Lying as a Political Strategy

Donald Trump – Source – Matt Johnson from Omaha, Nebraska, United States on Wikimedia

President Trump’s “Deal” with the American people was: “I will lie to you and you will vote for me”.

According to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker Trump spoke over 20,000 lies during his term as President. Some of them were very big indeed, and very influential like: ‘Climate change is a hoax’, ‘Wearing a mask is for pussies’, ‘Coronavirus is like a little flu, nothing to worry about’ and ‘This election has been stolen’ from us’.

How was President Trump able to attract so many voters to him in the election? That is a very pressing question, given his record in office and what was on offer from Biden and the Democrats.

This question was asked by BBC reporters of the various politicians and observers, but their answers were not fully convincing. One suggested that Cuban and Venezuelan residents in Florida had believed Trump’s lies that the Democrats would introduce a Socialist revolution. Another suggested that a lot of people appreciated the fact that Trump was an authentic straight-talking, no nonsense person from outside the political establishment who spoke his mind and delivered on his promises. Yet another pointed to how well the economy was doing.

There are so many reasons why Trump was such bad news. But perhaps the biggest was that, under Trump, the environmental cause, was deliberately set back, nationally and globally, by years, Trump called it a hoax and he had the full support of the Republican Party. This was at a time when much greater national and international efforts to contain the problems were more urgently needed than ever. The USA is the second largest CO2-emitting country in the world. Florida is threatened by rising sea levels, and could be underwater within 50 years. California is threatened by huge wildfires of greatly increased frequency and severity. The Eastern seaboard is assailed by hurricanes of increasing intensity and frequency. The Mid-West is suffering from major droughts.

The rational voter

Biden intends to re-join the international Paris agreement, and to introduce a massive Green New Deal programme but a Republican-controlled Senate will try to block it or scale it back. A rational voter would surely vote for Biden in these circumstances, offering him a landslide victory, wouldn’t they? The answer to that question is ‘Yes’, and over 74 million voters did so.

The irrational voter

But still about 70 million voters cast their votes for Trump. Why were they so irrational? Who, rationally, can favour reduced health-care provision, more anti-immigrant rants, more racism, more sexism, more white supremacy, more children in cages separated from their families, more favourable gun laws, more division in an increasingly ‘Us and Them’ American society, more sacking and insulting and abusing of public servants, more abuse of ‘losers’, more moves to undermine democracy, more friendly meetings and phone calls to the world’s dictators, more denial of climate change, more abuse of American influence and Federal power to support his re-election effort, more lies of every conceivable kind? Of course there are some elements and members of corporate America represented by the Republican Party who do actually (rationally) benefit from Trump. But that’s another issue!   

When people behave irrationally, an explanation needs to be sought within the realms of personal psychology. People do frequently behave irrationally: the self-harming addict who constantly refuses help, the abused spouse who repeatedly returns to the marital home and the cult member who experiences abuse and exploitation but refuses to leave.

There is one other major reason, Christian fundamentalism which includes Evangelicalism. There is no scientific basis for many of the tenets of Christianity. Yet the Christian message is a remarkable and truly uplifting one. Many adherents believe the myths surrounding Christianity even though they know they cannot be true.

Trump appears to have evoked an almost religious fervour. Scenes were shown on television of supporters praying on their knees outside State vote-counting offices for a reversal of voting trends. Marchers bearing automatic weapons were shown protesting about (non-existent) irregularities in the voting process.

Some people, especially those with a relatively weak sense of their own identity or security, or a misguided sense of their own needs and priorities, or in response to peer pressure, or a readiness to accept certain kinds of lies which contain some element of truth, will believe and act on all kinds of irrational things, as a result of their psychological need for strong confident spiritual leadership.

Lying as used by Trump

Trump’s lies were deliberate and designed to appeal to and energise a certain (mostly white, macho, religious in a fundamentalist way, gun-toting and anti-immigrant) section of American society. This preserves a jaundiced, prejudiced and outdated view of what constitutes American nationalism and patriotism. ‘Make America Great Again’ sums it up, probably the biggest lie of all. 

Lies, and the propaganda associated with them, is the route to fascism, as described in ‘How Fascism Works’, Jason Stanley, reviewed in The Guardian recently. Waving the flag of nationalism, publicising false charges of corruption (‘Lock her up’, ‘Drain the swamp’, and ‘voter fraud’), while engaging in corrupt practices (such as in Ukraine, in the 2016 election and controlling the courts) are at the heart of fascist movements, writes Stanley. In Nazi Germany the causes and solutions for national problems in the 1930s were falsely described. Neville Chamberlain was comprehensively taken in by Hitler’s lies. 

And the UK leadership peddles lies too

In a remarkable review in the Times Literary Supplement (of Tom Bower’s book on Boris Johnson, The Gambler), Rory Stewart, ex-Foreign Minister under Johnson as Foreign Secretary in 2017-18, and ex-Tory Party leadership candidate, describes Johnson as an amoral character, as the most accomplished liar in public life, and as showing a startling lack of the virtues traditionally valued in politicians. ‘He has mastered the use of error, omission, exaggeration, diminution, equivocation, and flat denial. He has perfected casuistry, circumlocution, false equivalence and false analogy, He is adept at the ironic jest, the fib and the grand lie; the weasel word and the half-truth, the hyperbolic lie, the obvious lie and the bullshit lie’.

Quite a list. Lies come in a variety of forms. Stewart goes on to list numerous examples of Johnson duplicity from his time at the Foreign Office. The biggest recent example in UK politics is Brexit, where enormous lies secured victory in the 2016 Referendum. Current polling preference for Brexit is 41% for and 49% against with 11% Don’t Know. Many people have reflected, too late, realised they were had, and changed their views.

Lies are extremely powerful and potentially destructive tools in the armoury of ambitious, powerful people. Lies are also part of everyday discourse. In everyday discourse, people learn how and when to use them (hopefully seldom and lightly) and how and when to understand and discount them. When politicians rise up on their privileged and powerful platforms they have a unique responsibility to tell the truth to the public as they see it, and not to lie for their own purposes. Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand have done this recently, and been rewarded with very favourable ratings and polling outcomes.

When the public are presented with a lying politician, they have a special responsibility to arm themselves against believing the lies, and to eject him or her from office.

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