Trump Pinokkio Liar

Lies, damned lies, and executive orders

The power of words and the Trump presidency

12 minutes to read
Philip Seargeant


The constant barrage of falsehoods, untruths and misinformation Trump is producing, is a way of attempting to ensure that his words are taken fully literally when it comes to actually exercising his executive power. Perhaps, this is the ultimate paradox that Trump represents.


Telling it like it is

The complicated relationship between language and action has been on display in two very different ways in the first few weeks of the Trump presidency. When not watching cable TV or picking out artworks for his study, Trump has spent much of his time signing executive orders which either undo elements of Obama legislation or implement his campaign pledges. As president, his words now have a power unrivalled by nearly anyone else in the world. From his declarations – in the form of these orders – flow the logistics and activity which alter the way people are able to go about their lives. The construction of oil pipelines is endorsed, funding for health groups providing abortion services is cut. Immigration bans come into effect (until halted again, at least temporarily, by declarations from rival centres of authority).

At the same time, he’s continued making comments, either personally or through his aides, which seem so divorced from reality that they leave commentators scrambling around for ways to interpret them. Assertions that fly in the face of all available evidence, and angrily dispute what to others seem self-evident. When Kellyanne Conway tried to defend some of these comments by calling them ‘alternative facts’, the news media pounced on the term. It became symbolic of what they perceived as an Orwellian tendency in the new administration. A means of trying to control the perception of events by tampering with the language we use to describe the world.

And before Kellyanne Conway there was Scottie Nell Hughes. Back in December, when attempting to explain away the controversy over Trump’s false assertion that millions of people had voted illegally, Hughes said that what was interesting was ‘that people that say facts are facts – they’re not really facts… Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts’. An assertion like this is straight-forwardly Nietzschean: ‘it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations,’ as he wrote in his notebooks. But whereas Nietzsche was making the point that what we take to be ‘truth’ is not so much a product of evidence as it is of power, Conway and Hughes are using the idea to undermine the legitimacy of anyone they disagree with.

All politicians lie, of course. So much so in some cases that, for the journalist Louis Heren, the default mind-set to adopt when interviewing anyone in politics is: ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ Most politicians, of course, also try their damnedest to pretend they don’t lie. And while we may decry this deceptive tendency in our elected leaders, the actual relationship we have with lying can be confusingly ambivalent. The political scientists Thomas Cronin and Michael Genovese list a number of key paradoxes of the American presidency, one of which is that: ‘We want a decent, just, caring, and compassionate president, yet we admire a cunning, guileful and, on occasions that warrant it, even a ruthless, manipulative president’. The idea is Machiavellian: ‘those princes who have done great things have considered keeping their word of little account’.

There’s been a great reluctance to describe Trump’s behaviour as out-and-out lying

The ‘paradoxes’ that Trump embodies are numerous. Despite playing fast and loose with the facts himself, he managed to characterise his opponents as the real threats to truth. It was ‘Lyin’ Ted’ and ‘Crooked Hillary’ who were the dissemblers, while he was just telling it like it is. He’s since appropriated the term ‘fake news’ and turned back against any media outlets he disagreed with. In his version of events, it’s the press who are the real enemies of truth, pedalling a mixture of ‘dishonesty, total deceit and deception’. Yet at the same time, some of the claims he makes are so far-fetched that even his supporters say they shouldn’t be taken literally.

For many, though, including his vice-president, this is all a welcome change from ‘politics as usual’. ‘He’s entitled to express his opinion’ Mike Pence said, with reference to inaccurate statements on voter fraud. ‘I think the American people find it very refreshing that they have a president who will tell them what’s on his mind’. In other words, ‘authenticity’ (speaking one’s mind) is a form of truthfulness which trumps evidence-based assertions of knowledge. One could be charitable and suppose that the vice-president is channelling novelist Tim O’Brien’s maxim that ‘story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth’. It seems more likely, though, that he’s simply covering up for the erratic duplicity of his boss.  

Yet despite all this, there’s been a great reluctance to describe Trump’s behaviour as out-and-out lying. In political circles, an accusation of lying has traditionally been a highly sensitive one, and even in these unusual times, many people still feel very uneasy about using the word. But what is it that makes people so cautious? When exactly is a lie a lie? And in a ‘post-truth’ society, what political meaning does the word now hold?

From factual shortcuts to truthful hyperbole

Politicians themselves are, maybe unsurprisingly, not too keen on using the word to describe their own actions. Instead we have a whole lexicon of increasingly elaborate euphemisms, from Edmund Burke’s ‘economical with the truth’ to Winston Churchill’s ‘terminological inexactitude’. Trump himself is apparently keen on the idea of ‘truthful hyperbole’. As Tony Schwartz, who coined the term when ghost-writing The Art of the Deal, remarks, this is, of course, a flat-out contradiction in terms. ‘A way of saying, “It’s a lie, but who cares?”’

Just as politicians shy away from using the word about themselves, they’re also careful to avoid it when describing their colleagues. The cynic would say this is simply an extension of the tendency for what George Orwell called the ubiquity of ‘euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness’ in political discourse. Or as the comedian George Carlin put it, politicians speak with ‘great caution because they must take care not to actually say anything’.

An accusation of lying is an attack on someone’s honour.

But there’s something more substantial to it than this. Back in 2004, during that year’s first presidential debate, John Kerry objected to being accused of saying that President Bush had lied by asserting that ‘I’ve never, ever used the harshest word as you did just then, and I try not to’. His attitude is of a part with the way the word is expressly prohibited within the chamber of the House of Commons in the UK. Along with insults such as ‘blackguard’, ‘coward’, ‘stoolpigeon’ and ‘traitor’ it’s deemed ‘unparliamentary language’. Something which ‘breaks the rules of politeness’ and is thus categorically forbidden.

In this tradition, an accusation of lying is an attack on someone’s honour. And its consequences are a form of social stigma. It’s for this reason that the act of being caught in a lie can often be more politically damaging than the corrupt behaviour that’s being covered up in the first place. In other words, ‘lying’ has a particular cultural meaning in this context – although it’s one that can be sidestepped with a little semantic wriggling.

Journalists, similarly, are often highly cautious about using the word. After a speech given by Paul Ryan to the Republican National Convention in 2012, for example, a full fifteen different types of euphemism were recorded by one report, as journalists attempted to avoid the term. There were ‘factual shortcuts’, ‘misleading elements’ and ‘heavy inaccuracies’ in what Ryan had said. There was ‘outright distortion’ and a range of various ‘inconsistencies and contradictions’. But there were no actual ‘lies’.

In recent years, cable television and internet-based reporting have shown less aversion to the word, with the result that, in the opinion of The New York Times, ‘lying, as a denunciation, has flattened into just another charge’. For many, though, it still isn’t used lightly. Faced with the rhetoric flowing from the Trump camp in recent weeks, editorials by two major news organisations publicly debated the ethics and pragmatics of using the word. The New York Times decided in the end that they would go ahead with it. Editor Dean Baquet arguing that while he appreciated the ‘gravity’ of its implications, ‘we should be letting people know in no uncertain terms that [what Trump’s team is saying is] untrue’. National Public Radio, on the other hand, opted against it. ‘Our job as journalists is to report, to find facts, and establish their authenticity and share them with everybody,’ they reasoned. ‘It’s really important that people understand that these aren’t our opinions… [T]he minute you start branding things with a word like “lie,” you push people away from you’.


‘It’s not a lie if you believe it’

The main sticking point with the word is that it’s usually interpreted as meaning there’s explicit intent on the part of the liar. As philosopher Arnold Isenberg’s definition has it, ‘A lie is a statement made by one who does not believe it with the intention that someone else shall be led to believe it’. And this, of course, makes it very difficult to ever categorically say that someone has lied, because to do so would mean knowing what’s going on inside their head.

This also allows for a lot of semantic equivocation. In the press conference following the outcry over the ‘alternative facts’ dispute, for example, Sean Spicer, the Whitehouse Press Secretary, explained that his aim was always to be honest with the American people. ‘I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts,’ he said, ‘but our intention is never to lie to you’. As a sentence, this makes very little sense. Unless you go ahead and substitute the word ‘facts’ with ‘interpretations’.

It’s not just intent though. The philosopher Don Fallis suggests there’s another important element that should be part of any definition. For it to be a lie you have to say something you believe is false in a context where truthful assertions are the norm. For example, if you’re on stage and declare ‘This is I, Hamlet the Dane’, that isn’t a lie. The expectations of a theatrical performance are that what you see on stage specifically isn’t literally true. If you’re in a court of law, on the other hand, and claim you saw a Scandinavian gentleman about to stab his uncle, when you know very well that nothing of the sort actually happened, that would count as a lie. And would involve very immediate social sanction.

While the examples of acting or giving sworn testimony are fairly clear-cut, there are other contexts where things aren’t so straight-forward. Advertising, for example. Most societies have regulatory bodies to ensure that advertisers are prevented from making false claims, either about their own products or those of their competitors. In the UK, for example, the Advertising Standards Authority is meant to ensure that adverts are ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’. In the US it’s the Federal Trade Commission that does much the same. So, for instance, when Rice Krispies, at the height of the swine flu scare and without adequate scientific evidence, claim they help ‘support your child’s immunity’, the regulator can step in and have a word.

This is all good and well, yet it doesn’t apply to political advertising. Political adverts can make whatever claims they want to, and the regulatory bodies have no power whatsoever to sanction them. In the US, the rationale for this is that political speech is protected by the First Amendment. As the judge ruling on a dispute in Ohio a few years ago explained, ‘We do not want the government deciding what is political truth… Instead, in a democracy, the voters should decide’. In the UK, the reasoning’s much the same, but without the clear-cut justification that the constitution brings to the issue. By Don Fallis’s definition then, whatever one claims in a political advert (be it broadcast on TV or printed on the side of a bus), is not really a lie – at least to the extent that it involves no social penalty.  

Fallis builds his argument on Paul Grice’s ‘cooperation principle’ in conversation – the idea that sustainable social interaction depends on people being able to rely on certain norms and expectations of behaviour. Lying, in situations which depend on being truthful (i.e. most everyday interaction), is, in the words of the neuroscientist Sam Harris, ‘almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act… To lie is to recoil from relationship’.

Within these various parameters, then, is Donald Trump lying? He says things which are in direct conflict with what he’s said before, certainly. And he also regularly asserts things based on flawed or non-existent evidence. The basic pattern behind his ‘truthful hyperbole’ appears to divide into two general trends. There’s the way he characterises the state of the country, summoning up the image of ‘American carnage’ and a Crippled America, when much of the evidence is that growth and employment have been on the rise for the last few years. And then there are the statements related to his self-image, and specifically those challenging what he perceives as attacks on his popularity or success.

Neither are straightforward lies if we take intent into account. The description of ‘American carnage’, while not in line with a holistic picture of the US economy, is likely the experience for large sections of the population, especially those in communities where manufacturing jobs have dwindled or vanished altogether. Meanwhile the psychology of the narcissist – of which Trump seems to be a textbook case – is self-belief in an over-inflated self-image. As the philosopher Harry Frankfurt writes then, ‘It is often uncertain whether Trump actually cares about the truth of what he says. Since a person does not lie unless he makes an assertion that he himself takes to be false, we cannot properly say that he is lying if he actually believes what he says’. Which is perhaps why being challenged about what are clearly false statements doesn’t seem to have the same effect with him as it does on other political careers.

There’s also the issue that while he’s playing fast-and-loose with the truth about many things, he’s keeping his word on several major pledges. He may be offering a highly distorted view of events, but he’s not lying about the core intentions he said he had for his presidency. True, as Jonathan Chait writes, he’s not going to deliver on the over-blown promises to provide cheaper, better and more comprehensive health insurance, to defeat ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ once and for all, or to make Mexico pay for the wall. But for the concrete acts that are within his power, for the moment at least he’s making a show of doing precisely what he said he would.


Creating reality through acts of speech

Which brings us back to the point with which we started. The House Speaker Paul Ryan, when trying to justify his reason for not condemning Trump’s clearly false statements, argued that it wasn’t what Trump said but what he did in office which was what we should judge him on. ‘Who cares what he tweeted, you know, on some Thursday night, if we fix this country’s big problems?’

But as president the relationship between what he says and the implications his words have for what happens in the world is very different from how it was when he was a private citizen. As Dahlia Lithwick and Robert L. Tsai write, it’s ‘one thing to argue that Donald Trump’s words had no legal consequences during a political campaign’. Now that he’s president, they can have a direct and immediate causal effect on people’s lives.

And this is nowhere more apparent than in the executive order. The act of signing off on these various declarations, now that he has the status of president, makes the actions they describe fully real. With the words ‘By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America… It shall be the policy of the executive branch to…’ his declarations have legal force. Again, it’s the context in which these words are used, and the institutional significance of the person using them, which gives them their real meaning.

The importance of the relationship between words and actions in this context can’t be underestimated. An executive order is a prime example of the sort of declarative speech act which, for the philosopher John Searle, underpins ‘all of institutional reality, and therefore, in a sense, all of human civilization’. Searle argues that society is organised on the basis of just these types of speech acts – statements which create ‘a reality by representing that reality as created’. To put it in simplistic terms (and the underlying logic is very simple): by stating that such-and-such is the policy of the government, that becomes the policy of the government.

So this is perhaps the ultimate paradox that Trump represents. Underpinning many of his falsehoods is a desire to defend his legitimacy, and to undermine the legitimacy of others. When he complains about the size of the crowds supporting him, the imagined fraudulent voting, or the spreading of ‘fake news’ by the media, it’s because he sees all these as attacks on the legitimacy of the process which got him elected. And ultimately it’s legitimacy which gives him authority. And it’s authority which gives him power. In other words, the constant barrage of falsehoods, untruths, misinformation – or whatever we may wish to call it – is a way of attempting to ensure that that his words are taken fully literally when it comes to actually exercising his executive power.