Not All Presidential Liars Are Created Equal

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Trump with hands outstretched

Donald Trump speaks to the media as he departs the White House in Washington, D.C., in January 2019. (Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)

One hardly needs to make the case that Donald Trump is a liar. Neither is it news that this is true of previous presidents as well. At the same time, the depth and breadth of Trump’s dishonesty is something decidedly new. As the MSNBC host Chris Hayes wrote in a New York Times book review 18 months after Trump’s inauguration: “The president is a liar. He lies about matters of the utmost consequence (nuclear diplomacy) and about the most trivial (his golf game). He lies about things you can see with your own eyes. He lies about things he said just moments ago. He lies the way a woodpecker attacks a tree: compulsively, insistently, instinctively.”
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Trump’s ability to lie without concern for credibility is gruesomely impressive. In one three-day period in April 2019, Trump managed to make 171 “false or misleading claims,” according to The Washington Post fact-checking team. During a telephone interview with the Fox News talk-show host Sean Hannity, he managed 45 falsehoods in 45 minutes. This degree of lying qualifies as “pathological,” and so yes, America has a pathological liar for its president. How did this happen? And what are the dangers of allowing this liar to dominate US political culture?

For so common a human occurrence, lying can be a complicated matter. We tell our children that lying is always wrong, but we don’t mean it. As a young child in Hebrew school, I was taught to admire Jacob for tricking his father, Isaac, into giving the birthright blessing to him rather than its rightful recipient, his older brother, Esau. We were also taught to admire the Egyptian midwives’ lie to Pharaoh’s men about having murdered the Israelites’ firstborn sons, including the little fellow who grew up to be Moses.

While few people refer to themselves as “liars,” those of us who does not lie with some frequency are rare. Sociologists Deborah A. Kashy and Bella M. DePaulo observed that lies are “a fact of social life rather than an extraordinary or unusual event. People tell lies to accomplish the most basic social interaction goals, such as influencing others, managing impressions, and providing reassurance and support.”

In politics, Hannah Arendt sardonically noted that “no one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.” To the contrary, she went on, “lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s or the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade.”

Obviously, politics is not a profession that rewards, much less fetishizes, honesty. Journalists know this, and, in failing to hold presidents accountable for their dishonesty, the American press has reflected a larger ambivalence about doing so among the American people. Historically, Americans have tended to accept presidential lies as the cost of doing business. In 2017, C‑Span asked 91 presidential scholars to rank past chief executives for their effectiveness, a measure that included “moral authority.” What was striking about the result was that dishonesty did not appear to matter. Compulsive liars Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson both made it into the top 10. Relative truth-tellers Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter came in 12th and 26th, respectively, the latter just barely above the White House’s most egregious (pre-Trump) liar, Richard Nixon, who took the number 28 spot on the list. In presidential rankings based on public polling, the big liars largely thrive, albeit due to ongoing political arguments rather than careful historical consideration. In a 2011 Gallup poll, for instance, Reagan was number one and Bill Clinton was number three, with “Honest Abe” Lincoln squeaking into second place.

This awesome responsibility would prove too great a burden for several presidents. Lyndon Johnson’s lies, combined with his mental and emotional instability late in his presidency, led to catastrophe in Vietnam and could easily have spun even further out of control. Richard Nixon’s incessant dishonesty, together with his noxious combination of ambition, racism, and criminality, produced an even more volatile situation, which, thanks to bipartisan efforts in Congress, was brought swiftly to an end without a constitutional crisis. Nevertheless, the policies of these presidents caused more than 57,000 senseless American battle deaths and likely at least 3 million more deaths among the soldiers and civilians of Vietnam and Cambodia. Jimmy Carter’s apparent inability to manage America’s empire satisfactorily, and his presidency was derailed by it. Ronald Reagan, in the years following Carter, revived and expanded the nation’s commitment to aggressively defending and expanding its empire, but he would find himself telling lie after lie in pursuit of illegal wars based on ideological fixations; when explaining his actions, frequently he behaved as if detached from reality. The wars he pursued undermined his own authority as president and played a significant role in the defeat of his successor, George H.W. Bush, in seeking a second term.

We need not minimize the horrific consequences of past presidential lies in order to observe that they pale in comparison to the lies told by Donald Trump. The wars, coups, and assassinations that these presidents lied about resulted in the deaths of millions of innocents and the displacement of many millions more. Trillions of dollars were wasted in the process, and the good name of the United States of America suffered around the world. Yes, past presidents certainly lied—but they did not lie about everything. The office of the presidency functioned with the understanding that although the president would have to lie on occasion for reasons of national security, the office and its occupant should remain more or less tethered to reality. Those days ended on January 20, 2017.

The role of the media has always been crucial to the phenomenon of presidential lying. In theory, it is their responsibility to hold the government accountable. It is the press’s job to tell the truth about what the government is doing, what it means, and why it matters. When a president thinks about telling a lie—at least theoretically—he is forced to consider the likelihood that his mendacity may be exposed by some conscientious journalistic institution working to ferret out the truth. These hard-earned facts empower citizens to make informed judgments about their leaders despite any dishonesty or demagoguery those leaders may exhibit. In practice, however, members of the media have often proven ambivalent about ensuring that presidents are held to any standard of truthfulness. In the century following the American Revolution, journalism was largely a function of political partisanship, with newssheets and journals tied explicitly to one of the major political parties or local bosses. News articles at the time, like life itself, were largely nasty and brutish (though not always short). When it comes to scurrilous accusations and paranoid fantasies, the likes of Fox News’s Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson are perhaps not that much worse than George Washington’s scourge, Benjamin Franklin Bache, publisher of the Philadelphia Aurora, much less the pamphleteer James Thomson Callender, whose work would malign Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, who he attacked as a “hideous hermaphroditical character.”

When it comes to lying, modern political reporters have found it challenging to call presidents out. On matters of “national security”—a term that in most cases denotes the expansion or maintenance of the American empire—journalists have tended to give presidents and their advisers a wide berth, lest they appear unpatriotic, or somehow find themselves responsible for undermining the nation’s safety. Another cause for reticence has been the expectation that journalists show respect for the office of the presidency, which they—publicly at least—have been more than happy to fulfill. A third barrier arises from the ideology of journalistic objectivity, which dictates that there are two sides to any given issue, and that it is wrong to take one over the other, despite the fact that one (or both) might be based on a lie. Even at its most elite level, most reporters are happy to rely on the typical “he said, she said” formula. Conflict, after all, is what makes a good story.

This is why, as the pundit Michael Kinsley noted during the second Bush administration, “if some politician declares that two plus two is five, reporters might note that this position is not without controversy. Indeed there are critics, including politicians of the opposite party, who contend that two plus two may actually be four.” This tendency can be relatively innocuous so long as politicians hew close enough to the truth. The problem, as The Washington Post’s legendary editor Ben Bradlee explained, is that “even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face.”

Prior to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, politicians’ lies were treated in the mainstream media as an everyday occurrence. They were, however, responded to not by calling them “lies”—which was considered nonobjective, and evidence of liberal bias, since it was most often Republicans doing the lying—but by quoting “both sides” without identifying which one might be telling the truth. In recent decades, this reluctance on the part of most journalists to make a judgment about falsehoods effectively gave increasingly radicalized right-wing Republican politicians a license to lie. These lies were repeated and amplified by a growing web of conservative media outlets. These institutions operated on the radio, in print, on cable television, and eventually across almost all social media. Conservative billionaires, media entrepreneurs, and shamelessly amoral self-promoters joined together to create a media ecosystem in which falsehoods hold sway. The result is that today lies have been built atop other lies, and these have come to define the world—or what the columnist and political philosopher Walter Lippmann once termed “the pictures in our heads”—for tens of millions of Americans, despite the fact that they bear virtually no relation to reality.

Given the power of the right-wing media ecosystem to define the reality of conservative voters, its members were able to demand the fealty of almost every Republican politician seeking national office. In order to survive in this hothouse of extremist ideology and casual, constant dishonesty, the historian Garry Wills observed, Republicans ended up renouncing essentially the entire Enlightenment, and with it, “reason, facts, science, open-mindedness, tolerance, secularity, [and] modernity.”

It was a long time coming, but by 2011, veteran ex‑Republican congressional staffer Mike Lofgren admitted that his former political home was looking “less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult.” In April 2012, the respected nonpartisan political analysts Thomas Mann of the centrist Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute grew so frustrated with Republican recalcitrance that they joined together to author a missive in The Washington Post titled “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.” The piece was remarkable because Mann and Ornstein represented the heart of what had been the bipartisan political establishment. Now they were warning of “an insurgent outlier in American politics”—a political party that had grown “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” They explained that journalists’ belief in objectivity notwithstanding, “a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.” The op‑ed proved to be among the most widely read and cited of any Post article since the paper first went online. Countless journalists congratulated Mann and Ornstein privately for saying what they could not say publicly.

Yet nothing changed. Editors and producers, Mann explained, were “concerned about their professional standing and vulnerability to charges of partisan bias.” So, reporters simply stopped speaking to Mann and Ornstein—at least without hearing from “both sides.” It was the media’s willingness to embrace the culture of dishonesty that helped to open a door for a president openly contemptuous of the media—and of the truth itself.

Trump knows, as all tyrants do, that without the accountability provided by an independent media, a powerful politician can get away with almost anything. America’s founders bequeathed the press its special status and protections under the First Amendment for exactly this reason. Trump’s insistent accusation that the media are the “Enemy of the American People” and constant protestations of “fake news” are intended to undermine confidence in the press and thereby undermine its ability to hold his administration answerable to the public.

But it did not matter how frequently or how egregiously Trump and his administration lied to journalists or how viciously they insulted their character, their professionalism, or even their ethnicity—reporters for mainstream outlets kept returning for more abuse and precious little truth. “We’re not cheerleaders for the president nor are we the opposition,” argues New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker. He further insists, “What we shouldn’t do is let the noise overcome our journalistic values.” But all too often, what was offered as a defense of old-fashioned commitments to provide “both sides” of any given controversy devolved, in practice, to running interference for Trump’s dishonesty. Many journalists were so insistent that they were not in a fight with the president that they were failing to inform the public of just how serious a threat he posed to the country’s freedoms.

Even were Trump to respect the constitutional constraints on his office, he would still enjoy an awesome degree of potentially destructive power. Beginning with the birth of the atom bomb and the ever-expanding ideology of the “national security state,” the prerogatives of the presidency have grown beyond anything the founders could have possibly imagined. With America’s nuclear arsenal at his disposal, Trump could, of course, end all human life and destroy the planet. Less dramatically, he could invoke any one of the emergency powers contained in the 123 statutory provisions that give presidents near-dictatorial powers. Trump might, for instance, seize control of “any facility or station for wire communication,” should he decide to proclaim “that there exists a state or threat of war involving the United States,” and order it to broadcast only his voice and his orders. With Trump’s power and dishonesty, the institutions charged with protecting American democracy and civic life should err on the side of vigilance rather than complacency.

Reflecting on the corruption of his erstwhile friends and colleagues in the Trump administration, former FBI director James Comey explained, “It starts with your sitting silent while he lies, both in public and private, making you complicit by your silence.” The silence is natural. “After all, what are you supposed to say? He’s the president of the United States.” The end result is that “you are lost. He has eaten your soul.” Comey’s metaphor is a good one, but the circle he drew is overly narrow. Trump’s lies are not only devouring America’s soul; they are threatening the future viability of our democratic republican form of government. Trump is the Frankenstein monster of a political system that has not merely tolerated lies from our leaders but has come to demand them. The weaknesses of the American political system that gave rise to Trump will not disappear with his presidency. They must be confronted, head-on, while we still have a soul—and a republic—worth saving.

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