Psalm 101:7: “No one who practices deceit shall dwell in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue before my eyes.”
When I was a reporter covering former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, we were riding around the city one night on patrol.
He told me a story about the night when his wife Carmela caught him having sex with a prostitute in the back of a police car when she came to bring him some freshly homemade lasagna for dinner, which she often did.
Rizzo said he was telling me this story because it contained important marital advice – I was about to get married.
Rizzo’s wife shouted at him, he recalled, but Rizzo, then a captain, pulled up his pants, ran away from his police car, and disappeared around the block and fled.
When he got home, Carmela, furious, was waiting for him, demanding an explanation.
“For what?” he exclaimed, shocked, hurt, and bewildered.
When she told him what she had seen, he denied it flatly and absolutely. He said it wasn’t him; “I wasn’t in that car; I have never had sex with anyone but you since the day we got married,” he vowed.
Your eyes are playing tricks, he said. It was Sgt. Trillo, he has a big butt just like me.
He swore this in the name of God, Jesus, the Holy Ghost, and St. Mary, Carmella’s favorite saint. He never once wavered or changed his story.
“Day after day, I denied it,” he confided to me. “I wasn’t there; I never did it, I would never do it, I swore on it.” After a while, his wife stopped mentioning it and eventually said she believed him.
Why, I asked, was he telling me this story? He winked at me.”You’re getting married,” he said in a fatherly way.
“One day, you might need this advice. Remember if you get into trouble, never admit it, never waver. Carmella didn’t want it to be true. So she decided it wasn’t. Sometimes, people want to be lied to.”
Rizzo went on to become the mayor of Philadelphia. When I see our President lying so determinedly at press conferences and in debates and public appearances, I often think of Rizzo. Some people want to be lied to.
Trump lies with unfavorable certainly and determination.
He never acknowledges the truth. His passionate followers don’t really want to hear it.
Does Trump know he is lying?
Does he have any concept of truth?
Is he mentally ill or broken in some way, no longer able to distinguish truth from fiction? Is there a pattern or strategy for his lies?
Why do so many people who went to school and/or church or temple when they were young accept his lies and overlook them? Why do so many Christian ministers hear the lies and look away, insisting God sent Trump to save them from people like me?
I’ve watched a lot of Trump’s lies and thought about them.
My conclusion is this: To support Trump, one must suspend all of the moral teachings of a lifetime – from religious people, from teachers, from aunts and uncles, from parents.
One must accept in a leader grievous faults we would never accept in a partner or friend. That’s a big deal. And it affects the forgiver as well as the offender. In a sense, overlooking a lie is almost the same as lying.
Almost all of us are taught in childhood not to lie, make fun of disabled or injured people, ridicule children and heroes, or be cruel and unforgiving. Almost all of us are taught to care for the poor and needy and cherish America as a country of compassion and loyalty to friends.
Even so, say psychologists, most of us lie at one time or another; it is not unnatural for humans to lie periodically. Lying repeatedly is another matter, and the body reacts strongly to it. The brain, in particular, rebels, according to neurologists.
Most people’s lies are small. Trump’s lies are big, even staggering.
More sinister lies, such as falsely accusing someone of a crime or lying to investors, or accusing others falsely of serious wrongdoing, can have devastating consequences, wrote Dr. Bill Sullivan in Psychology Today this past January.
Dishonesty puts the brain in a state of heightened alert, and this stress increases with the magnitude and frequency of the lie or lies.
Why does the brain care about honesty? As social animals, our reputation is paramount. Much of our lives depend on the people around us, trusting us. Consequently, most people work very hard to maintain an image of trustworthiness and integrity.
The brain reacts strongly when they don’t. It is not difficult for demagogues to get people to accept their lies, but when they figure out that they have been lied to, as almost always happens, they get very angry.
Knowing that dishonesty risks irrevocable damage to one’s reputation, lying is an inherently stressful activity. When we engage in deceit, our respiratory and heart rates increase, we start to sweat, our mouth goes dry, and our voice can shake.
People vary in their ability to tell a lie due, in part, to differences in the brain. To take an extreme example, sociopaths lack empathy and do not exhibit a typical physiological response when lying. Lying is natural to them; they don’t feel what healthy people feel.
I am not qualified to diagnose Donald Trump, but the clinical literature on lying is not confusing or diffuse.
Improved brain imaging studies prove to be much more informative for learning about the body’s response to lying. Lying activates the brain’s limbic system, the same area that initiates the “fight or flight” response that is triggered during other stresses.
When people are honest, this area of the brain shows minimal activity. But when telling a lie, it lights up like a fireworks display, say the brain researchers.
An honest brain is relaxed, while a dishonest brain is frantic. The inside of Trump’s head is probably similar to a washing machine in spinning mode.
I asked a friend, an accomplished psychiatrist, what it means to suspend this level of moral belief. “It’s traumatic,’ she said, “it’s dehumanizing and upsetting to the entire nervous system.”
I think of Trump losing control entirely during the now infamous first presidential debate. This was a frantic brain in full view.
People around chronic liars have two choices, she said.
They can ignore the lying and embrace the liar or move away. Denying the lying of someone you know or care about is equally stressful as lying. Thus, lying can become a virus, a contagion all of its own.
It tears apart the social system when the country splits in two, each one believing they know the truth, and that the other half must be lying. No society can sustain that for too long.
Trump frequently lies, without shame or hesitation, and a scattershot way, one moment claiming he’s solved the nuclear threat from North Korea, another claiming solar windmills cause cancer, another accusing Biden and President Obama of spying on him, and the next suggesting drinking bleach might kill off the coronavirus, which will go away momentarily.
As a result of his lying, 60 percent of Americans now say they wouldn’t take a vaccine if it came out now. Many of Trump’s lies are self-destructive, damaging to him as well as others.
This suggests a person who is not healthy.
Unlike most of us, Trump is under no pressure to remember what the truth is when he lies. Since his followers and butt-kissing commentator friends know he is lying and doesn’t care, he doesn’t have to keep track of all of the truths, since they don’t matter.
He is free to lie and lie. He doesn’t have to worry about slipping, a lot of people are saying, people have the right to know that the Democratic Party is a satanic cult of pedophiles.
Trump also traffics heavily in conspiracy theories, more than any President in American history, but I’ll get to that later.
Republican Senators like Lindsey Graham “bravely” acknowledge that Trump’s lies often get in the way of his messages (duh).
Still, he has no criticism of the president to offer for lying so often about critically important things. It’s common to hear Trump supporters say they know the President lies, but it’s just a personality quirk; it doesn’t obliterate the good things he does.
They don’t see the danger or moral alarm in Trump’s lying the way many people do.
In one extreme sense, say shrinks, lying can be contagious, sociopathic behavior becomes ideological in totalitarian regimes and spreads. One has to lie to themselves in response to embrace a liar.
That is just lying in another form.
I know a homicide lieutenant in New York City who specializes in interrogations, and he says Trump shows no symptoms of the chronic liars he often meets. “No, hesitation, no looking away, no tripping on his words, not sweating or eye contact avoidance, no movement of the eyes.”
The lieutenant added “I’ve watched him lie,” he said, “and the only people I ever see who can lie in that way are sociopaths. The odd thing about Trump,” he said, “and I voted for him, is that his lies are so obvious. He doesn’t even work on them.”
Trump’s behavior, he said, suggests that he believes he is telling the truth. “That’s when it gets scary,” he added.
In her book Gaslighting America (2018), conservative political commentator Amanda Carpenter says she has spotted a logic to Trump’s lying, not to the lies themselves, but to how he shares and unravels them.
A Trump lie, she has discovered, usually features five steps.
One, “stake a claim,” which means taking on a political issue no one else would want to touch – like claiming one’s opponents are corrupt and should be in jail.
Second, “advance and deny.” Put the lie right out there without claiming personal responsibility for it. Someone is saying it; someone should look into it; everybody knows it is true; people have been saying it for years.
This is why Trump loves retweeting his best lies and conspiracies. A lot of people are saying it, I didn’t say it; it’s not up to me to tell the truth; I’m just passing it along, let the people decide.
The thing is, if I were to lie that way, nobody would pay much attention to it.
I remember stealing money from my mother’s purse when I was young. When she asked me if I had taken her money, I just lied and said no. That is what she wanted to believe.
When the President of the United States lies, it’s different. As we have learned, powerful learn mainstream news organizations and millions of people believe him, or say they do.
Lying thus becomes a faith, a policy, a movement all of its own. I think real power flows from lying and getting away with it, no matter how upset the brain gets.
Third, “create suspense” by promising evidence that will soon materialize and never does. Trump has figured out how to beat the media; he lies and exaggerates so many times, journalism finally met its match and was overwhelmed.
Instead of spending the money and taking the time to call him out on lies, the media were for a long time just repeating more and more and more of them until they were finally, and as they are now, overwhelmed.
In recent months, journalists have increasingly challenged Trump on his lies, which makes him double down on them all the more. This is something the public has noticed finally, according to polls.
At times, Trump seems to hold all the cards. What Washington journalists crave more than anything is access; what they hate most is no access. With Fox News, he has created a safe and enabling environment in which to lie. He does it all the time there, and nobody cares. So it seems right.
Neither do his followers care? So why should he stop lying?
Fourth, “smear and discredit the opponent or truth-teller/ fact-checker” by discrediting the opponent – they are Never Trumpers, Democrats, liars, Obama people, Democrats, Socialists, Radicals. Losers, RINOs (Republican In Name Only).
Amazingly and creatively, he never runs out of names to call the truth-tellers. He’s even accused his critics of treason and demands they be prosecuted and jailed.
His supporters delight in this name-calling and threats, especially at his rallies. It is almost addictive for them; they chant his lies again and again. They become mobs right before our eyes, all they need are torches, they would eagerly march on his enemies.
You can see the power flowing back and forth from him to them and back again, each reinforcing the other.
And finally, Fifth. Claim a win, insist on being right. Even when Trump admits a lie, as when he finally and reluctantly admitted that President Omaba was born in the United States, he accused Hillary Clinton of spreading the rumor and launching the ugly birtherism movement. Then, he congratulated himself for resolving the controversy.
I suppose it would be brilliant if it weren’t so crazy and disturbing.
Thus, a lie becomes a virtue. I’m not a shrink, but it seems that this is something he actually believes, not pretends to believe.
To my knowledge, Trump has never corrected a lie or apologized for the damage it has caused. A symptom of narcissism is the belief one can’t be wrong or do wrong.
Scientists and doctors argue that his lies about the pandemic not being serious, the imminent arrival of vaccines, and the value of wearing a mask have killed many people, and unnecessarily.
His followers deny science, the experience of doctors and governments all over the world. It’s all part of the hoax, the elites pushing ordinary people around.
Thus the lie is transferred, enters the mainstream, and alters reality. The priests and rabbis were right. Lying is wrong and can lead to evil.
Trump’s supporters and enablers have done him no favors by winking at his lies and egging him on. They will turn out to be his undoing. When people come to realize they are being lied to by their leaders, they demand change, swiftly and often violently.
It would have been better for him if he had been forced to tell fewer lies and more truths. He might have listened to Fox News and his base.
“No president – indeed, no national official – has resorted to accusations of a conspiracy so instinctively, so frequently, and with such brio as Donald Trump,” write Princeton Professors Nancy Rosenblatt and Russell Muirhead in their book A Lot Of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.
Millions of people voted illegally in California in 2016; Trump has repeatedly said he won the popular vote.
Here, Trump turns a kind of defeat into a victory. Just about every respectable authority has debunked his lies about Joseph Biden and his son Hunter there is in the United States or Ukraine, including the FBI and his Republican allies in the Republican Senate.
He just keeps repeating them as if they are absolutely true.
But there is something unique and original about Trumpian conspiracies, say, Muirhead and Rosenblatt. They dispensed with the usual intricate explanations and theories and strained evidence that paints a damning picture of secret and dastardly acts.
There is no demand for proofs with Trump, no exhausting amassing of evidence, no dots revealed to form a pattern, nothing for anyone that would remotely pass as evidence, no examination of the operators in the shad simply says Biden is a “criminal enterprise” who should be in jail.
That this is enough for millions of people to accept, repeat, and base their voting decisions on is perhaps the greatest challenge for a country that presumes to be the most important democracy in the world.
Trump doesn’t even pretend to have real evidence to support his tens of thousands of lies or favorite conspiracy theory just throws them out there.
And how does one really defend against a lie or conspiracy theory?
In our culture, there is really no way to stop them, or even keep track of them, as they are stated and sent off into the cyber diaspora to live and replicate. A lie has many places to go, the truth is an orphan.
No candidate wants to go around, denying that they are corrupt or a menace or a criminal enterprise.
Trump’s conspiracies rely on simple, one-word assertions – elections are “rigged,” an investigation is a “hoax,” a news story is “fake.”
To accept his claims, one has to do nothing but absorb a single word. Lies and conspiracy theories are memes, digital viruses that travel swiftly, and all through the digital world.
Anybody can grasp what a “hoax” or “rigged” election is. In just a few months, Trump convinced 40 percent of the country that elections are riddled with fraud; he presented no evidence of any kind. Lying works, at least in short.
But the 2020 election suggests it may not work in the long run. Polls show a uniform distrust of Trump all across the country, and his lying about the pandemic – people can see the truth with their own eyes – suggests there are limits to its power and usefulness.
Once the dam breaks, it’s tough to keep the water in.
Trump has figured out how to exploit a great hole in a free culture that has proven to be a powerful and effective political tool. Among the many issues that Donald Trump has raised for the people who cherish a free civic culture is how to plug a hole like that.
For me, the most interesting thing is that Trump revealed this gaping hole in our sacred constitution and political universe. We will have to deal with it now.
Every day, it seems clear he will lose the election and be defeated by a large margin. That was unthinkable just a year ago.
We can thank the pandemic and newly awakened news media and Trump’s delusion and excess for that.
And we can thank the women of America, black and white, who seem to really care about truth and are fighting for it in greater numbers than Trump has come close to amassing.
They never forgot what their parents and priests taught them.
I might just start reading the Bible again, and take it more seriously:
Proverbs 12:22: “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight. Proverbs 12:19: Truth lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.