EICHENWALD: CAN TRUMP TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRUTH AND HIS LIES?
Then Trump made it worse. In a private meeting with congressional leaders, he continued complaining about the press reports on the attendance for his inaugural. Then, as part of his effort to deny he lost the popular vote in November (he did, by nearly three million votes), Trump spent 10 minutes complaining that up to five million undocumented immigrants cast ballots in that election. Two days later, after a deluge of criticism that he was lying about that, Trump announced he was ordering a national, taxpayer-funded investigation into voter fraud.
The following week brought more such moments. The most discombobulating came after Trump’s executive order banning travel for 90 days into the United States by people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. As immigration officials detained legal residents and people traveling with valid visas, as major corporations such as Google issued emergency orders for executives from those countries who were traveling for business meetings to come back to the United States immediately, as protesters swarmed airports across America, Trump tweeted that “all was going well” with the ban.
The irrationality of Trump’s statements is astonishing. On the voter fraud claims, for example, government data shows there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. By Trump’s five million voter estimate, that means undocumented immigrants had a huge turnout rate in the 2016 elections, and every one of them voted for Hillary Clinton. For all voters, the turnout was 57 percent.
So, in Trump’s world, close to half of all undocumented immigrants in the United States risked being caught and deported by turning up at polling places at a rate close to that of Americans whose only risk was they might be late for dinner.
Can Trump Acknowledge Reality?
No rational person could believe this. That leaves two possibilities: Trump intentionally dispenses falsehoods any smart person knows will be detected as lies, or worse, he cannot discern between reality and what he wishes was true. During his first White House interview, Trump told ABC News that two people were shot in Chicago as former President Barack Obama gave his farewell speech; the Chicago Tribune proved there were no such shootings. Then there are his statements of undeniable falsity, such as when he asked in a tweet on December 12 why no one had brought up the issue of Russian interference in the presidential election until after he won. But he stood on a stage 54 days earlier dismissing the intelligence community’s assessment of the Russian hacking. Was he knowingly lying? Or is Trump’s memory so poor that he could not remember a statement he made—or even that a discussion had taken place—about whether America was under cyberattack by a foreign power? Or, worst of all, did he not know what he said and tweeted was untrue?
As Newsweek reported during the campaign, Trump has made innumerable false statements under oath. That’s obviously important—former President Clinton was impeached because he lied under oath once to hide an affair; Trump did it numerous times, and usually just to puff himself up. He testified to Congress in 1993 that he had never tried to arrange any business deals with Indian casino operators; Newsweekdiscovered phone records, memos and an affidavit proving that was a lie. He said in a sworn deposition he had been paid $1 million for a speech when he had only received $400,000—he attempted to explain away the falsehood by saying the pre-speech publicity was worth $600,000 to him. He told Deutsche Bank in loan applications in 2004 he was worth billions; the bank concluded that was a lie and set his net worth at $788 million.
Of Trump’s many past fantasies, two stand out for what they reveal about how his mind works. He claimed to own 50 percent of a real estate project although he owned only 30 percent. When asked about the discrepancy in a deposition, he did not say he’d simply made a mistake; instead, he said, “I’ve always felt I owned 50 percent.” In another instance, he said that he knew companies had decided not to bring proposals to him after a journalist publicly questioned his net worth; when asked under oath what businesses had declined to deal with him, he said he could not name them because none of them had told him they’d made this decision, but he just knew they had snubbed him.
Think about that: the President of the United States said under penalty of perjury that he knew people had refused to bring him business even though he did not know who they were, had no facts to confirm they existed, and could not explain what deals their decisions involved. And he said that a contractual ownership of 30 percent was in fact 50 percent because that was how he felt.
Motives to Lie
This is not normal. This kind of story-telling does not fit with what scholarly, peer-reviewed studies have concluded are the motives and methods of lying. “To be told, a lie must be certain to achieve some valuable end,’’ Dr. Dale Hample, an associate professor at the University of Maryland wrote in a 1980 study on liars. “The liar knows that lies should not be told at all and so lies only when rewards are both assured and large.”
Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower and probably every politician ever has used spin or told some whoppers to achieve a specific goal. But the benefit from the stories Trump has spun recently was not only zero, it harmed him. No rational person could possibly have cared how many people attended Trump’s inauguration; anyone could see the same photographs and read the same data about television viewership and Washington’s mass transit usage as everyone else. None could have reasonably believed that the most incredible voter fraud campaign in American history had just taken place, with millions of illegal votes cast for Democrats, particularly when Republicans won most of the key Senate races in that election and maintained control of the House. He could have said nothing about those two topics and no one would have thought the worse of him. But if he knows he is lying, he not only accomplishes nothing, he harms himself by showing he will lie over irrelevant trivialities. And that raises the question of whether he knows when he is lying.
“Although deception is in almost everyone’s social repertoire, it is generally employed as a tactical or strategic option of last resort,’’ said Dr. Timothy R. Levine, a communications professor at Michigan State University who co-authored a 2010 report on experiments about lying. ”Absent psychopathology, people do not deceive when the truth works just fine.”
President Chaos Collides With Reality
The first two weeks of Donald Trump’s Presidency made it clear: Trump’s Gonna Trump. No newfound dignity for him. It was instead, as the rules of Reality TV Presidency demand, quite a show: an ongoing street brawl with the media; post-truth “alternate facts” about voter fraud; a jealous hissy fit befitting a tween girl about inaugural crowd sizes, a graceless and weird performance in the CIA’s most sacred space. And, of course, our low impulse-control President is still up to his old tweeting tricks.
We had topsy-turvy Head-of-State calls where Trump insulted and demeaned our allies, executive orders that essentially pissed off 1-billion-plus Muslims, not-so-subtly threatened to invade Mexico (boosted by his threatened domestic invasion of Chiraq). Steve Bannon displaced Generals on the National Security Council, a disastrous special-ops hit on Yemen that would have been attacked as ‘Benghazi 2’ if hatched by Hillary. And a Supreme Court nominee received the Rose from Bachelor Trump.
On the upside, White Nationalist Richard Spencer became a permanent meme for getting cold-cocked on a DC street corner while talking about Pepe. In the age of Trump, we thank God for small moments of hope and humor.
Reading the two dense paragraphs above reminds me I barely scratched the surface of the Trump Show’s opening act. Obviously, President Bannon and Vice President Trump wanted the shock-and-awe phase to break the spirit of the media while throwing out a lot of candy to conservatives to amp them up in advance of the coming collision with reality.
His leadership rests on showmanship over substance, fear of the “other” over faith in our fellow Americans, and a revanchist politics like that puts the bully in bully pulpit like we’ve rarely seen.
That’s a problem; the world is coming at Trump’s White House, and fast. For those who have opposed Trump from the start, or those on both the right and left who still find him ideologically, politically, and morally repugnant, take heart. No Administration can run at this pace for long, and the Cat 5 Chaos Hurricane of the first two weeks is unsustainable.
As transgressive (and lucky) as Trump the campaigner proved to be, as President he faces something to which he’s never been accustomed to in his personal, business, or political life; accountability. That accountability comes not only in the awesome power to send men and women into war, but to the promises he made, to the people he now leads, and to the oath he swore.
We know he’s not good with promises, and we know he’s not good with commitments, but he’s not just Donald Trump, alleged-billionaire playboy and smack-talker. He’s now the President of the United States. The proverbial buck stops on his desk, and can’t be erased with a quickie divorce, a convenient bankruptcy filing, or racing to some new gimcrack casino opening or golf course ribbon-cutting.
Tweeting, insults, bluster, and bullshit aren’t going to substitute for promises kept and success demonstrated beyond the Two Minutes Signing of the daily Executive Order show. They’re not going to replace steady, outwardly-directed, mature leadership when crises hit…and crises will always, eternally, and inevitably hit. Externalities in foreign affairs, the economy, shifting approval numbers, natural disasters, scandals (and oh, what scandals we’ll have), the complexities of repealing Obamacare and an avalanche of other issues can’t all be blamed on duh liburl media or Barack Obama. As President, there will be plenty of retrospective blameshifting, just as Obama did to excess with George W. Bush, but Trumpian promises of miracles tailored to his base aren’t going to live or die based on Obama’s legacy.
The first two weeks smelled and felt utterly ad-hoc, with Trump and his team calling audibles, fumbling, and racing toward the next play rather than looking back at the wreckage of the first. As the SEALS say, the only easy day was yesterday. Overseas, our allies are in a rising state of panic at Trump’s willful destruction of the West’s global security alliance in favor of the Bannon-Flynn-Putin version of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in their war against Islam.
Congress — for now — has largely abandoned its role as a check against the onrushing chaos and inevitable abuses of Donald Trump. As Trump’s mistakes pile up, Congress will be left on cleanup detail. They’re already quietly chafing over it, but publicly they continue to live in abject terror of a Mean Tweet. As he leaves them holding the fecal end of the stick, expect the quiet mutterings to grow. Trump won’t have his town halls filled with angry seniors this Spring and Summer, but our Republican congressmen sure will.
The media is slowly – agonizingly, almost painfully – trying to find its way in the storm of Trump. In the election they played a dangerous game and lost. They helped select and elect Trump, played by his rules, on his tempo, and largely ignored the blazing alarms about his background, character, business entanglements, and mental fitness to serve as President until it was too late. They loved — and profited from — the spectacle of Trump. They assumed (as did every pollster in the known universe) he would inevitably lose to Hillary Clinton. Now, they’re facing a man who loves hagiographers with the same intensity he hates journalists, who has turned the White House press room into a pillory for professional reporters. They’ve finally learned to use the word “lie” to describe the mouth-hole movements of almost all Trump surrogates.
The right’s media long fought to promote conservative ideals, polices, and thinkers. And while it desperately wants to use Trump as a singular weapon against the mainstream media, many know Trump is utterly contemptuous of conservative policy, indifferent to ideas, and operates on a calculus of how lavishly he has been praised. For outlets chasing the Hannity/TrumpBart front-runners in the Sucking-Up Olympics, they are utterly blind to the fact that in a race to see who can more vigorously stroke Trump’s colossal ego they will lose, and lose badly to the weaponized elements of the propagandistic nationalist populist “media” Steve Bannon and Donald Trump prefer.
It will be interesting to see how long the click-friendly posture many have taken will hold up against the reality that Trump’s handlers are (white and otherwise) nationalists. They’ll have to ignore the missteps, the personal weirdness, the lack of rigor, and look politely away from whatever authoritarian tendencies he displays, no matter how many statist economic absurdities he proposes, and no matter how he thoughtlessly compromises our national security for talk-radio solutions of complex problems.
The tensions are building. The collision with reality is coming. Welcome to week three.