Donald Trump is a liar. At this point, only his most blinkered acolytes imagine otherwise. But liars do not lie all of the time. They must not, because, as the story of the boy who cried “wolf!” teaches us, mendacity can find its mark only if it is leavened with the truth.
Confronted with a liar, we are presented with the challenge of sifting their discourse to separate what is true in it from what is false. This challenge is most pressing in circumstances where there is a great deal at stake, and where an incorrect call may have devastating, or even catastrophic consequences. Such are the lies of President Trump, the holder of the mightiest office in the world, the man with the codes to our nuclear arsenal with the power to unleash a nuclear holocaust, the commander-in-chief of our armed forces, and, it must be said, the beloved candidate who won the votes of seventy-four million Americans (nearly half of the voting population).
To lie effectively, one must avoid lying about readily ascertainable facts. It would be foolish, for instance, to lie about the color of the sky or to claim that water is not wet, because it is easy to show that these are falsehoods. Ordinary lies must not be easily falsifiable. But Trump seems to lie about readily ascertainable facts, such as the size of the crowd at his inauguration. The fact is that Trump’s lies often do not always function merely as lies. They are not simply efforts to pull the wool over the eyes of a gullible populace. Rather, they manifest Trump’s belief in his own omnipotence.
Authoritarian leaders aspire to be all-powerful. They must not be subordinate to anyone or anything. And that means that the leader must not be subordinated to reality. Rather than fitting his beliefs to reality, reality must be subordinated to his beliefs. The leader is, in effect, a miniature God. He is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. He knows everything, and therefore has no regard for evidence. He is all-powerful, and can determine reality by fiat. And he is all-good, because whatever the divine commander-in-chief wills is good just because he wills it.
Commentators seem perpetually astonished at the sheer volume and outrageous character of Trump’s distortions, and seem to have an insatiable appetite for pointing out what virtually everyone already knows—that Trump is a liar. Fact-checkers have a field day with each of his speeches. But the fact that he trades in falsehoods is less remarkable than what these falsehoods reveal about his desires and aims.
Because the authoritarian leader does not accommodate himself to reality, we can read off his intentions from the worlds that he omnipotently creates. For example, when Trump fought to execute the Central Park Five, condemning them as criminals in spite of exonerating evidence, and when he absurdly claimed that Obama should be excluded from our nation’s highest office in virtue of being born in what he would later call a “shithole country,” his racist intentions were out there in the open for all to see. And when he implied that undocumented immigrants from Mexico were less than human and did not need to be treated with human decency, he revealed himself, as he did when assuring us that there are “very fine people” among the ranks of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. He has told us all along, in one way or another, who he is, what he wants, and what it is that he intends to do.
Today, most pundits seem to feel that Trump today is a paper tiger, capable of little more than minor trouble making -- irritating, to be sure, but soon to be gone. The same can be said of the Democratic rank and file who regard him as a petulant infant inhabiting a grown man’s body. But we (Smith and Kruger) believe this blithe dismissal to be a very grave mistake.
Many Americans—especially those on the Left—have consistently underestimated Donald Trump. From the get-go, it seemed unimaginable that this vulgar, clownish man had any chance of being selected as the Republican nominee, much less the President of the United States. Now, in what seems to be the twilight of his presidency, we risk underestimating him yet again. Trump’s disregard for, and attempts to undermine, the democratic process through accusations of electoral fraud seem absurd, or even deranged, and therefore easily dismissed.
Could this be another failure of imagination?
“Nothing is more free than the imagination,” wrote the philosopher David Hume in his 1748 Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. But the human imagination is not unfettered. We can see this clearly in attitudes to Donald Trump. One reason why a Trump victory seemed unthinkable in 2016 was that he seemed to be such a radical departure from what had gone before, violating our taken-for-granted political norms and assumptions. As Hume observed, the imagination “cannot exceed that original stock of ideas furnished by the internal and external senses….” Our imaginative capacities are limited by what has gone before.
There are also other, more psychological, forces that can cause our imaginative powers to fall short. If, as Hume observed in his Treatise of Human Nature, “Reason is… the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them,” imagination is surely reason’s fellow servant. We want things to be OK. We want a transition to a Biden presidency, and for the nightmare of the last four years to be safely behind us. But our yearning for a better future may be limiting our ability to realistically consider what may be in the offing.
On December second, Trump broadcast (on Facebook) a rambling forty-six-minute rant about the illegitimacy of Joe Biden's election, a rant that was largely ignored by the mainstream press. In what he described as “the most important speech that I have ever made” our president piled up bizarre and unsubstantiated accusations of electoral fraud. He painted a picture of an unprecedented national crisis, of a nation under attack from within, of a nation whose defining democratic institutions are being destroyed. “If you look at the lies, and the leaks,” he urged, “and the illegal acts of behavior done by so many people, and their desire to hurt the president of the United States, something should happen.”
Something should happen.
These words are ominous in their lack of specificity. What, exactly, should happen? Trump did not tell us directly, but it is easy to discern the underlying message. In a crescendo of accusations articulated in the strident rhythms of an inquisitor, Trump portrayed his political opponents as the enemies of America.
This election is about great voter fraud, fraud that has never been seen like this before…. That’s what we’re fighting for.…This is about our democracy and the sacred rights that generations of Americans have fought, bled, and died to secure….If we don’t root out the fraud, the tremendous and horrible fraud that’s taken place in our 2020 election, we don’t have a country anymore. With the resolve and support of the American people, we will restore honesty and integrity to our elections. We will restore trust in our system of government. Thank you. God bless you. God bless America.
In Trump’s view, the impending transition presents an existential threat to the United States. That is because, in his limitless grandiosity, Trump is the United States. And his humiliating fall, the unbearable wound to his narcissism, is tantamount to catastrophe. It follows that whatever “must be done” must be equal to the magnitude of that peril. Nothing that he has said since December 12 has contradicted that message. And everything that he has said has confirmed it.
Now, ask yourself what vision of the world might be expressed in these words—what truth shines through the morass of lies. And ask yourself what Trump might do, or what he might urge his millions of fanatical followers to do, in a vain attempt to avert this epic cataclysm.
We leave the rest to your imagination.
David Livingstone Smith and Charles Kruger