President Trump began his Presidency by falsely asserting that his Inaugural crowd was larger than Obama’s, a claim easily refuted by comparing aerial photographs of the two groups. Trump’s ridiculous claim was the first step in his goal of reconfiguring our fractured political stage into a tragic farce. Instead of one “Big Lie,” he bludgeons us with non-stop fraud that generates disorientation, demoralization, and dangerous polarization.
One might think that Trump’s blatant contempt for obvious facts would undermine his legitimacy, but systemic lying is a very eﬀective tool for consolidating political power.
Lies enable a leader to quickly assess the political landscape. Supporters demonstrate their fealty by ignoring their senses, attacking those who maintain the truth. Opponents gleefully seize upon apparent blunders, revealing the nature and extent of their opposition. Their bewildered outrage polarizes the populace even more, facilitating the elite’s enduring strategy of “divide and conquer.” Many in the so-called middle lie low, out of indiﬀerence, ambivalence about both sides, or knowing that any public expression entangles them in an increasingly disgusting culture.
In other words, systemic dishonesty serves as a political sorting hat, similar to the magic hat that assigned new students to the appropriate house in the Harry Potter novels.
This sorting extends far beyond the three basic political categories of support, opposition, and quietude. Lies enable the leader to more easily determine particular roles for supporters. Some are aware of the deceptions, but suppress any reaction because honesty interferes with their ideological goals and personal ambitions. Because they also are not very interested in the truth, they can easily adapt when the leader redefines reality in another direction. The ends justify the means.
These people are extremely important, because they are in contact with reality but consider it subordinate to other purposes. A select few may be permitted to join the leader in laughter about the masses’ gullibility. Aside from everything else, the leader and his coterie get pleasure out of manipulating the masses, watching the populace totally defer not only to beliefs but also to facts.
When the leader acts badly, it is easy for the fervent to not only tolerate the leader’s dishonesty but also to lie in support. They have already compromised themselves by accepting so much nonsense. For example, some Republicans have promoted a seemingly irrelevant, arcane distinction between “shithole” and “shithouse,” as if labeling struggling countries as “shithouses” would somehow exonerate the President from charges of racism and boorish behavior. Others use euphemisms, such as “strong language,” thereby propping up Trump’s image of weird virility.
Another group remains deferential because they want more hierarchy than currently exists and/or they prefer some of the leader’s policies more than competing alternatives. Senator Lindsey Graham revealed insuﬃcient devotion by telling the truth and even criticizing the President for the “shithole” remark. He probably won’t be golfing with Trump for quite a while, where Trump compulsively reasserts his dominance by openly cheating. Meanwhile, the inner circle of courtiers will mock Graham for his naiveté.
Many other followers believe almost every lie. They are useful idiots (pardon the cliché, but it has enduring value). They virulently turn on anyone who doubts any aspect of the leader’s vision. After all, they have made a quasi-religious leap of faith by allowing their leader to define a reality that transcends facts. They keep the movement’s doubters and hustlers in line while intimidating opponents with their fanaticism.
Others just don’t care, so long as their leader protects their interests. They believe they will do better than those who lie low or remain in opposition. Many oligarchs gleefully support an authoritarian who enriches them until they are suddenly thrown in jail for “corruption.”
Overall, institutionalized lying reinforces rigid hierarchy by converting political movements into quasi-religious cults of personality. The leader is a god-like figure who has overcome history. Lying turns the inherently tribal nature of partisan politics into a cauldron of mutual contempt and intolerance. Followers despise opponents for lack of respect. The opposition considers the supporters to be craven, deranged, or stupid.
While it would be profoundly inaccurate to claim moral equivalence between the two major Parties, it is important to observe that the Democratic Party has a diﬀerent cluster of mandatory narratives. But at least so far, that Party’s moral failings typify politics within any democratic regime. Democratic leaders break promises, misdirect people, create their own set of “politically correct” litmus tests, and suppress important facts. But they don’t base their positions on facts that can be so easily refuted.
People will always disagree about predictions (What are the human eﬀects on climate chaos?), opinions (Is Trump racist?), and policies (Should poor children receive health care or wealthy people more tax cuts?). But when there is no common understanding about the factual world we share, there is far less likelihood of creating the necessary common ground for political understanding and even compromise. Quite frankly, I don’t know how to talk to someone who still` believes Trump had a larger crowd than Obama or that Obama is a Muslim. And that is just the way Trump and his elite supporters want it.