On Trump and the Nature of Lying

There’s a Midrash, I’m told, about the time God tells Abraham that he will finally conceive a child with his wife Sarah, long after they had abandoned any such efforts. As the Bible tells it, Sarah, who had been listening in on the heavenly message, laughs and says to herself (I paraphrase): even if I weren’t such an old woman, does YHWH really think the old man will be able to perform? God, of course, can hear her, and says to Abraham: why does your wife say she’s too old to have a son? somewhat misrepresenting her thoughts to avoid wounding the old patriarch’s pride. The take-away from this, according to the rabbinical commentary, is that sometimes it’s okay to tell “little white lies”; even God does this from time to time. The principal of this, consequentialism, states that different values—in this case, “truth” and “noninjury”—have to be measured against each other based on whether they are appropriate to the situation.

We all lie or embellish at times to spare bad feelings, just like we may sometimes need to offend someone if a necessary truth requires it. But what separates common, socially-accepted lying from the sorts of lies we consider grievous? This is more difficult to parse. In our modern, market-driven life, lying has become much more necessary than it had been in simpler times. At some point in Western society, the purpose of language seems to have become less about correspondence and more about instrumentality. European Americans, whose ancestors once believed that honor, or being true to one’s word, was the most sacrosanct of virtues, gained control of an entire continent largely through a long series of reneged-on agreements with peoples who could not have fathomed such behavior. From the beginning, lying has been a hallmark of the American experience, and has grown into something ubiquitous to our daily life.

It is probably the most important characteristic of the most successful among us, from corporate lawyers to politicians to upper management. As such, lying is recognized as a mark of sophistication. The ability to lie requires empathy, although it is a superficial kind. Hence, extroverted types tend to be much better at it than introverts. But because we live in a world where relationships are fundamentally transactional in nature, everyone is expected to master the skill in order to survive. The preponderance of the self-help literature of Dale Carnegie and his lot, all of which proselytize the need to tailor your communication and personality in a maximally instrumental, attenuated, success-driven fashion—to make “the best deals,” as it were—serve as the American pseudepigrapha of Big Lie.

This has long been the test of our presidential debates: to see who can lie the most persuasively. Perversely, we feel most betrayed when a president actually tells the truth, and are comforted by the most ridiculous assertions of the I did not inhale variety. The public is, in this respect, not unlike Sartre’s woman of bad faith who requires the pretense of platonic chastity when on a first date. The current president (still Obama, as of this writing) seems to represent a bit of a break from this tradition, not because he doesn’t lie, but because he doesn’t seem to insult our intelligence; there’s no smarm, and very little condescension to the guy. In this sense, there’s a direct line between his presidential campaign and that of Bernie Sanders, whose improbable success had much to do with his direct, no-nonsense style of communication.

As much as Trump and Sanders have been compared to each other, they are, in most ways, polar opposites: while Sanders had been giving his frank (if, to some, unnuanced) diagnosis of the problems this country faces, Trump has been spewing nothing but bullshit in every direction. By all accounts, Trump is a pathological liar who is indiscriminate and gratuitous with his lies. This should not be confused with the sort of dishonesty typical of politicians. His lies are not political in essence, they derive, rather, from his innermost constitution. To understand this distinction, you must realize that it’s irrelevant whether or not what he’s saying is factually or analytically accurate—which, in an obtuse way, it often is—because regardless of what he’s saying, he simply does not possess the faculty to discriminate between a lie or the truth. He is the eternal child, lacking in a superego, who relates to the world in purely objectified terms.

The fact that such a person exists is unremarkable, but the fact that he has such a great deal of democratic support and enthusiasm should be alarming, irrespective of the near-certainty that he is going to fail, spectacularly. His campaign has been a beacon signalling the breakdown of societal relations, pointing to a growing social reality which lacks the necessary conditions—specifically, the “common ground”—within which even the concept of truth can be fostered. To be clear, Trump is just a symptom of these problems, and the racism and conspiracy theorizing of his base are only the most obvious aspects of this.

It occurred to me, while watching the movie Finding Dory with my nieces, that the evidence of our increasing social fragmentation has been around us for a while now. Every Pixar movie immerses us in a world in which humans are, at best, monsters, and at worst, mere obstacles. As audience members, we sympathize with the toys, robots, or spunky aquatic life; never with the human beings. We can accept this portrayal of life because it is not that different from our own experience as the estranged members of a vast, human family, with whom the one thing we have most in common is our collective isolation. We are not unlike Trump or the anthropomorphized figures of Pixar films—The Incredibles, a story that should be shelved next to the work of Ayn Rand, being the clearest example of what the latter represents.

It is precisely in our estrangement from one another that we find the genesis of lying. Lying cultivates the distance between people, and in the worst cases, objectifies them as obstacles or resources to exploit. To the pathological liar, this sort of isolation is the only true mode of existence. It is only under certain conditions that this becomes the reality for large swaths of people. When people’s common humanity is erased, as is the case when race, gender, or class become predominant (rather than ancillary) features of life, basic sympathy and trust evaporates. The individual finds herself surrounded by alien entities—violent terrorists, rapists, and criminals who cannot be reasoned with. Under such conditions, “truth” is whatever confirms her feelings of fear and loathing from moment to moment. Trump is the perfect candidate for such a person.

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