Lying in Politics

From time to time the Washington Post publishes a tally of the “false or misleading” claims President Trump has made since he has been in office.  The tally is up to 8,718 as of February 12, 2019. I am no fan of Trump, but the large majority of these are assertions that contain some grain of truth and are then exaggerated and embellished by him for effect. Trump seems to have a need to be always right, always the best, always superior to his opponents.  But I wonder how different his assertions are from the puffery one expects from any salesman who has a second-rate product.  Are Trump’s exaggerations and misstatements lies?  Do we even expect politicians to tell us the truth?

Admittedly, we can probably never know the whole truth about anything.  Plus our means of receiving and evaluating information is subjective and biased. But whether something is a lie does not start or end with whether the information conveyed is truthful.

A lie is an intentionally deceptive message in the form of a statement.  The liar communicates something he does not believe in order to make the other believe it.  That means that whether Trump is telling lies depends upon what he intends by his statements.  If Trump truly believes that climate change is a hoax, then he is not lying by stating as much to get us to support his environmental policies.  That would simply be advocacy.

Moral philosophers are generally in agreement that any lie – even white lies – are culpable and to be avoided.  Those who disagree make distinctions on the basis of the seriousness of the lie’s consequences or the circumstances producing the lie.  But the best way of thinking about lies is that they all have some corrosive consequences.  We may excuse some lies because of the circumstances but they are still lies if they are statements meant to deceive.

What are the corrosive consequences of a lie?  Obviously the person lied to will experience some adverse consequences.  The lie is designed to convince her of something the liar himself doesn’t believe.  Lies are usually told to produce or avoid some behavior on the part of the person lied to.  A lie gives power to the deceiver through eliminating a choice of action that might have been made by the deceived.  When she realizes the lie, her relationship with the liar is changed and she becomes wary and mistrustful of others who may lie to her.  When politicians lie to us, we become mistrustful of politicians in general, even those who do tell us the truth and are sincerely interested in helping us.

A lie also harms the liar.  Telling the first lie makes it easier, and sometimes necessary, to tell the second lie, and then the next.  At some point a liar will be exposed, leading to damage to his reputation for integrity and the trust others place in him.  When the trust of the community is removed from the liar, he ends up having less, not more, power to influence events around him.

Lies, particularly when told by politicians, have serious consequences for the health of society.  As Sissela Bok noted in her 1971 book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, a society unable to distinguish truthful statements from lies would collapse.  The general level of trust in government would be eroded.  People would become unwilling to work together for the common good out of reluctance to be deceived about the bona fides of government’s goals or means.

Trust in our leaders was damaged by Eisenhower’s plain lie that we did not have U-2 spy planes flying over the Soviet Union.  Next the explanations given by Lyndon Johnson and his cohort about the objectives and success of our war effort in Vietnam were exposed in the Pentagon Papers as a long series of stupendous lies.  In The Imperial Presidency, Arthur Schlesinger noted

Up until the year 1965 most Americans most of the time had believed the word of their government. Within a decade thereafter, the proportion of Americans who assumed as a matter of course that their government was lying was greater than it had ever before been in the nation’s history.

Now we should be especially wary of the drumbeat for war — even one necessary for our own security.

If by some magic Trump would admit that many of his statements are lies — statements intended to deceive – I can imagine that he would attempt to excuse them in one of two ways.  He would argue first that the rules of politics anticipate lying, that Democrats and others in politics lie, and that the public expects politicians to lie.  He would suggest that political speech is akin to going into the souk in Cairo to buy a rug.  Do you expect the rug merchant to tell you the truth?  Does he expect you to tell him the truth?  No on both counts.  So Trump would seek to excuse himself by relying on the Latin phrase caveat emptor – buyer beware.

Of course, this exercise of shifting fault to the victims of the lie (“they should have known I would lie to them”) requires the liar to undervalue the harm caused by the lie.  Liars quite often argue that their lies really didn’t harm anyone.  But the consequences of a lie look entirely different when you take the perspective of the ones deceived.

In some ways, we do invite being lied to.  Our press begins dismantling the skill, competence and motivation of any politician the moment she is elected.  Incompetence, misbehavior and scandal make news.  For politicians, admitting fault or mistake is perilous.  If we could simply realize that politicians are human beings, which means they have faults and make mistakes, we wouldn’t contribute to the environment that leads to many political lies.  I don’t suggest this is a valid excuse for the lie, but it does make some lying more understandable.

The other excuse that Trump would offer for his lies is that he tells them for our own good.  We are too uninformed or limited in capacity really to understand what policies are necessary, while he is not.  This is often referred to as “the noble lie.”  An example would be Franklin Roosevelt’s promise that “your boys will not be sent off to fight in any foreign wars,” all the while making preparations to enter World War II.  I have some sympathy for Roosevelt’s lies, but none for the lie Lyndon Johnson told about a fictitious attack on a U.S. warship in the Tonkin Gulf that he used to justify entering the conflict in Vietnam.

Many public servants maintain that government cannot be properly run without the freedom to create illusion, which necessarily involves deceiving its own people as well as foreign adversaries. Take, for example, what we say publicly about our intentions in hard bargaining with the North Koreans, or the whereabouts of U.S. troops in the field.  But the noble lie concept can’t be stretched to cover domestic matters, where such a practice is noble only in the eyes of the liar.  It is certainly undemocratic and dangerous because it arrogates power to the lying government official that bypasses the consent of the governed.  And it certainly undermines trust in our leaders.

All this brings me back around to whether Trump is lying to us.  Since a lie necessarily involves the intent to deceive, which is a state of mind, we cannot know for an absolute certainty.  But we can reach a conclusion about Trump’s intent in the same way that questions of intent are determined in a court of law – by evaluating the circumstances.

If Trump is not lying to us, he is at the very least being tremendously reckless with the factual accuracy of his statements.  Continually popping off with factually incorrect statements can’t be just carelessness or incompetence.  And when publicly shown to be wrong, Trump repeats the same false statement many times over.  For example, Trump has asserted 127 times the falsehood that the recent tax cuts are the largest in U.S. history, even though Treasury Department data shows it would rank eighth.  There are many other similar examples.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that Trump intends to mislead others into believing statements that he himself does not and cannot believe.  That means he is lying.

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