths and political con-men who routinely lie in order gain power, but the context in which they operate.
Trump’s bare-faced lying certainly hasn’t bothered his base, nor the Republican Party in general. Some have questioned Trump’s sanity, and they are probably right to do so. Others, faced with such bare-faced and routine mendacity, have wondered whether we have entered a new era of ‘post-truth’ politics.
That question is also worth asking, because there is no doubt that shameless lying – accompanied by the dismissal of contradictory facts as ‘fake news’ – has become the standard operating procedure of the new populist politics, on the Internet as well as the ‘real’ world.
Drawing on the conspiracist ‘truth telling’ of alt-right shock jocks and websites like InfoWars, Trump has transformed lying into a political modus operandi. At the same time he has propagated a grand conspiracy narrative in which seemingly incontrovertible facts are breezily dismissed as ‘fake news.’
No one can deny that this isn’t working. We can see the same tendencies over here in the Brexit referendum and its aftermath, or the idiotic cult of Tommy Robinson. Last year, the Internet seethed with moronic descriptions of Tommy Robinson as ‘our Mahatma Ghandi’ and ‘our Nelson Mandela.’
Lawyers and journalists patiently explained that Robinson had not been arrested as an ‘enemy of the state’, but because he had broken the law.
Tens of thousands of people simply dismissed such explanations out of hand as ‘fake news.’ Insulated in their social media peer groups, Robinson’s supporters believed what they wanted to believe, in much the same way as Brexiters dismiss any facts they don’t like as ‘Project Fear.’
Democracies cannot flourish in a climate like this. Societies that cannot or will not attempt to distinguish between the authentic and the ersatz; that treat facts only as ‘opinions’; that no longer care who is lying as long as the lies reflect what certain groups want to believe; that no longer seek to hold lying politicians to account, are open to manipulation.
This is why so many people believe that Tommy Robinson is a freedom fighter, that the EU is a dictatorship, that white men are victims of ‘feminazis’, that liberal elites and ‘cultural Marxists’ are deliberately bringing migrants into Europe in order to transform it into an Islamic colony.
Believe these things and you can believe anything. And that’s the point of Trump’s lies. They aren’t simply a product of his manifold psychological defects. They are a political strategy, intended to make people believe what he and people like him want them to believe.
As Jonathan Swift once observed.
Few lies carry the inventor’s mark, and the most prostitute enemy to truth may spread a thousand, without being known for the author: besides, as the vilest writer hath his readers, so the greatest liar hath his believers: and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no further occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.
Today, in the 21st century, the patient is not just truth, but the possibility of democracy.
Neither of them are dead – yet.
But both of them are looking a little frayed and peaky, and no wonder, after the poison that Trump and his cohorts have been pumping into them.