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    How This White House Lies

    Donald Trump is both one of the most gifted liars in American politics, a genius of dishonesty, and at the same time hopelessly bad at lying. His lawless firing of FBI Director Comey shows the ineptitude. Trump led with a story so weak that no one could pretend to believe it and then, within forty-eight hours had abandoned that story for one that was actually more incriminating. A White House that keeps changing its story is in crisis. A White House that changes it story to something more damaging is out of its mind.

    The problem for Trump is that his approach to lying, which has been enormously effective for most of his career, is not working in this situation. The problem for Trump's press secretary and deputy press secretary, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is not just that they are being sent out to lie, but that they are sent out to lie like Trump himself, without Trump's skill set, even in situations where Trump's approach is wrong.

    There are two things that make a lie work. Some lies work because they are plausible. Others work because they are emotionally satisfying. Some lies are both, of course, but others work by being one or the other.

    A plausible lie is one that seems believable from an objective standpoint. It's false, but the falsehood sounds likely: it's the kind of thing that actually does happen, it doesn't contradict any known facts, there's no real reason not to believe it. A stockbroker claims to be bringing in, say, 15% more money a year for clients than he really is; you would need to see his books to bust him on that lie, whereas if he claimed to be doubling clients' money every six months it simply wouldn't be plausible. If I pretended to be close buddies with some of the famous people I went to college with, it would take some time and effort, or some bad luck on my part, to bust me. A google search will show that I actually did graduate from the same college as those people did, in the same year, so for all you know we might once have had some deep conversation in the dining hall. The lie is plausible.

    An emotionally satisfying lie, on the other hand, is one that satisfies the listener's emotional needs. It may not make them happy -- in fact, it may make them fearful or enraged -- but it hooks them. It fulfills their need to feel loved, it offers a way out of medical or financial trouble, it offers them a scapegoat for their failures, it confirms their belief that they have been persecuted. (See Michael Wolraich's Blowing Smoke for the addictive power of "feeling hard done by.") And if the listener wants or needs to believe badly enough, the lie doesn't have to be that plausible. If you really want to blame Mexican immigrants for losing your job, the fact that immigration for Mexico is actually declining does not matter a bit; you won't even take that fact on board. People on Twitter have been congratulating Trump for going to Israel when Obama did not, which is completely ridiculous. Obama did go to Israel, of course. It only takes five seconds to check. But the people the lie is aimed at don't want to check. They want to believe.

    Most Washington Beltway types, the reporters and lawyers and Congressional staffers and so on who make up most of our political and chattering classes, tend to lie as plausibly as they can. If they're going to tell a falsehood, they will try to make that falsehood as probable-sounding and hard to check as they can manage. Sooner or later every White House Press Secretary has to tell a lie, large or small; when they do, they make it as plausible as they can, because they know they can't bank on their listeners' desire to believe. They're talking to an audience that wants to fact-check them, so they craft lies that can stand up to scrutiny from skeptical and dispassionate, or even hostile, observers. Washington, DC and New York City are cities of plausible liars.

    Donald Trump, on the other hand, is an absolute master of the emotionally satisfying lie. His genius is telling people what they want -- no, need -- to hear, and getting them to invest their emotions in the lie. And like many people with a gift for emotionally satisfying lies, he has a tendency to believe his own falsehoods, at least some of the time.

    Emotionally-satisfying lies are key for people who need small groups of people to believe in them intensely. That includes con artists, cult leaders, and domestic abusers. (I am not calling the President a domestic abuser, and certainly not calling him a religious leader of any kind. I'm just talking about how he lies.) Those liars get their targets deeply keyed up, and deal with attacks on their credibility with various rationalizations and counter-attacks. They are just saying that because they're trying to drive us apart, baby. Don't listen when your mother tries to break us up. These lies don't have to make any sense; they just have to give the believers some way to keep believing. The most successful lie in history, alas, is probably the abuser's special: I only hit you because I love you. That lie works, until it stops working, because the victim cannot bear the truth that the abuser does not love them.

    Most journalists and politicians, because they are plausible liars, don't understand how Trump functions at all. Those are not the lies they would tell. That is not the model they follow. Trump's lies only make sense when you understand them as aimed at people who are already in his bunker, sipping his delicious Kool-Aid. This is fake news! This is just people who hate Trump! It's core emotional appeal to believers.

    Trump's big problem is that lies designed for bunker-dwellers break down under the scrutiny of the wider world. An abuser's victim may believe he hits her because he loves her; she may need to believe that he hits her because he loves her. But the District Attorney never believes that shit for a second. An abuser who brings those lies into a court of law is in for a world of (well-deserved) hurt. Implausible but emotionally-satisfying lies don't work for an audience that hasn't bought into them emotionally. A cult leader talking to people outside the bunker just sounds crazy and sad.

    Emotionally-satisfying lies to a core audience have gotten Trump where he is today. But it's always, always time for plausibility when the police show up. Emotionally-satisfying lie do not help when you're under investigation. They will probably hurt you. Cops don't want to believe you. Lawyers and reporters don't want to believe you. Judges do not want to believe you. They want to hear the truth, and if you can't give them that you need a lie they can't poke holes in.

    Trump needed to switch gears when the investigations began. He didn't, because he's probably not capable. He is emotionally dependent upon the same lies that his believers are.

    Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders, on the other hand, have an even more intractable problem. They are forced to go out and tell the Washington press corps, the people for whom banal but plausible lies are designed, a series of Trump-like lies: emotionally satisfying to Trump, utterly implausible, and dead in the water to an audience who's not already strongly biased toward Trump. Largest inauguration crowd in history is a classic of its kind. Transparently false, but exciting for people who want to believe it. But that's a catastrophic lie to tell to the Post and the Times.

    Certainly, with Trump seemingly in genuine legal jeopardy, his flacks should be sticking to the plausible fictions. But those obviously are not their orders. Instead, they are marched out with outrageously flimsy BS, like "Trump fired Comey for being unfair to Hillary," which not only fails to convince reporters but antagonizes them and makes them pay closer attention to everything you're trying to hide. Big, big mistake. And Spicer, for whom I feel the kind of pity I feel for some of the sufferers in Dante's Hell, is also forced to tell Trump-like likes without anything like Trump's talent for telling them. Spicer, really, should stick to believable bullshit. Trump's grandiose disregard for truth requires Trump's grandiosity and emotional conviction, his instinct for telling his rubes victims voters what they need to hear and his own deeply needy emotional commitment to his lies. These really are not the kind of lies you can hire a middleman to tell for you. You need to tell them yourself. But sooner or later, you will need to deal with the truth.



    Interesting and insightful, Doc. And thanks for the shout-out.

    On the topic, I also recommend Trump Is America’s Most Honest President

    Thanks, G. The "most honest" point is also true: Trump's personality disorder prevents him from lying when he should. But even that self-destructive "honesty" is in service to the overriding lot of Trump's greatness.

    Yep, that theory complements yours

    Jordan Orlando at Booman Tribune:

    The voting public's conception of the laws and rules and principles is so feeble and inconstant compared to their understanding of the "horse race" and the ideological tribalism, that you can just break the law and brag about it and be in better shape than you would be breaking the same law and sneaking around afterwards.

    Of all the crazy, unpredictable political skills that Trump somehow mastered (in his idiot/savant or idiot/idiot fashion), this may be the most important and the most powerful. He's spent decades skating away from responsibility for everything he's ever screwed up, simply by declaring victory and praising himself. It turns out that his supporters find this -- the bragging and positioning -- more "real" than the Republic of Laws

    Yeah. There's a tribal and a class element involved, too.

    What a great couple of paragraphs, NCD. Spot on about Trump's idiot savant skills. And on something else that has always bothered me: the emphasis on "horse race" in this country. For me, the latter is to the detriment of understanding not just the law, but policy and government in general. The emphasis on horse race and faux ideological warfare, is stoked and reinforced by our for-profit media, a vicious circle of feeding a beast. 

    I think the only thing that can start to change this situation is campaign finance law change that would most notably include a radical shortening of the time from campaigns to vote.

    (The latter is what disturbed me about TPM,  and what made me a very cranky member in its last year. I joined the Cafe there sometime in late 2005 or 2006 when it was a site focused on policy and analysis. It was a very clear switch from that to feeding the horse race beast in 2008 with a huge influx of Obamaniancs. The switch to horse race from a policy-based site was blatant, it was so clear to me that Marshall had become enthralled with the numbers of page views and clicks and got caught up in feeding the beast. I saw it as a sellout on his part, from his days as a PHD historian writing long form journalism at Washington Monthly, The Atlantic, The New Yorker et. al. He knew what he was doing, the choice he was making, admitted as such to more than one journalism website interviews. He even argued in one post to convince himself that all the flimflammery and infotainment of horse race was a great American tradition, leaving out the downside of that tradition, that of distracting the people with bread and circuses while Boss Tweed and his ilk run things their way. To his credit, one thing he never got into is the faux ideological culture wars, but horse race does enough damage on its own given the length of our political campaigns.)

    Agree completely. A survey of Trump supporters found nearly half thought FBI directors (and the military?) should swear an oath to Trump and the Constitution.  They are ready for the runes of the SS on their collars. And the free press?

    GOPer supports assault on reporter:

    After Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault, Screnar said she was only "more ready to support Greg."   "We've watched how the press is one-sided. Excuse me, that's how I feel. (They're) making him their whipping boy so to speak through this campaign," Screaner said. "There comes a point where, stop it."

    Fragmenting the public education system with tax supported vouchers for 'identity' right wing religious schools. Providing the cultural intolerance/bigotry that will aid in the plutocrats/GOP objective to fracture our democracy, so they can strip it of every scrap of wealth.

    Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who wrote a definitive book on WW2,  Bloodlands, has a new one, On Tyranny.

    The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism.  Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

    Thanks Doc.  I found this article both enlightening and entertaining.  yes

    Thanks, HSG.

    Doc, I missed this last week. Just wanted to add that this is some fine writing. You nailed it.  Thank you.

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