The Varieties of Being Lied To


A modest proposition occurs to me this morning. I am thinking back to the grave, decorous presidency of George W. Bush. I savor a moment of fondness for how straight and true the ship of state sailed back then.

And I muse: Even after the war in Iraq became an obvious fiasco, the reaction of the bien pensant was a refusal to say “I told you so” that oscillated between sullen and noble. The streets did not fill up with protesters demanding the heads of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld despite the fact that their war had managed–against all odds–to advance the causes of both al-Qaeda and Iran, at a financial cost of trillions of dollars and a human cost of tens of thousands of civilian lives. Mmm, sorry, our bad.

The Bush II presidency just sort of slunk away into the ignominy of history under a pall of silence that we citizens allowed to happen, indeed in which we collaborated. And we moved on.

Why do we see the Trump presidency as one that thoroughly debases the office? Why does it seem to be a clod of toxin that the republic is already heaving to expel?

I think one reason is the difference between the crises that precipitated the two presidencies. Bush faced a real crisis. His instincts were to lie low and content himself just tinkering with tax codes and education after his skin-of-the-teeth election in 2000, but then 9/11 happened and he came to full power. The attack was a catastrophe, for all to see, and we cut Bush a large check of credibility to shape our response. When he shifted attention from Afghanistan to Iraq, those of us who disagreed–even those of us who saw the basis of the decision as a deliberate distortion of facts–wrote it off as an ordinary political mistake. It was not the first time in the history of warfare that a large power used a just war to underwrite an attractive adventure.

trump-flagBut what was the precipitating crisis that allowed Trump’s rise? We are told it was the alienation of the poor, white working class. Let’s assume that’s the case for the moment. What evidence was proffered for the narrative that the poor whites’ disaffection constituted a national crisis? Every part of the story Trump told was either favorable hearsay, a lie that could be wriggled out of, or a generalization calculated to appeal to those who do not know what generalizations mean.

Trump’s claims during his campaign that the reported unemployment rate was wrong were a cheap appeal to hearsay, which he now ( at least tactically) disowns. His final bid on the “real” unemployment rate during his campaign–“I just heard it might be as high as 42 percent.”–is the sort of offhand use of the superlative that barkers use to draw passers by into carnival attractions or cheap seaside restaurants. “The steaks here weigh one, two, I heard someone say five pounds!”

Politicians know exactly what kind of lies can be wriggled out of: basically all of them. Clinton did not have sexual relations with that woman. Trump did not grab any pussies; it was smutty but ordinary locker room talk. What was unusal in Trump’s case, though, was that he effectively announced to his consituency ahead of his presidency that lies would be told and wriggled out of. And we loved him for it. He was telling the political establishment, whose currency has been built on lies, that he could outdo them at every turn and never pay a price for it. Instead of shame, which many of us felt for Clinton, we now stand and applaud Trump’s brave new adventures in lying.

“They’re sending rapists.” True? Or false? Well, as Clinton himself could have pointed out, it’s true, on a certain construction. Mexico is indeed “sending” people if we attribute to it certain forces of globalization. Have some of those “sent” been rapists? Read the papers. If you trust the media, yes, some Mexican immigrants have commited rape in the United States. But how useful or informative is this generalization? It’s as useful as other generalizations of the same form, for example, that the auto industry is sending cars to kill you. You can work out a construction that makes it true, but is it a generalization that corresponds with the relevant statistics, and if so, is it one amenable to a policy solution?

Without delving into a nerdish discussion, Trump’s Mexican rapists claim is a blatant appeal to a cognitive defect we all have, known as the representation bias. The representation bias says simply that the easier we can recall or envision an event, the more probable we think that kind of event is, no matter what its actual frequency is in real life. This is one reason why the fear of flying is so prevalent. The personal horror with which we can envision our plane going down biases us against the ability to appreciate the actual odds of disaster. (The odds of a catastrophic plane crash, last time I checked, were about one in three million.)

So the Trump administration is shaping up to be one of dishonesty entrepeneurs. Their range of untruths goes beyond ordinary political lies, to include doubling down, bullshitting and tactical joking. Two things are sure, the Trump administration will continue to innovate falsehoods, and we will continue to cheer him on. That’s how we live now.


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