Lying When the Truth Suits

My late grandmother, who would have been 107 this year, had a phrase to describe a congenital liar (not that she would have used the term “congenital liar”).  She would say of that person that “he lies when the truth suits.”  In other words, the lies served no obvious purpose – the truth would have been perfectly suitable – but the person lied anyway.

There was no explanation for the lying.  Perhaps it was just the habit of lying.  Or maybe it was the sheer transgressive joy of telling a lie, even when it wasn’t necessary, in order to fool the listener.  It could have been that the part of the liar’s brain that separates fact from fiction was somehow impaired.  She didn’t know.  But she did know that he lied when the truth suited.

Neither can we know why the compulsive liar lies.  He just does.  It’s who he is.

Which, of course, brings us to Trump.  He lies constantly, unapologetically, and with no regard for the necessity or utility of any particular lie.  Thus, for example, if Trump says that the new Executive Order travel ban will be issued on Tuesday, the only thing that you can be sure of is that it won’t be issued on Tuesday.  It might come on Wednesday, or even Monday, and it might not come at all.  It won’t be on Tuesday, though.  To use the biblical phrase, the truth is not in Trump. If he ever utters something truthful, it won’t be on purpose, it will be inadvertent, a mistake made by chance.

As the author Mary McCarthy once said of another serial liar, “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” So, too, with Trump.

It’s like the grade-school logic problem about the mythical island where half of the inhabitants never tell the truth.  Once you know an islander always lies, you can act accordingly.  If you keep holding out for the occasional truth, you have only yourself to blame.  You’re like the fraternity pledge in Animal House who lends his car to his disreputable brothers only to see it destroyed by them.  Their frank assessment: “you fucked up, you trusted us.”

So, Preet Bharara, welcome to the World of Trump.  One of America’s top prosecutors, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern of New York, the scourge of Wall Street white-collar criminals, Bharara just got Trumped.

In November, well before the inauguration, Bharara made the pilgrimage to Trump Tower and Trump told Bharara he wanted him to stay on as U.S. Attorney.  Bharara agreed.

Just months later, Trump demanded the resignations of all Obama-appointed U.S. Attorneys, including Bharara.  When Bharara refused, he was immediately fired.  A savvy prosecutor – a man who deals with liars all day and everyday – fucked up; he trusted Trump.  Sad.

Once you know that everything Trump says is a lie, though, it’s oddly liberating.  You don’t have to play the expectations game of “maybe he’s telling the truth just this once.” You don’t have to agonize over whether the external evidence indicates, just maybe, that he could be truthful this time.  You know it’s not true.  You may still a sad-sack like Charlie Brown, but at least you can tell Lucy you’re not going to play the game where she always jerks the football away.

The Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, wrote a seminal work on the subject called On Bullshit.  In it, he made the critical distinction between liars and bullshiters (who could have alternatively been called the congenital or compulsive liars).  “The liar,” according to Frankfurt, “is inescapably concerned with truth-values.”  Thus, “in order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true.  And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.”

Contrast the bullshit artist:

“His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it.  He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well. . . .  It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play.”

Using the professor’s formulation, Trump is a classic bullshiter. The truth means nothing to him.  Saying what matters in the moment – without regard to its truth or falsity – is the sole object.  In Trump’s case, it means everything he says is a lie.

So be liberated. Assume everything Trump says is a lie.  You won’t be disappointed.  And that’s the truth.

The Provocations to Come

Burning of the Reichstag 1933. Germany

In a chilling piece in the New York Review of Books called “The Reichstag Warning,” Yale history professor Timothy Snyder summarizes how the Nazis used various events such as the 1933 arson of the Reichstag building and the 1938 assassination of the German ambassador to France to justify their anti-democratic program and Kristallnacht, respectively.  Professor Snyder writes that Hitler rejoiced as the German Parliament burned knowing that he could use it to grab even more power and to punish his enemies, irrespective of their complicity in the arson.  Snyder also refers to new scholarship by Benjamin Hett at Hunter College which suggests that the Nazis themselves burned the building in a false-flag operation.

Snyder’s article makes it clear that responding to provocations – real, imagined, and sometimes self-contrived – is how authoritarians work within the system to aggrandize more power and, ultimately, destroy the vestiges of democracy. The last paragraphs of the article are the payoff.  They see the prospect of Trump and the people around him following the “history of terror manipulation” to seize more power.  Even James Madison gets into the act for his concerns about a tyrant using a “favorable emergency” to suspend civil rights.

It’s an excellent piece and a good reminder that Trump (and especially some of his more odious advisors) come from – and understand – the long history of opportunists who will try to use the worst events for their best self-interest.

In other ways, though, the piece misses the more obvious point which is that the last 20 years or so have been about nothing as much as how our leaders – and we ourselves – react to provocations that have come along with disturbing frequency. Snyder thus praises the Bush Administration for not calling for an anti-jihad against Islam after 9/11 (although their Iraq War part of the reaction comes in for some criticism).

President Obama’s reactions to provocations are not mentioned at all. If I had to guess, most of the virulent Obama haters would put high on their list of things they hated about him his cool reactions to the numerous provocations of which there was no shortage.  In just the last four years we had, among others, the Boston Marathon bombing, the San Bernardino shootings, the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, and an attack at the Fort Lauderdale airport.  That list doesn’t even include the multiple shootings, stabbings, and street bombings that have occurred all around the country.

Through them all, President Obama remained a cool customer. His rhetoric was always measured – generally sounding sad and disappointed – as were the actions of his Administration.  Where was the anger, the outrage, the lashing out, the eye-for-an-eye (or more), seethed his critics?  “They pull a knife, you pull a gun” escalation wasn’t his thing.  And they hated him for it.

The provocations will keep coming in Trump’s America, just as they have for the past eight or 16 (or more) years. There should be no requirement to manufacture them.  Steve Bannon doesn’t need to find a patsy to blow up a congressman’s SUV in the Capitol parking lot.  Instead, he can count on some sad and sick kid from a majority Muslim country to commit an outrage in a suburban shopping mall or similar event tailor-made for a clamp-down.

First, we’ll get the tough rhetoric from the president (and likely his entourage of generals). Then the worst of go-along media will talk and write about how much more satisfying it is to have a genuinely angry president who can lead us in national rites of primal scream and catharsis.

Then the policy people will take over and begin to take away our civil rights. It may be slow (e.g. suspension of habeas corpus for non-citizens), but it could also be fast.  What about an omnibus bill passed through the Republican Congress ten days after the umpteenth mall shooting in the past 20 years that pretty much shreds the Constitution?

From there we can proceed to the courts and we all know what that will look like: one step forward and two steps back, capped by a Supreme Court decision ratifying most or all of it, with the requisite nods to our grand rhetorical tradition that the Constitution is “not a collective suicide pact.”

Professor Snyder ends his piece by reminding us that we need to understand history and be vigilant, but the real question is whether there’s anything we can really do beyond watching it unfold.

Four years from now, many of us may look back in fond nostalgia for the days when we had a president who didn’t fly off the handle.

The Rise of the Blond Beasts

In 1993, on the first Labor Day weekend of his presidency, Bill Clinton’s radio address spoke of the “idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good life for yourself and a better chance for your children.” This idea, according to Clinton, had been instilled in generations of Americans by their parents.

I’m not entirely sure if this was the first formulation of the phrase “work hard and play by the rules,” but it will suffice for our purposes here. Clinton was invoking the type of Americans who get by on sweat, who pay taxes, and who basically live their lives in the middle of the road.

Even in 1993, the idea may have had the whiff of nostalgia that comes at the very beginning of putrefaction. America was about to usher in our modern age where hard work was for suckers and playing by the rules meant don’t get caught (or, if you do, pay a hefty fine and go your merry way).

In any event, the phrase evokes — intentionally, I think — the conventional people who live by conventional morality. These are the “just folks” of the American heartland, suburbs, and small towns.  The payoff for working hard and playing by the rules could be different for different people.  For some, maybe a college degree rather than a high-school diploma; for others a small house rather than a rental apartment.

Contrast that conventional morality with Trump. It’s not worth arguing about whether deal-making, reality show television, and golfing constitute “hard work,” so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt on that prong.  But when the issue is “playing by the rules,” there’s no question of our president doing that.  If you asked him, he’d probably proudly claim the title of rule-breaker.

And why not? For Trump, taxes are for the little people, as his spiritual godmother, Leona Helmsley famously said.  A contract won’t get you paid by Trump, only stiffed (or sued).

In the campaign’s most famous revelation that still didn’t hurt him — which will always be remembered as the grab-them-by-pussy tape — Trump said something more horrific (albeit less profane). Those were his largely ignored statements that book-ended the sentence that drove everyone nuts:  “when you’re a star they let you do it” and “you can do anything.”  In other words, no conventional morality for Trump.

The philosophical concept of the man who doesn’t play by the rules was embodied in Nietzsche’s “blond beasts” from his Genealogy of Morals.  Nietzsche famously outlined two versions of morality.  First was the standard (conventional) Judeo-Christian morality which he called “slave morality” (and which was basically for losers, although it oddly triumphed in the end).

Against that was what Nietzsche called “noble morality.” For starters, know that the English translation doesn’t mean “noble” in the sense of high-minded principles, but instead the more old-fashioned usage of belonging to the hereditary class (i.e., the “nobility”).

Nietzsche describes those practicing noble morality as “uncaged blond beasts” who “revel in their freedom from social constraint” and revert to what he calls the “innocence of wild animals” in which — guilt-free, of course — they engage in orgies of “murder, arson, rape, and torture, jubilant and at peace with themselves as though they had committed a fraternity prank.” Their actions are “bent on spoil and conquest” in a life which is “violent, rapacious, exploitative, and destructive.”

Life’s purpose, for the blond beasts, is to create ever greater constellations of power. “These men,” in Nietzsche’s words, “know nothing of guilt or responsibility,” but are “actuated by the terrible egotism of the artist.”  They hold to the slogan that “nothing is true and everything is permitted.”

Nietzsche’s blond beasts perfectly foretold the young Nazi functionaries or at least that role in every American and British World War II film from 1945 to the present.

Remind you of anyone?