During last week’s press conference, President Trump returned, as he often has since November, to the election. Trump has frequently pointed to his victory over Hillary Clinton, and seems to see it as a kind of signature accomplishment. He talks about it as if it were a landmark piece of legislation he muscled through Congress. Despite a modest electoral margin (in terms of electoral share, it ranks 46th out of 58 elections) and a deficit of over two million votes in the popular vote, he has repeatedly lauded the magnitude of the win, calling it a “landslide” and “massive.” Which, fine. Politicians often spin their electoral wins into giant victories so they can claim a mandate. Trump, though, has gone further. In addition to claiming that millions of people voted illegally, robbing him of the popular vote, he has repeatedly made bizarre and easily disprovable claims about the electoral margin. Most recently, during the press conference on February 16, he regurgitated a claim he had made on Twitter earlier that morning, saying that the 2016 victory was “the biggest electoral win since Ronald Reagan.” This isn’t true at all. Since Reagan’s mega-landslide in 1984, there have been seven presidential elections, and in five of them, the winner secured more than 306 electoral votes (Trump’s number). When pressed on this point, he backtracked and said that he was only talking about Republican victories, something that is also false (in 1988, George H.W. Bush won with 426 electoral votes). When pressed again, he rambled. “I was given that information,” he said. “Actually, I’ve seen that information around. It was a very substantial victory.”
Now, I don’t think there’s anything particularly dangerous about the President lying about his electoral margin. It’s dumb and, though it clearly matters a great deal to him, it’s unimportant. Of course, I’d prefer a President who didn’t lie about dumb, unimportant things, but this has been a feature of Donald Trump’s ascent to power, and it’s something actually being President hasn’t tempered. I am, however, interested in the reason Trump lies about irrelevant things, because I feel it illuminates something about the man we elected President, something that carries with it a wide variety of implications, none of which are good. To state my point simply, I think he tells lies because whether or not something is true is uninteresting to him. As in, it literally cannot hold his attention.
Donald Trump lies in public a lot. He has spent his career lying to business partners, to contractors, to the press, to crowds of adoring fans, etc. Examine any interview he’s done or any speech he’s made, and you’ll find they’re riddled with falsehoods. Cynical observers might point out that all politicians lie, and so Trump is nothing new, but I think that sells short the audacity of Trump’s way of lying. When normal politicians tell lies, they typically do so because they think lying will lead to better political outcomes. In a liberal democracy, even the most cynical politician will tell the truth most of the time, because it’s better if what you’re saying is defensible on the merits. You don’t lie if you can get away with telling the truth. Dig deep enough, and you’ll find some Trump lies that fall under this category, but most Trump fibs are not told with the intention of achieving an obvious political outcome. Take the example above. What is the point of saying something that is so easily disproved? How does exaggerating the size of his electoral margin help his agenda? It doesn’t, and there isn’t really a point, at least not beyond massaging his swollen ego.
It doesn’t appear that lying baldly about an electoral margin fits into a normal democratic theory of lying, but maybe it fits in an authoritarian context. Authoritarians use lying as a way to sow confusion. So maybe Trump lies about seemingly unimportant things for strategic reasons. Maybe he does it as part of a concerted effort to create epistemic chaos, so that opponents and loyalists alike are unsure of what is true, and eventually relinquish agency. But I think this is wrong, too, for two simple reasons: 1) he does not appear to have the discipline to carry out such a campaign; and 2) he appears to believe most of the false things he says. At times, especially when talking about the media, he seems to say things he knows aren’t true (“I don’t watch CNN” or his claims about the falling readership of the New York Times), but more often, especially when talking about the election, his popularity, or favored policies, he appears sincere. For it to qualify as an intentional strategy designed to generate uncertainty, he would have to show some signs of intention and agency.
So, why does Trump have such a problem with the truth? Until recently, I assumed Trump lied because he had made a cynical calculation to do so. Lying has always worked for Trump. He tells someone he’ll pay them for something and then doesn’t. He gets the something and keeps the money. Big win, zero downside. But, when it comes to politics, Trump appears to believe a lot of the lies he tells. He doesn’t lie like a normal politician, and he doesn’t seem to have any grand strategic reason for his lies, so what’s the point? I think Trump lies for the somewhat banal reason that he doesn’t care whether something is true or not. The issue doesn’t seem worthy of his attention.
Trump isn’t interested in breaking through the noise with facts. Rather, he sets forth propositions. They don’t have to be true, or to have any relationship with the truth. They just have to sound good to him in his gut. It isn’t that he chooses to tell lies because he thinks lying will get him the thing he wants; rather he tells lies because he does not bother to verify what he’s saying, because the truth of something has no bearing on how it sounds to an audience or to him. He literally doesn’t care. It isn’t interesting to him. It’s as if he has never considered that the truth or falsehood of a statement might matter to someone else, or should matter to him. Why would it?
The way Trump lies corresponds well to other aspects of his personality. In recent years, he has been increasingly enamored of conspiracy theories, but nothing about his public persona suggests that he puts a lot of thought into these theories. They happen to coincide with other beliefs he has, so he doesn’t hesitate to broadcast them. He has never demonstrated an ability to talk at length about any of these notions. He has little in common with the guy who can rattle off all the supposed holes in the Warren Commission. When pressed, he circles, he repeats himself, he stops making sense. But it doesn’t matter to him whether he can prove something. He just believes it.
To give an example, let’s return to Trump’s claims surrounding the election. Trump and his team have claimed repeatedly that 3-5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 general election. Trump himself touted the claim on Twitter shortly after the election, and his surrogates have worked hard to make it sound reasonable. The President has, to my knowledge, only once cited any evidence to support this claim, in his ABC interview with David Muir. He cited a Pew study whose director David Becker had already rebutted the President’s claim. When Muir pointed out to him that the study’s director had said that his report made no claims about actual votes cast, Trump became defensive, and then attacked Becker. He said first, “Really? Then why write the report?” (a question to which there are many obvious answers), and then, when Muir responded, Trump said, “He’s groveling again” (a bizarre characterization of Becker’s actions). Notice that he doesn’t play by the standard politician’s playbook of how to respond when trapped in a lie. He doesn’t soldier through it the way Mike Pence would have done, or change the subject like Kellyanne Conway. He doubles down, and then goes on the offensive even though he has already exhausted the full extent of his knowledge about the subject. And this is the key point: Trump did not really know what he was talking about. The original source for Trump’s claim was, as best anyone can tell, an InfoWars story. The Pew study was carted out by Trump’s team after the fact because it had to do vaguely with the subject of voting irregularities, but Trump himself saw little need to defend his claim. He didn’t bone up on the details of the study or prepare for Muir’s inevitable follow-up questions. His response to Muir was entirely instinctive and revealed an utter lack of forethought. Mounting a plausible defense for his claims, or even appearing to do so, apparently did not strike him as an important thing to do.
When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer or senior policy adviser Stephen Miller go out and repeat the President’s voter fraud claims, I suspect they know they’re lying. They just think they have a good reason for doing so. Spicer thinks his job is to defend the President against the press, and Miller thinks that publicizing claims of voter fraud will lead to more stringent voter ID laws, which will in turn help his party. I don’t think the President is lying in this way. I think he thinks he’s saying something that could be true, but more importantly, that it lends credence to support his driving ideology, which seems to be that he is a winner. Losing the popular vote presented a personal problem for Donald Trump, rather than a political one. Claiming that, in fact, he actually did win the popular vote among legal voters allows him to square the conflicting ideas that A) he lost the popular vote; and B) he does not lose. He isn’t tossing aside the truth out of any well-considered political calculation. He’s choosing to believe the proposition that sounds best to him.
I don’t know what this portends for our democracy in a general sense. I’m skeptical of the idea that we’ve entered a new “post-fact” era, because I believe (or hope) that Trump himself is a mad anomaly within our system – an anomaly to which our democracy is vulnerable, but also one our democracy can survive. I don’t think Trump’s incurious pedaling of falsehoods is itself a great danger to the system itself, but I don’t believe it is unimportant, for two big reasons.
First, that Trump sees the truth this way indicates that a lot of voters who put their trust in Trump are going to get screwed. They are going to get screwed not because Trump made a specific political calculation (if I lie about X, this group of voters will support me), but because he just didn’t care about whether what he was saying happened to be true or not. When Trump talks about bringing back steel mills or coal mining, I think that, to a certain extent, he is being sincere. He believes the President can do that, and, well, if the opportunity comes along, sure he’ll bring them back.
This style of B.S. is especially apparent when Trump talks about healthcare. Throughout the campaign, the transition, and right up to the present day, Trump has talked about healthcare policy in a way that strongly implies he has never talked to any conservative politicians about what Republican healthcare plans look like. Republicans do not like to advertise the details of their plans, because the details make them look bad, but they have ways of talking about healthcare in broad terms that manage both to both sound pleasant and to be somewhat faithful to their actual plans. Trump hasn’t learned how to do this, and will instead just say that under his plan, everybody will be covered by great insurance plans that cost less. He obviously doesn’t say that because his policy team has come up with a healthcare panacea. Nor does he say it because he’s trying to hoodwink people. He says it because it sounds awesome. Trump likes things that sound awesome. It’s a fine proposition, and it appears to support to the idea that Trump is a fixer who can solve the healthcare crisis. Why wouldn’t he say it?
Second, it suggests that our foreign policy over the next four to eight years is going to be incoherent. Trump has talked big on China and Iran and soft on Russia, and he has talked with great confidence and gusto, but beyond a general posture, Trump doesn’t seem to have any plan, strategy, or even really an idea of how he intends to bring about America First. To an extent, this is true of all novice presidents, because foreign policy is really difficult, and presidents tend to respond to this by tapping experienced professionals to run key foreign policy positions. Trump did this when he picked James Mattis to run the Department of Defense, but he also got a conspiracy theorist who had been paid by Russian state television to be his National Security Advisor (Mike Flynn), an oil executive to run the State Department (Rex Tillerson), and put the burden of achieving peace in the Middle East on the shoulders of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has no previous experience in the government or in the military. More importantly, Trump has given no indication that he listens to anyone other than himself in any kind of systematic or principled way. On the campaign trail he boasted that he knew more than the generals do about ISIS, said that he consulted mainly with himself on matters of foreign policy, and has declined to attend many of the intelligence briefings that have been offered to him. What evidence is there that Trump is actually taking any of the sound advice he may be receiving? What evidence is there that he is weighing out alternative courses of action with any sort of rigor? What evidence is there that his foreign policy amounts to anything more than bluster and bombast? Thus far, there isn’t any. Everything coming out of the White House so far has confirmed that the Trump who sits down with Mattis or Tillerson is the same Trump who keeps lying about his election, who lied about his inaugural crowd sizes, who keeps lying about violence, who refers to non-existent terror attacks in Sweden.
Trump keeps saying things that aren’t true, because in his mind, the truth isn’t a relevant feature. What matters is the sale, the appearance of success and strength. The idea that Donald Trump is a guy who wins at all times is Trump’s driving ideology, and any claim must square with the Big Idea. If it doesn’t, find a better one.