All politicians lie. That’s not a statement of cynicism; it’s part of the job. At some point, you have to hedge what you are really thinking, or what you really believe, because winning an election means appealing to the most citizens you possibly can. We’ve had spectacularly successful Presidents who have had an uneasy relationship with the truth. Lyndon Johnson and Nixon were both world-class liars. That’s not a positive thing, of course, but it is to say that Donald Trump being clinically dishonest does not, in and of itself, disqualify him from the Presidency. But it is his method of dishonesty, the kinds of lies he tells, and what that reveals not just about him, but how he’d run the country, that is something we’ve never seen. It is as dangerous as his rampant xenophobia, his bitter misogyny, and his huckster’s ability to appeal to the darkest heart of America.
Trump’s lies are possibly unlike anything we’ve ever seen, not just because of what they say, but because of what it says about him, and the reaction that his campaign has to it. His lies automatically become not just truth, but axiomatic and inevitable. What’s stranger, they become policy. This is the result of a man who has been surrounded by a fawning payroll for his entire life, cosseted by servants and sycophants. His whims become reality, and if reality disagrees, it can go pound sand. This is who he surrounds himself with, and it would continue into the White House. A few examples here will suffice.
First off, we should stipulate exactly what kind of liar he is. It’s different than, say, Ted Cruz, who is himself one of the world’s greatest liars. Cruz is a messianic liar, who believes in himself and his mission (theocracy, the reversal of moral progress) so fervently that anything he says becomes truth, and if it isn’t, it is for the greater good. Anyone who calls him out is a de facto enemy of goodness, so even if they are right, it is a shameful thing to be.
That’s not Trump. Trump doesn’t actually believe in anything, except himself. He hates women, yes, and is a bitter racist (some say it is just politics, but I say, in this, take a man at his words). His kind of lying is extemporaneous autobiography. He’ll say anything that makes him sound like his version of what a great man would be. He’ll make up, whole cloth, an alternate reality in which he is the hero, and yesterday’s friend is a bitter enemy. He will say one thing one day, and deny it the next, even when his words are read back to him, not because he is trying to get out of something, but because he believes if he huffs it away, it is gone.
There’s a reason for this: it has always worked.
Trump is a spoiled and cloistered vacuum of a human, who has never had to spend a moment on self-reflection. He plows ahead in life like a bloated fabulist, buying up spun cloth and turning it into silk, or at the very least, insisting it is gold. And he believes it, and more importantly, he is surrounded by people who tell him he is correct.
That’s the scary part. It’s easy to see how it plays out, in one ridiculous example, and one serious one.
The ridiculous is his famous medical exam that he released last December. Now, Trump probably is pretty healthy for a man his age, especially one who looks like an apricot who gained sentience for a brief moment before hurling itself into a garbage disposal in a bout of existential despair. He doesn’t drink, and doesn’t smoke. He’s probably all right. But that’s not what the note said. It concluded: “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the Presidency.” Unequivocally!
This is obviously nonsense. Both President Obama and George W. Bush were noted health nuts, and I think that Teddy goddamn Roosevelt was pretty famously healthy. It would be one thing to say “Trump is in fine shape.” But he couldn’t. Trump would only hire a doctor who would be willing to say that he is in the best shape ever, of maybe anyone. The kind of people he surrounds himself are the one who are willing to sign their name to the mythology, and contribute a verse to the hymnal. In short, Trump only listens to people who are not just willing to lie to him, but unable to do anything else, either for financial reasons, or because they are cowed. That’s not the sign of a leader.
The scarier part is how this will affect policy. Let’s look at terrorism, where Trump is somehow the considered the strongest, literally simply because he says “I’m the strongest on terrorism, ever, by a million times.” That this somehow works and is considered an asset is enough for many very depressing books.
His lies here are partly of the garden variety. His tweet right after the Brussels attack was a great example. “I have proven to be more right about terrorism than anyone else- and it’s not even close. Hopefully AZ and UT will be voting for me today!” The political cravenness is what got people talking, but that’s not really the point. The “more right about terrorism” is part of a huge set of lies.
On its face it is bizarre. He’s in a party with Lindsay Graham, who recent charm tour notwithstanding, has been screeching about how we’re all going to die for many years. Every major Republican sees terrorists in every corner kiosk. They are all screaming the same tune. But Trump can’t just say “this shows we need a strong leader- elevate Trump!” He has to pretend that he was the only one who has been saying that ISIS is bad. That’s his mentality. It’s not enough to be right (or to be healthy). He has to be the only one that is right (and the healthiest, ever.” It’s how he can claim that he is the only person who was talking about terrorism in 2000, how he was the only person who knew who bin Laden was, because he briefly mentioned both in his book (a book that says, incidentally, that “No sensible analyst rejects this possibility (an attack), and plenty of them, like me, are not wondering if but when it will happen,” which seems to imply that maybe some other people had heard of terrorism, you know, in freaking 2000).
But how do these lies translate into policy? Let’s look at an example. Late last year, when Trump first started talking about barring Muslims from the US, in the wake of the Paris attacks, he off-the-cuffedly said that we have to do this until we figure out what’s going on. Ignore again the hideous anti-Americanness of the stated policy. It’s the “until we figure out what’s going on.” As an off-the-cuff mark it is dumb, the stuttering incoherence of a barstool pundit. But because Trump said it, and what he says is true, it was transformed alchemically into policy. Into actual policy.
His first commercial uses the same phrase, in the serious narrator tone that implies deep thinking. The commercial actually says “until we can figure out what is going on.” That’s nonsense. It’s deep, unserious, terrifying nonsense. And he said it again, word for word, after Brussels.
And that’s the real danger with his campaign. It’s that he doesn’t know anything, doesn’t care what he doesn’t know, and figures that he can make what he doesn’t know into something that he does know just by waving his hand and saying what he wants it to be. And he is surrounded by people who let him do just that. And he will continue to surround himself with them. He is constitutionally unable to hear that he is wrong, and turns any criticism into slander, backed up by a choir of salivating flunking. He makes things up as he goes along and is convinced they have always been true, and anyone who says differently is an enemy. He looks at a sunset and sees only his reflection.
We’ve had liars as President. We’ve had drunks and sociopaths. We’ve had people with Messiah complexes, and those who were so corrupt they needed a team of doctors to screw on their pants. But we’ve never had anyone who has purchased their way out of reality, nor anyone who was so fundamentally unserious about the virtue of reflection. For Donald Trump, whatever thought comes flickering through his diseased mind is Truth. His Presidency would be a reflection of that disease, because it could be nothing but. The disastrous consequences of this can’t be overstated.