The Mystery Isn’t Why He Lies, It’s Why We Listen

Or Is It Just Flirting With Extinction?

According to the Washington Post as of mid-December 2019, We the People have been asked to make sense of the 15,413 “false and misleading claims” coming out of the White House since inauguration. The pace is quickening. The president hit 7,688 false claims by mid-December, up from 5,689 in all of 2018. He did 1,999 in his rookie year in 2017.

They ranged from the absurd (wind turbines cause cancer) to the pathetic (he was Michigan’s man-of-the-year) to the corrosive (the Paris Climate Accord protects polluters) and, daily, to the laughable (Ivanka Trump has created 14 million jobs).

The question of this age is not why the president lies so often and, really, so risibly. It’s why we — all of us — keep taking him seriously.

Laughing at a 73-year-old man with nuclear capabilities, of course, is never a good idea.

But it remains hard to earnestly consider the childlike, patently ridiculous excuses about 17 (!) women with stories of his sexual predation (“I never met her;” “she’s not my style”), election meddling (“Ukraine did it!”) or withholding tax returns and evidence (“Because I won!”).

More: Reducing fuel efficiency standards would cut, oh, $3,000 off car prices; the deal to limit Iran’s nuclear development would lead to nuclear war; trade wars are good; Isis is defeated; I didn’t say what I said on that phone call; one assassination saved, oh, four embassies.

To quote George W. Bush, no truth-teller himself, in the moments after Donald Trump finished his inaugural address, “that was some weird shit.”

Most people’s questionable — much less relentless — claims of sexual prowess, triumph at the office and, say, superior brilliance would be quickly dismissed as the ravings of a perilously thwarted personality.

Sadly, presidential lies carry more peril than the average liar’s: the slaughter of allies, the continued decay of infrastructure, the cruel prolonging of people’s attempts to recover from natural disasters or to escape from crime, to healthcare and, of course, to the planet. In early January he claimed to have secret, suspiciously chimerical “evidence” to justify the assassination of an Iranian general. That one, the result of a hissy fit most parents would say qualified for a time-out, risked war.

Despite the bald mendacity and high-wire risks, however, a fair number of our judges and elected representatives solemnly and angrily protect the distortions as Received Wisdom.

Worse yet, 40-some percent of the electorate either believes all that, sees it as an overdue reaming of an equally dubious “deep state,” embraces it as a familiar frustration with their own place in life, excuses it because “he’s done some good things,” or shrugs it off as a somewhat entertaining presidential personality tic.

Learned pundits, in turn, scramble each day to invent explanations of how the morning’s absurdity was rooted in a principle (e.g., presidential immunities) that had not existed the day before.

Needless to say, truth isn’t what is used to be.

The crucial 33%. Back in the 1980s, conservative clerics warned of a fast-approaching problem: “relativism” would soon make truth itself into a subjective whim. Science, Fact and Faith have indeed been losing ground to fiat, “perspective,” “opinion” and, in recent years, conspiracies in which unseen powers pull our strings, plot our “replacement” and enslave children.

Amid those ’80s relativism warnings, Tony Schwartz recalls laboring to ghostwrite Trump: The Art of the Deal under the burden of not being able to believe his subject. Flummoxed, he finally opted to describe Trump’s loose protestations as “truthful hyperbole” and “artful euphemism.”

Steven Colbert once called it “truthiness.”

In The Death of Truth, Michiko Kakutani called it the final triumph of subjectivity over objectivity. She estimated that you need to convince only about 33% of an audience for a fiction to become an operable “fact.” Repetition seems to be the key. For example:

February 17, 2017: President Trump first publicly calls the media the enemy of the people.

By January 2019, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ database counts 1,339 rally declarations that were “critical, insinuating, condemning, or threatening” to news organizations and workers.

He devotes more than 11% of his tweets to language that “insulted or criticized journalists and outlets or condemned and denigrated the news media as a whole.”

June 2019. A critical mass adopts the libel as truth. A Hill-Harris Poll finds 33% of those polled consider the news media “the enemy of the people.” Reporters are physically attacked. Presidential recommendation: ignore shoe-leather research. It is fake.

None other than Vladimir Lenin — who regularly accused opponents of vrag norado, being enemies of the people and state — may have been the one to discover that repeating “false and misleading” statements can readily be honed into a powerful governing tool. In 1917 he said, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”

Calling history’s long record of political falsities mere “lies” just doesn’t do justice to the painful perversions that result. Every war begins on a foundation of fictions (“we’re better,” “they’re cockroaches,” “he’s a threat,” “that’s ours’”). Lies ignite financial catastrophes. Murders, too. Racism. Roundups.

But, per Lenin, we’ve become sufficiently desensitized to them. Political lying is now an expectation (“all presidents lie”). The very word “lie” is neutered. We need to replace it with something more appreciative of the damage these acidic fabrications wreak.

A better word would help. The writer Norman Mailer tried. In 1973, researching how rumor drove Marilyn Monroe into depression and death, he attributed much of her decline to “factoids.” He made up the word to describe “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.”

We could profit these days by adding the internet, social media, talk radio, cable news and the president of the United States to his definition.

But even “factoid” has been corrupted. The Oxford English Dictionary now calls it “a brief or trivial item of news or information.” Only secondarily is it “an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.”

“Trivial item” clearly has won the day. A short search produces 1.7 million “factoid” results. A few are pleas not to misuse the word. Most are not. Amazon’s Goodreads list of 115 favored books about factoids includes Interesting Factoids I Bet You Never Knew About Red Wine, Uncle John’s Attack of the Factoids (including why bats turn left when they emerge from their cave), Wacky Insect Factoids, etc. Another 40,600 magazine and newspaper articles discuss “factoids” about your body, Arabic/Islamic culture, holidays and, not least, “WPIAL Football Championship Factoids.”

Lethal gullibility. It’d be nice to know powerful repetitive liars all end up in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. They might, but that’s also not verifiable. And it still wouldn’t answer the real question: why are we so dangerously gullible?

It could be a symptom of, say, biological collapse.

One dark theory belongs to Rebecca D. Costa. Costa, a sociobiologist and author, contends that our brains have not evolved as rapidly as our need to understand our fantastically metastasizing surroundings. Our brains’ size is the same as it was millennia ago. Since then, the volume and velocity of each day’s typhoon of impressions and stimuli — fictions, facts, impressions, sounds, smells, sights, fears, temptations– have surpassed our brains’ ability to put them in order.

Between TV, social media, logos on clothes and objects, online, radio, postage stamps, buses, billboards, robocalls, signage, movies and the rest we are exposed to 4,000-to-10,000 ads each day. That’s up from an estimated 500 a day in the 1970s.

Add to those the pleasures, conversations, illnesses, data, traffic jams, surprises and, not least, childish white lies we encounter each day.

The result is complexity, which is a killer. Costa suggests our overloaded and apparently sputtering cognitive abilities could be a prelude to biological collapse. They leave us blind to phenomena we can no longer fully understand. We become stumped by the signals around us. They include disappearing foods, natural disasters, bad or re-routed water or the arrival of new predators and pathogens. That’s when a weakened species falls from its place in the food chain. It goes extinct.

Perhaps that’s why, dizzy in complexity, we default to the simple: brute and un-nuanced pieces of problems, heroes and threats we can grasp. Climate change is complex. Mitigating it is complex. It’s simpler to understand “hoax” and ignore the whole thing.

Political lying and hypocrisy go back a long way. But official lies, too, have reached warp speed even as their consequences grow more dire. At just the presidential level, we’ve reached an average of nearly 17 lies a day.

It is more than naïve to look past how the loss of a standard of truth has affected the wider culture, faith, behavior, the law, scholarship, propriety and morality. Waiting until we go extinct — as a republic, if not a species — doesn’t feel like a reasonable time to assess, much less try to repair, the damage.

Lowering the volume may not be possible. Reviving a robust national skepticism, however, might help us survive this mind-boggling vertigo less perilously.

Author, Paradigms Lost: the life & deaths of the printed word; A Small Treason (out summer, 2021)

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