Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How This White House Lies

Donald Trump is both one of the most gifted liars in American politics, a genius of dishonesty, and at the same time hopelessly bad at lying. His lawless firing of FBI Director Comey shows the ineptitude. Trump led with a story so weak that no one could pretend to believe it and then, within forty-eight hours had abandoned that story for one that was actually more incriminating. A White House that keeps changing its story is in crisis. A White House that changes it story to something more damaging is out of its mind.

The problem for Trump is that his approach to lying, which has been enormously effective for most of his career, is not working in this situation. The problem for Trump's press secretary and deputy press secretary, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is not just that they are being sent out to lie, but that they are sent out to lie like Trump himself, without Trump's skill set, even in situations where Trump's approach is wrong.

There are two things that make a lie work. Some lies work because they are plausible. Others work because they are emotionally satisfying. Some lies are both, of course, but others work by being one or the other.

A plausible lie is one that seems believable from an objective standpoint. It's false, but the falsehood sounds likely: it's the kind of thing that actually does happen, it doesn't contradict any known facts, there's no real reason not to believe it. A stockbroker claims to be bringing in, say, 15% more money a year for clients than he really is; you would need to see his books to bust him on that lie, whereas if he claimed to be doubling clients' money every six months it simply wouldn't be plausible. If I pretended to be close buddies with some of the famous people I went to college with, it would take some time and effort, or some bad luck on my part, to bust me. A google search will show that I actually did graduate from the same college as those people did, in the same year, so for all you know we might once have had some deep conversation in the dining hall. The lie is plausible.

An emotionally satisfying lie, on the other hand, is one that satisfies the listener's emotional needs. It may not make them happy -- in fact, it may make them fearful or enraged -- but it hooks them. It fulfills their need to feel loved, it offers a way out of medical or financial trouble, it offers them a scapegoat for their failures, it confirms their belief that they have been persecuted. (See Michael Wolraich's Blowing Smoke for the addictive power of "feeling hard done by.") And if the listener wants or needs to believe badly enough, the lie doesn't have to be that plausible. If you really want to blame Mexican immigrants for losing your job, the fact that immigration for Mexico is actually declining does not matter a bit; you won't even take that fact on board. People on Twitter have been congratulating Trump for going to Israel when Obama did not, which is completely ridiculous. Obama did go to Israel, of course. It only takes five seconds to check. But the people the lie is aimed at don't want to check. They want to believe.

Most Washington Beltway types, the reporters and lawyers and Congressional staffers and so on who make up most of our political and chattering classes, tend to lie as plausibly as they can. If they're going to tell a falsehood, they will try to make that falsehood as probable-sounding and hard to check as they can manage. Sooner or later every White House Press Secretary has to tell a lie, large or small; when they do, they make it as plausible as they can, because they know they can't bank on their listeners' desire to believe. They're talking to an audience that wants to fact-check them, so they craft lies that can stand up to scrutiny from skeptical and dispassionate, or even hostile, observers. Washington, DC and New York City are cities of plausible liars.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is an absolute master of the emotionally satisfying lie. His genius is telling people what they want -- no, need -- to hear, and getting them to invest their emotions in the lie. And like many people with a gift for emotionally satisfying lies, he has a tendency to believe his own falsehoods, at least some of the time.

Emotionally-satisfying lies are key for people who need small groups of people to believe in them intensely. That includes con artists, cult leaders, and domestic abusers. (I am not calling the President a domestic abuser, and certainly not calling him a religious leader of any kind. I'm just talking about how he lies.) Those liars get their targets deeply keyed up, and deal with attacks on their credibility with various rationalizations and counter-attacks. They are just saying that because they're trying to drive us apart, baby. Don't listen when your mother tries to break us up. These lies don't have to make any sense; they just have to give the believers some way to keep believing. The most successful lie in history, alas, is probably the abuser's special: I only hit you because I love you. That lie works, until it stops working, because the victim cannot bear the truth that the abuser does not love them.

Most journalists and politicians, because they are plausible liars, don't understand how Trump functions at all. Those are not the lies they would tell. That is not the model they follow. Trump's lies only make sense when you understand them as aimed at people who are already in his bunker, sipping his delicious Kool-Aid. This is fake news! This is just people who hate Trump! It's core emotional appeal to believers.

Trump's big problem is that lies designed for bunker-dwellers break down under the scrutiny of the wider world. An abuser's victim may believe he hits her because he loves her; she may need to believe that he hits her because he loves her. But the District Attorney never believes that shit for a second. An abuser who brings those lies into a court of law is in for a world of (well-deserved) hurt. Implausible but emotionally-satisfying lies don't work for an audience that hasn't bought into them emotionally. A cult leader talking to people outside the bunker just sounds crazy and sad.

Emotionally-satisfying lies to a core audience have gotten Trump where he is today. But it's always, always time for plausibility when the police show up. Emotionally-satisfying lie do not help when you're under investigation. They will probably hurt you. Cops don't want to believe you. Lawyers and reporters don't want to believe you. Judges do not want to believe you. They want to hear the truth, and if you can't give them that you need a lie they can't poke holes in.

Trump needed to switch gears when the investigations began. He didn't, because he's probably not capable. He is emotionally dependent upon the same lies that his believers are.

Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders, on the other hand, have an even more intractable problem. They are forced to go out and tell the Washington press corps, the people for whom banal but plausible lies are designed, a series of Trump-like lies: emotionally satisfying to Trump, utterly implausible, and dead in the water to an audience who's not already strongly biased toward Trump. Largest inauguration crowd in history is a classic of its kind. Transparently false, but exciting for people who want to believe it. But that's a catastrophic lie to tell to the Post and the Times.

Certainly, with Trump seemingly in genuine legal jeopardy, his flacks should be sticking to the plausible fictions. But those obviously are not their orders. Instead, they are marched out with outrageously flimsy BS, like "Trump fired Comey for being unfair to Hillary," which not only fails to convince reporters but antagonizes them and makes them pay closer attention to everything you're trying to hide. Big, big mistake. And Spicer, for whom I feel the kind of pity I feel for some of the sufferers in Dante's Hell, is also forced to tell Trump-like likes without anything like Trump's talent for telling them. Spicer, really, should stick to believable bullshit. Trump's grandiose disregard for truth requires Trump's grandiosity and emotional conviction, his instinct for telling his rubes victims voters what they need to hear and his own deeply needy emotional commitment to his lies. These really are not the kind of lies you can hire a middleman to tell for you. You need to tell them yourself. But sooner or later, you will need to deal with the truth.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

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