Donald Trump is ushering in the Golden Age of Lying.
When we were little, “it wasn’t me” was a good lie. Even as kids, we instinctively understood that you can’t prove a negative. In the absence of an eyewitness, “it wasn’t me” might instill at least the shadow of a doubt in our parents. Even if it didn’t get you totally off the hook, maybe it could reduce the punishment.
As we grew older, we had to make our lies more specific to the occasion. “I’m going to the library” was a staple during our high school years. (Note to millennials, a “library” is a building with a lot of books in it. “Books” are. . . ah, never mind. Just take it on faith that “the library” was a place where your parents used to tell their parents they were going when they were really going out looking for booze, drugs, and sex).
Our parents knew we were lying when we said we were going to the library, and we knew that they knew, but most of the time we could count on them being too lazy to check it out. So long as our friends didn’t rat on us, we didn’t stagger home drunk in the middle of the night, and we didn’t wreck the car, the library story was good enough.
The old lies still work, but they are no longer state of the art. Trump is re-writing the book. Given its variety, creativity and complexity, Trump’s mendacity deserves serious study. It could, to paraphrase James Joyce, keep professors busy for hundreds of years.
And it is not only academics who stand to benefit from a better understanding of Trump’s lies. It has practical applications. Generations of law students, for instance, will hone their courtroom skills by studying the Trump Method of lying.
For now, we have enough material to start the process of naming, defining and cataloging the various forms of Trump’s lies. Here are my favorite examples.
The “Don’t Worry, I’ll Pull Out”
The DWIPO is a promise made in the heat of the moment, knowing that you won’t be able to keep it when the time comes.
The DWIPO is often repealed and replaced by a lesser promise that is easier to keep. For instance, “Don’t worry, I’ll pull out” may be replaced by “Don’t worry, I’ll drive you to the hospital.” Big difference.
Trump mastered the DWIPO during the campaign. Don’t worry, Trump assured us, he’ll pull out of (“dismantle”) the Iran Nuclear Deal. Later, that became don’t worry, I’ll renegotiate it. When it finally dawned on Trump that none of the other parties to the Iran deal were going to renegotiate, his promise morphed into don’t worry, I’ll enforce it strictly. Forget that strict enforcement of the Iran Nuclear Deal is exactly the opposite of pulling out of it. That’s just nit-picking.
Trump also rolled out the DWIPO for Obamacare. Don’t worry, he told us on the campaign trail, he’ll pull out of (“repeal”) Obamacare immediately upon taking office and replace it with “great health care for a fraction of the price.”
Oops. Somewhere along the way, Trump made the startling discovery that repealing and replacing Obamacare was “very complicated,” and would “take some time into next year.” Well, what he really meant to say is that he might do “something” on “the rudiments” of repeal and replace by the end of the year, or maybe “the following year.” Stay tuned for, “we’ll hopefully do something on healthcare during my first term.” Or maybe the second.
Trump even pulled a DWIPO on Israel. Don’t worry, Trump promised during the campaign, we’ll pull out of Tel Aviv and relocate our embassy in Jerusalem. Now that it has dawned on him that pulling out of Tel Aviv would inflame the Middle East, kill any hope of a peace process, and that behind the scenes even the Israelis don’t want him to do it, he’s retreated to promising a “process.” “There’s [sic] no decisions. We’re at the very early stages of that decision process,” says Trump mouthpiece Sean Spicer.
Excellent! Process is progress! Thinking about stuff is good!
Pee-wee Herman had the perfect response to any insult, “I know you are, but what am I?”
Here’s how it works. Whenever somebody exposes something horribly twisted about you, you turn it back on them. You pretend that they were actually saying is about themselves, not about you. It doesn’t matter if it makes no sense going the other way. Just do it. You will be rewarded.
The Pee-wee is perhaps the signature Trump lie, and the most effective. Time and again during the campaign, and now into his presidency, Trump has changed the narrative by accusing his accusers of his own transgressions.
During the campaign, when it became clear that Trump was barking mad, Hillary Clinton began to describe him with words like “unfit,” “erratic” and “unhinged.” Trump turned it right back on her, branding Hillary as “totally unhinged.” Never mind that, whatever reason you may have for hating Hillary, being “unhinged” isn’t one of them. She is, in fact, quite hinged. Perhaps excessively so.
But Trump was still rewarded for this clever bit of dishonesty. As noted by Cokey Roberts, calling Hillary “totally unhinged” was code for, “Don’t elect a woman.” Since Hillary was also “very shrill,” a “nasty woman,” and “low energy,” she was not only afflicted with the disease of being female, but also suffering from the heartbreak of menopause. Very dangerous! That I can tell you!
Trump Pee-weed on Hillary again, brilliantly, when he was caught on the Access Hollywood tape bragging about how he used his celebrity status to sexually assault women. “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything . . .”
Unable to deny his own sexual deviancy, and unable to claim that Hillary had sexually assaulted anybody, Trump nevertheless found a way turn it back on her. He accused Hillary of abusing and bullying women who had allegedly been mistreated by her husband decades ago. By accusing Hillary of “enabling” her husband’s alleged misconduct, he created a narrative that she was complicit in it.
Now here’s the beauty part. By turning the revelation of his own predatory sexual conduct into an attack on Hillary, Trump re-shaped the entire story. No longer was everybody talking exclusively about Trump’s deviant behavior. Rather, they were now comparing his sexual transgressions with Bill Clinton’s. Trump had turned a seemingly devastating story about his own sexual misconduct into a race to the bottom. And that’s one race Trump will always win.
Another signature example of Trump using the Pee-wee to his advantage is the “fake news” dustup. Say Donald found some preposterous piece of garbage on one of the fringe websites he cruises in the dark of night. He would simply pick up that garbage and place it right on America’s dinner table. All he had to do was retweet it, or blurt it out at a rally.
When the press accurately accused Donald of trafficking in “fake news,” Trump Pee-weed all over them. It wasn’t his malicious rumor mongering that was fake news. The real fake news was the meticulously reported, impeccably sourced, and carefully edited stories published by CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. What kind of loser worries about corroboration or other archaic standards of journalistic integrity? Failing! Sad!
Once again, Trump had successfully manipulated the press. Rather than reporting something like, “Trump Spreads False Internet Rumors,” the headlines started to read more like, “Trump and Media Trade Accusations of Fake News.”
Not only that, but supposedly serious writers started churning out think pieces with titles like “What Does Fake News Really Mean?” As if this were a philosophical enigma as deeply mysterious as “What is the meaning of life?”
You don’t need a think piece to define “fake news.” It means using the media to spread lies.
The “meaning of life” is slightly more complicated. Defining it probably requires the full 140 characters. I’ll tweet it out during my first term as a blogger. Or maybe my second. Follow me on Twitter at @PhilipRotner and wait for it.
If there’s one image of the Trump era that we all wish we could un-see, it’s Kellyanne Conway, her face frozen in a hideous fixed grin, literally lying through her teeth.
Kellyanne is a jill-of-all-lies, also known as “alt-facts,” but she is also a master of one. The technique that bears her name starts with denying, or at least ignoring, something Trump actually said, and pretending that he really said something else. Then you defend the “something else,” all the while taking great offense that the questioner had missed the point by focusing obsessively on Trump’s words.
Trump and his defenders employed the Kellyanne right out of the gate. On the very day he declared his candidacy, Trump accused Mexico of sending its “bad ones” to the United States. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Trump and his surrogates then defended his statements about Mexico, drugs, crime and rape by ignoring the part about Mexico, drugs, crime and rape. What Trump was really doing was “calling our attention to the important issue of illegal immigration,” or something like that. Surrogates then praised Trump for having the “courage” to introduce this issue into the national conversation. How dare the press criticize Trump for this brave stance!
Never mind that Trump was making offensive, racist remarks about Mexicans, not making a high-minded appeal for a national policy debate. And never mind that, even if Trump had been simply raising a policy issue, doing so would have been neither novel nor courageous. The issue of immigration, of course, has been the subject of heated and prolonged national debate for as long as anybody can remember.
Trump did not invent the immigration issue, he exploited it. His naked appeal to bigotry was anything but a profile in courage.
No matter. Just flash a big fake grin when you praise Trump for making racist and xenophobic statements. Who knows, a Trump supporter may believe you.
A “whopper” is generally understood to be a lie. Or an oversized hamburger. But whether a hamburger or a lie, a Whopper has to be really big. Size matters. Especially, it seems, to Trump.
Trump’s hang-up about size (“I guarantee you there’s no problem!”) has shaped some of his best lies. That I can tell you.
He won the largest electoral vote victory since Ronald Reagan! Oh, wait a minute. Except for Bill Clinton. Twice. And George H. W. Bush. And Barack Obama. Twice.
Well, anyway, his electoral victory was really, really huge! A historic landslide! So what if it ranks 46th out of 58 presidential elections in the United States. He did squeeze in somewhere between the lowest one-fourth and the lowest one-fifth. So there’s that.
He won the popular vote too, at least if you count it right. Don’t try to muddy the waters by pointing out that Hillary Clinton received almost three million more votes than Trump. That doesn’t count because there were untold millions of fraudulent votes cast in the election, all of them for Hillary. Do the math, stupid!
He got the biggest crowd ever at his inauguration! Don’t believe the photographs on the Fake News networks showing that Trump’s crowd was a fraction of the size of the crowd at Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Believe Trump, not your lying eyes.
And what about Obama’s fake birth certificate? And the Sweden massacre (not to be confused with the Bowling Green massacre)? And the thousands of Muslims who were cheering in the streets of New Jersey as the towers fell on 9/11? And Hillary’s secret conspiracy to undermine America’s sovereignty? And Ted Cruz’s father palling around with Lee Harvey Oswald before the Kennedy assassination? And the money the crooked Clinton Foundation slid under the table right into Bill and Hillary’s pockets? And the media’s phony claim that Michael Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russians? And “Civil Rights Champion” Jeff Sessions? And the open borders allowing masses of refugees into the United States without any screening at all?
The beauty of the Whopper is that it takes the truth off the table entirely. There is no truth. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. It doesn’t need an objective basis in fact. It is revealed by a purely subjective test. Whatever “many people believe” to be true is, by definition, true.
And Trump can make many people (his people, at least) believe almost anything just by saying it.
Philip Rotner is an attorney and an engaged citizen who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated. Follow Philip on Twitter at @PhilipRotner.