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.