‘Truth Cannot Play a Liar’s Game’

The combination of Trump’s narcissism with his incompetence means that he has to create a delusional world in order to fill his constant need for ego gratification. Lately we’ve been seeing that show up more consistently in his tweets, like this one today:

Recently I wrote that Trump’s delusional tendencies might be something his lawyers are exploiting in order to keep him calm in the face of mounting evidence that Mueller’s investigation could mean big trouble for his presidency. We can now add to that the fact that the New York Times is reporting that this president continues to immerse himself in delusional conspiracy theories that most people thought he had put aside.

As the issue of sexual harassment has swept through the news media, politics and entertainment industries, Mr. Trump has persisted in denying allegations that he, too, made unwanted advances on multiple women in past years. In recent days, he has continued to seed doubt about his appearance on the “Access Hollywood” tape, stunning his advisers…

Mr. Trump’s falsehoods about the “Access Hollywood” tape are part of his lifelong habit of attempting to create and sell his own version of reality. Advisers say he continues to privately harbor a handful of conspiracy theories that have no grounding in fact.

In recent months, they say, Mr. Trump has used closed-door conversations to question the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. He has also repeatedly claimed that he lost the popular vote last year because of widespread voter fraud, according to advisers and lawmakers.

I refer to these as delusions while others would simply call them lies. The difference between those two comes down to how deeply in Trump’s conscious mind he actually believes these things. Either way, I think we can all agree that having a president who is either delusional or a habitual liar is not a good thing for this country.

It is important to note that electing a president with this tendency didn’t happen in a vacuum. Truth has been under assault for years in this country. In a kind of prophetic voice, Stephen Colbert captured that perfectly years ago with his introduction of the word “truthiness.”

There are a lot of ways that a culture that has abandoned the idea of truth, while electing a president who exhibits a tendency to be completely unacquainted with the concept, poses a danger. Some of them are more immediate than others. I don’t think that Josephine Livingstone is being hyperbolic when she draws on the writings of Hannah Arendt to suggest that what we are witnessing is a precursor to fascism.

Part of Arendt’s point is that Hitler’s lies became impossible to counter with truth, because the truth was deleted as a useful category in the citizen’s mind. Again, this was a rhetorical trick of fascism, played out in the medium of mass communication…To preserve the value of truthfulness in public discourse, newspapers need to be much, much smarter about the way rhetoric is deployed. The normal—which in America is composed of the post-war meanings of the words “true,” “just,” “lawful”—is under very serious assault. Truth cannot play a liar’s game; it can only describe it from the outside.

This idea that truth cannot play a liar’s game describes something I have struggled with in writing about both the Trump campaign as well as his presidency. To engage rationally with his ideas often feels like giving them credit they don’t deserve. It tends to normalize the absurd. And yet, he is the President of the United States. Ignoring the absurd won’t make it go away. Finding that sweet spot of describing it from the outside has become the way to protect concepts like “true,” “just,” and “lawful” from assault.

When it comes to political discourse, the presidency of Donald Trump is presenting new challenges for all of us. While I continue to look for that sweet spot, I recognize that I don’t always find it. But that’s the goal.

If you appreciate the efforts we’re making here at the Washington Monthly to report on the Trump presidency in a way that preserves our commitment to the truth, I hope you’ll take a minute to make a contribution to keep us going. We depend on your support, so thanks!

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.