Political Lies: Strategy or Mental Defect?


I just read a riveting historical analysis of lying by Presidential candidates, and in particular by our two current ones. Both have been accused of fibbing and shading the truth, something hardly unusual for politicians, but not in my lifetime has this become such a key part of the political dialog.

The analysis is revealing. Trump appears to lie reflexively, saying whatever comes into his mind that appears to serve his current purpose. It is as though he really does live in Wonderland where anything can be true if you say it is so. Lies to him are strategies.

Hillary is far more selective. Almost all of her lies are about herself, not about others or about external events. She has constructed a self-image that protects her from inconvenient facts. Lies evolve from failed attempts to reconcile this self-image with objective reality.

Nicholas Kristof concocted this example that aptly illustrates this difference. “If Clinton declares that she didn’t chop down a cherry tree, that might mean that she actually used a chain saw to cut it down. Or that she ordered an aide to chop it down. As for Trump, he will insist, [that he] absolutely did not chop down that cherry tree, even as he clutches the ax with which he chopped it down moments earlier on Facebook Live.

Both of them seem to truly believe at least some of their lies, and that belief is sometimes strong enough to withstand solid evidence to the contrary. The question then is the degree to which this characteristic might negatively impact their Presidency. An inability to appreciate the true situation is potentially very dangerous, particularly where great affairs of state are involved. That is so obviously true that arguing it is pointless.

The difference between the scope and extent of their propensity to lie is crucial. Hillary’s lies are relatively harmless, although they do clearly indicate a serious psychological issue. Trump’s strategic lies are far more problematic. Does he, like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, think ‘six impossible things before breakfast’? Or is he simply a devious and compulsive liar? It is impossible to discern from afar and without expert diagnosis, but the potential consequences for someone wielding the power of the Presidency are frightening.