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My Turn: Donald Trump – lord of the lies

For the Monitor
Published: 3/12/2019 12:15:04 AM

Sociologists tell us that most people, on average, lie to someone about twice a day. These private lies are usually harmless, directed at a spouse, a friend or acquaintance, aiming not to hurt but to help. Perhaps to reduce an old hurt, allow a loved one a moment of respite from worry or fear, or to bolster self-esteem, these “white” lies provide some of the social lubrication that runs our daily lives.

But of course not all lies are harmless. Some are long-standing, designed to protect ourselves or to hide a secret from someone else. Others are cruel and told with malice, perhaps driven by a desire for revenge or personal gain. These are the lies that bring us guilt and shame and trigger promises of reform and penance. These lies are troublesome and cause pain on a personal level, yet they rarely inflict damage on whole groups or society.

There is a small segment of humanity within society who learn to lie compulsively. People in my profession, psychologists, refer to this as pseudologia fantastica (psychologists love to label things) a colorful phrase to depict a type of mental illness that has its origins in early childhood but is poorly understood developmentally. It is generally thought to be closely linked to the development of self-esteem.

In supportive environments, most children learn to accept reality and the limitations it imposes on their worlds. Their egos do not “bruise’ easily and their self-esteem remains intact when unpleasant or frightening things happen. However, for some unlucky children, they feel forced or coerced to construct a pseudo or false view of the world. This world makes logical sense to them, but remains at odds with reality and the lived experiences of others.

Their world is, in essence, a well-constellated delusion, vigorously defended when challenged and designed to preserve self-esteem or even grandiose or fantastical ideas about the world as a whole.

During President Barack Obama’s administration, the media documented a little over 1,000 lies told to the public. Over an eight-year span, this breaks down to about 0.3 lies per day. Of course this does not include any white lies he may have told his staff or his wife. The public lies were generally told to the media to guard real or imagined beliefs about national or international affairs. Some were frankly harmful. For example, minimizing the death tolls of civilians killed in drone strikes. But there was never evidence of compulsive lying that might have comprised an attack on another branch of government, or repeated lies told to harm a particular group or minority.

In the first two-plus years of the Trump administration, the Washington Post has documented more than 9,000 lies. This breaks down to about 12 (public) lies a day. Many of these are repetitious lies, told in an automatic fashion with little or no evidence of internal censoring, and told “off the cuff” not reflecting an official position of the Trump administration. This is evidence of compulsive lying, designed to protect the president’s ego rather than national security. But when a president lies, something much more serious happens.

Sam Waterston, the actor, in his op-ed for the Washington Post, said it best: “Lying is an existential threat to us, to our institutions, our memories, our understanding of now and of the future, to the great American democratic experience, and to the planet. It blurs the truth, subverts trust, interferes with thought and destroys clarity. It drives us to distraction.”

I would add that it contributes to divisiveness and forces supporters of this president to engage in self-deception, believing that Trump remains their last best hope. For them Trump has become “Lord of the Lies,” and like Jack, in the William Golding classic, they will follow blindly.

(Philip Mead lives in Concord.)

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