Donald J. Trump’s lies, especially about numbers, and that presents a puzzle. His claims about fraudulent votes cast against him in the general election and the size of his inauguration crowd make him appear not just obsessive and puerile, but also remind audiences of his illegitimacy. Conservative populists claim to speak for “the people.” References to numbers remind us that he is only the leader of an angry minority and not the majority of Americans. Nonsense about the collective IQ of his Cabinet or the size of his fortune flags the sort of insecurity no one but a suicide wants to see in a decision-maker with control over nuclear weapons. Every time Trump tweets another prevarication the temptation is to respond with a Trumpism like “So sad. Loser.”
Yet there is method in the madness. Trump and his inner circle know that they own that part of the conservative base who refuse to be bothered with the tiresome business of weighing logic and evidence in considering public policy and who are actually entertained by the antics of a president who communicates like an internet troll. The virtual mob whose triumphal hooting and vicious name-calling you read in comment threads following articles in the Daily Caller are his people.
Beyond playing to the worst of the worst, the obvious lies probe the support of Republicans too smart or too honest to be swept along behind the partisan bandwagon. Unlike George W. Bush, Trump cannot depend upon the impulse common among Republicans to hold their noses and support whoever is party leader. Shrugging and eye rolling at his ‘truthful hyperbole’ is not enough for an insecure president and fragile administration. Trump and his inner circle know that his presidency lives on borrowed time, likely to brought down by the violations of the Emoluments Clause is in his taxes and the depravity depicted in the Kremlin’s kompromat video. That his Cabinet and administration are staffed by the venal, the incompetent and the creepy shows how radically he discounts the future. Their focus is on the near term because he know there may be no long term.
However embarrassing it is for the majority of Americans, Trump’s shameless mendacity is understandable as an effort to determine just how much he can get away with. The last election showed that public opinion polling is less reliable than in the past, and unlikely to tell him what he wants to hear in any case. So outrageous lies are used to determine whether Republicans dare to disagree, remain silent or join in what political scientists who study dictatorship term ‘preference falsification.’ Trump’s fantasy numbers are thus the American equivalent of Yahya Jammeh’s claims of curing HIV-AIDS with homeopathy, Kim Jong-Il’s famous round of golf and Mao Zedong’s swim cross the Yangtze. Useful because and not despite the fact that they can be credited only by fools and liars.
Whether Trump actually believes his own lies is less important than whether repeating them help him survive longer in office. That Trump has assumed office as the least legitimate president in living memory is obvious even to Republicans. You have no doubt heard leftist or liberal friends confess to being overcome by nausea at the idea that he is the 45th President of the United States. Imagine the gastric distress of Republicans twisting themselves in ideological knots trying to support a mendacious reality show host/real estate developer as their president and party leader. In the whining pleas that Trump “be given a chance” you can hear the tacit admission that something is deeply improper about his occupying the White House. That sense of fundamental impropriety seems destined to mature into the conviction among the majority of Americans – leftists, liberals and Republicans who have not given up on being good citizens – that Trump must go before he does any more damage to the republic.
To speed that day, the best response the best response is to join Trump in testing the willingness of Republican friends and family to repeat the lies. Interrogators use a number of proven techniques is elicit confessions but the most basic is simply to refuse to fill the silence in a conversation. Question Trump’s claims first, and then refuse to reward any answer with a verbal response other than an admission that the lie is a lie. Psychopaths excepted, most people want to speak the truth. Timely silence can help set it free.