You already know who this post is about, don’t you?
In this blog I have repeatedly pointed to Donald Trump’s habitual, brazen mendacity—an utter disregard for the truth that is surely unprecedented among US presidents. But what if Trump actually believes the falsehoods he so freely emits? If he does, then “lying” isn’t a strictly correct characterization of his pronouncements, since a lie is a deliberate, knowing statement of a falsehood.
The possibility that Trump’s falsehoods may not be lies arises in light of his insistence on his absurd claim, first voiced not long after the election, that he was the real winner of the popular vote, that Clinton’s tally included millions of illegal votes. A typical Trumpian lie, it would seem, supported by not a shred of evidence. But in recent days, he repeated the claim in a private meeting with Congressional leaders of both parties. This is not a group of naïfs: every person in the room surely knew that Trump’s claim was baseless. So what use was it to lie to these people? Trump’s insistence on this falsehood with this group suggests that maybe he wasn’t actually lying, that he actually believed his nonsense. That explanation has gained further plausibility with Trump’s call for an investigation of his claim, an investigation that can only prove him wrong. Why launch a self-defeating investigation unless you really think that maybe it can turn out well? Trump’s persistence on this issue has prompted both Paul Krugman and the Washington Monthly’s Martin Longman to pronounce Trump mentally ill.
So which is it: is our president a habitual liar or a delusional fantasist? You might say: So what? What’s the difference? In either case we know that the President of the United States is simply not a credible source of information. But when it concerns the most powerful man on earth, the difference between mendacity and delusion is potentially very consequential.
Clearly, it is not a good thing if the President of the United States is a habitual, shameless liar. But it is even more worrisome if he is a delusional fantasist, capable of creating at will wishful alternative realities in which the only “facts” are those that support his biases. This latter possibility implies a literal incapacity to deal realistically with the world. It would be better to have a president who is merely a liar.
We can try to tackle this puzzle by looking at some examples of the many falsehoods that Trump has spouted since the start of his presidential campaign. Consider one of his earliest—his claim to have personally seen thousands of Muslims celebrating on 9/11. We know this to be false because no such celebration took place anywhere in the United States—Trump could not have been the only witness to such a large-scale event, but no other credible witnesses have ever emerged. So, Trump’s story is either a deliberate fabrication or it is the product of a hallucination. I’m not a mental health professional, but I would think it extremely unlikely that a 55-year old man who is not obviously psychotic could experience such an hallucination. Trump was just lying.
Many of Trumps’ falsehoods have taken the form of denials of having said things that the public record shows he actually did say. He denied, for example, having initially supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He denied having called for the Obama administration to intervene in Libya. He denied having said that Alicia Machado had produced a sex tape (an assertion that was itself false). If he wasn’t lying in each of these cases, it can only be that his memory served him poorly. The only one of these three instances in which poor memory might be a plausible explanation is Iraq. His public statement of support was unenthusiastic, and it may well be that he later turned against the war, and that this is what he remembers. But if Trump had any interest in refreshing his memory, he could simply have checked the tape, which was broadcast repeatedly in the media. As for the other two falsehoods, poor memory is just not a plausible explanation. Trump could not have forgotten that he was actually a very strident advocate of intervention in Libya, and his Machado denial occurred only days after the original statement.
I could go on, but I’ll spare you the tedium. Trump is a liar, not a delusional fantasist. Even his insistence on his voter fraud fabrication can be understood as mendacity. Trump didn’t care whether or not his listeners believed him; he knew his remarks would become public, and he was actually speaking to a wider, more credulous audience. Trump is simply not constrained by any felt need to be truthful; he is concerned with the effectiveness of what he says, not its truthfulness. And he is shameless—he seems confident that if confronted with his lies, he can talk his way out of and around the issue without any embarrassment. If Trump’s falsehoods aren’t lies as the term is conventionally understood, it’s because they are in a sense not deliberate: they come naturally, automatically. Trump doesn’t think or care about the accuracy of what he says. But that’s not delusion; it’s mendacity.
Just to be clear: I am not denying that Trump is psychologically unbalanced. I do believe that his emotional disorders disqualify him for the office he holds. I just don’t think that he is literally delusional. You may or may not find that reassuring.