Soviet propaganda poster
Many people, mostly those outside of Trump’s supporter community, are both appalled and baffled by his lies. How can a President — even one like Trump — Tweet or otherwise give statements that are either clearly untrue, or implausible and totally without evidence.
Trump has two types of lies. The first are those that are demonstrably untrue. For example, his references to the ‘failing New York Times’ when in fact the New York Times is seeing a surge in readership:
“The paper added 276,000 net digital-only subscriptions in the final three months of 2016, the best showing since it implemented its paywall in 2011. In the weeks immediately following Mr Trump’s election in November, subscriptions increased tenfold compared with the previous year.”
The second are unproven and very unlikely to be true, for example describing CNN as ‘fake news’ or accusing Obama of tapping his phones during the election campaign. There is no evidence for this, and it appears to be based on Breitbart stories. Furthermore, as Obama’s team have pointed out, the President has no authority to authorise or request surveillance of anyone, so it is implausible. If you read the Breitbart story, it is just a feedback loop — they reference what Trump said, which references what someone else said, and then Trump references what Brietbart said. But in amongst the looping of quotes there aren’t actually any facts. As the New York Times exclaimed:
“The president’s decision on Saturday to lend the power of his office to accusations against his predecessor of politically motivated wiretapping — without offering any proof — was remarkable, even for a leader who has repeatedly shown himself willing to make assertions that are false or based on dubious sources.”
For people who are used to facts being generally respected, and to politicians at worse exaggerating and fibbing a bit, the way Trump and his administration is lying is confusing. We are left wondering how a President, or his team, can so clearly lie without any sense of shame or fear of being called out.
This approach to truth is already well established elsewhere, and has a long history. Most recently it is a tool of Putin’s administration, to which Trump appears to be taking much of its inspiration. It can be seen in most dictatorships, or dysfunctional pseudo democracies.
In modern Russia, the administration is comfortable using lies to muddle their people. If you push out several completely contradictory stories, the truth becomes buried, or at least discredited along with the other clearly untrue stories. If you make an effort to shed doubt on the news outlets, NGOs, and individuals who use facts to show when a statement is demonstrably untrue then it becomes harder for people to settle on one single statement as being true, in amongst a series of statements that are not. People are naturally inclined to trust authority, so when the government makes an official statement it carries weight against an individual or single news outlet.
This approach was perfected under Communism, especially Stalinism. At various points, whilst millions were starving, industry and the economy were collapsing, even up to the denial and then underplaying of the Chernobyl disaster, the government would state that reality was one way, when it was really the complete opposite. Audacious lies are harder to deal with than small ones.
Currently, when the Russian government denies something that is demonstrably true, or makes a statement that can be proven not to be true, there can be a number of reasons why they do this. Understanding these may shed light on Trump’s behaviour. Russia is a good comparison because the pattern of behaviour is far more established and can be seen over time but it looks very similar to Trump. Here are three reasons why Trump could be lying.
1. Telling a lie because you believe it
Putin is notoriously cut off from the world. He does not use the Internet, and receives very short briefings from a close circle of people around him. Those people are unlikely to want to upset him, or contradict him. Being surrounded by people who depend on your favour to remain in position, or even remain alive, means you increasingly get less and less real information. It becomes an extreme version of the echo chambers we’re all becoming trapped in by Social Media algorithms.
Reading The Mitrokhin Archive, which is one of the most revealing history books of the last Century, shows how under Stalin the KGB was brilliant at collecting intelligence, but useless at analysing it. When people reported intelligence that was counter to the world view of Stalin, they generally ended up dead. So increasingly the intelligence was edited, or mis-interpreted to support the existing set of beliefs of the leader.
So it is possible, and some pundits suggest this, that Putin actually believes the world view the Russian government expresses through its propaganda, much as Stalin’s Russia really believed the country was riddled with foreign spies, and was at constant threat of invasion — assumptions that history have shown us were completely wrong.
With Trump we have to consider some assumptions. He has been rich and powerful for a long time. Therefore, he is likely to have been surrounded by yes-men who only enforce his world view and opinions rather than challenging them. He does not brush shoulders with reality on a daily basis, living the life of a billionaire. He also does not read, and watches a very narrow spectrum of media. Now he is President he is even more cut off from the world, and instead of taking advantage of a state machinery that could leave him amongst the best informed people in the world, he has eschewed Intelligence briefings, and other input from independent sources.
Being very cut off can lead to paranoia, quite aside from however you interpret his mental state. You become very reliant on a small group of trusted people, and increasingly untrusting of everyone else. He has shown he is in thrall to Fox News and Breitbart, often making statements based on news stories they ran the night before, as he did with the Swedish terrorist attacks that didn’t happen.
There are signs that his world view is dogged by paranoia, conspiracy theories, and snippets of information that almost leak through into his consciousness via Twitter and Fox News. Take for example his statement that he had the largest electoral college win in history, and how he reacted when a journalist showed him this was demonstrably not true — he backed down, blaming the information he’d been given by other people. (watch the press conference here)
It would be fair to say that Trump is not highly educated, well read, or particularly well informed. This applies to most of his Cabinet, which is noticeably unqualified and poorly educated. On top of this many of them are religious fundamentalists, which clouds their interpretation of facts with an ideology that is not open to challenges. The same applied to Stalinist Russia, when the Communist ideology came before facts and could over-rule them.
So one reason behind Trump’s lies could be that he actually believes the lies.
That would also explain his increasingly paranoid and conspiratorial interpretation of what is happening around him — Obama is behind the protests, the news is ‘fake.’ If he believes what he says, the objections to it and the protests against him might actually be confusing to him.
2. Telling a lie aimed only at your core constituency
Another way to interpret Trump’s lies are to conclude that he knows they are not true, and he knows we know they are not true, but that they are not aimed at us.
This is another way of looking at Russian lies. When the Russian government claims, for example, that it is clear a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down the MH17 passenger plane over Ukraine, it’s possible they know that we know this is not true. But the lie was told to foreign media like the BBC so that it can be played back to their own people in Russia and used to undermine reports of evidence that it was a Russian army missile that brought the plane down. They don’t care that we know it isn’t true, because the message is not for us. It is for their own people, and for those confused enough to have their belief in the official investigation findings undermined by a bare faced lie.
In effect, the messages are broadcast to everyone, but only one specific audience matters.
So with Trump, when he says the New York Times is failing, he may not care that we all know that is a blatant lie — factually not true. He could just be speaking to his core voters, whom he knows will not see any counter argument and may believe him. It is important to him that they don’t trust any media that will criticise him. The same applies to his claim that Obama tapped his phones. He may know that most people will realise this is nonsense. But that core of people who only get news from Breitbart, and believe the conspiracies, will also believe this one about Obama. That in turn helps him undermine any findings in the future from investigations into his links with Russia. If he can undermine the media that will broadcast this, and sew seeds of a conspiracy against him, he can blur any negative news about his links with Russia. But again, this is only aimed at holding onto his core voter group, not converting a New York Times reader.
If this means his Tweeting is just aimed at securing that base of core voters, his Twitter feed seems slightly less insane. For his core voters, Trump has already undermined their believe in what the mainstream media writes, which combines with his close (and actually fake) media amplifying and supporting his statements, he is able to take advantage of the echo chamber of the Trump constituency. In this scenario, it doesn’t matter to him and his team that everyone else thinks the statements are absurd and clearly untrue because they are only for the believers.
The way Trump, and Brexit, and Putin, have divided politics means that they no longer speak to those who do not support them. It means their message, shouted out to all that can hear, is only intended for one audience. If everyone else sees through the lies and propaganda it is irrelevant. They are not trying to convince anyone new to get behind their narrative, they are just securing the narrative amongst those who already follow them.
3. Telling lies to undermine Truth
This approach is about confusing everyone. A constant barrage of massive lies starts to undermine Truth itself, leaving it buried. Political commentator and chess champion Kasaparov summed it up well in this Tweet:
“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
Once truth is an undermined currency, as the Soviet Union proved, people give up caring altogether. People knew things were not true, but knowing that made no difference, and saying so was dangerous, so they stopped engaging with truth or facts.
The real danger for America is that truth will become less important by the time of the mid-terms, and by the next election. The liberal media and Democrat politicians are talking about reaching the point where Trump’s core voters, the white working class, realise he has conned them. It is assumed that once they lose their healthcare, do not gain jobs, and see the Swamp ever more swamp-like, they will rebel and vote against him.
But if Trump can ensure they do not believe facts shared by the media, and do believe lies propagated by him and his supporters, then they may never realise they were conned, and may not that see things are not as good as promised. Or they will believe it is outside forces, not Trump. Blaming Obama for everything is laying the ground for that. Trump is taking credit for the outcomes of decisions made by Obama, and blaming Obama for his own problems. In Russia, the government blames America, the EU, NATO, Russian liberals, or any other outside force for the demise of their economy, the loss of civil liberties, and indeed anything bad. Putin and the Administration are never to blame.
Trump will say that unemployment is up, even when data shows it is down. He will claim any success as his, and will blame China, Obama, the Democrats, or others for any failures. If that does not work, he will just rubbish any news that undermines him. We are seeing this now and find it funny and strange. Wait until the next election and it will become frightening and confusing.
The next question is whether this is a natural skill of his, or whether it is a clever strategy of his advisors. Remember that the people around him are already skilled in manipulation of the truth. Paul Manafort advised former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, who himself was Putin’s man. When Manafort says he never worked for the Russians, think of Yanukovych’s Ukraine as a subsidiary of Putin’s Russia. Manafort will have become very well versed in Russian style manipulation of Truth through this work and will have taught Trump these lessons when he was his advisor. Then Bannon ran Breitbart, which makes a business of manipulating the truth, and outright lying.
In a way it is comforting to put some sort of structure around what appears otherwise as a mad frenzy of lies and nonsense from Trump and his media. It is likely to be a mix of all three; that he believes what he reads in Breitbart, that he knows he can say anything to his followers and they’ll believe him, and that he or his team know they have to undermine sources of Truth before the next election in order to keep the attention of his core group of voters who will keep them in power.
If within a few years a large swathe of the country either believes the Trump messaging, or does not trust the mainstream media, or thinks the Democrats are evil and corrupt, or just does not know what is true or not anymore, then Trump stands a chance of a second term regardless of how his first term goes.
To survive: read Russian novels like Master and Margherita, read accounts of life under Communism, look for solid facts and hold onto them like wood in a shipwreck, and tune out all the distracting noise designed to undermine your believe in what you know is real.
When you hear Trump lie, pause to ask yourself which type of lie it might be. Is he lying because he believes what he is saying? Is he lying because his message is not meant for you? Or is he lying in order to undermine Truth altogether, and with it any future criticism of his Administration?