WASHINGTON—U.S. President Donald Trump had just finished making another false statement, ho hum, when he said something especially suspect.
He wasn’t exactly sure, he conceded, if this particular inaccurate boast was accurate. And he was worried, he claimed, that a fact-checker was going to give him “a Pinocchio.”
“I don’t like those,” he said on Monday. “I don’t like Pinocchios.”
Fact check: he really doesn’t care about Pinocchios.
Thursday is six-month anniversary of Trump’s inauguration. Over those 180 days, by our count, he has uttered a total of 397 lies and otherwise false claims — a staggering 2.2 per day.
With some exceptions, this is not sophisticated deceit. Trump is the toddler with purple icing on his face declaring that a fairy must have eaten the last piece of cake.
Dartmouth College government professor Brendan Nyhan co-authored a book about the deceptions of George W. Bush. He says Trump’s dishonesty is “much worse” — in its frequency, severity and brazenness.
From the Bush administration, Nyhan said, dishonesty tended to be “carefully constructed half-truths that contained a misleading suggestion that couldn’t be backed up by evidence; it was quite rare to see wholesale falsehoods that could be definitively debunked at the time.” Trump’s lies are transparent.
Trump’s most frequent lie as president, repeated 19 times, is “Obamacare is dead.” He keeps saying this as millions of people pay for their visits to the doctor using Obamacare insurance plans.
Trump has simply decided that the benefits of dishonesty outweigh the costs. Few media outlets regularly and forcefully call out president’s lies. Trump knows that even the most ridiculous of claims will be covered uncritically by Fox News — and even, often, by traditional outlets.
“We’ve been victimized,” Nyhan said, “by a media ecosystem that amplifies statements regardless of whether they’re true, immediately.”
Trump opponents worry about a world in which political lying has no consequences. Trump, after all, won the presidency lying all the time, and he has maintained his support base lying some more. When we asked Trump voters in Ohio about Trump’s lies, several of them said they like dishonesty that gets elites all agitated.
So the concern is understandable. But the hand-wringing sometimes ignores the dreadfulness of Trump’s approval rating, now below 40 per cent. A mere third of the public now thinks he is honest. The exposure of his dishonest claims, especially his dishonest policy pledges, may well be reflected in his historically horrible overall standing.
But he shows no sign of slowing down. He made 34 false claims in the week in which he professed concern about Pinocchios.
Trump’s persistence has spawned a variety of complex theories about what he is trying to do. Some veteran observers of authoritarian leaders have suggested that he is strategically attempting to obliterate the very idea of an objective reality that differs from what he says it is.
A simpler theory seems more plausible to us.
There is no grand plan. Lying is simply what Donald Trump has always done. It’s how his brain works.
“He views deception as a more efficient solution than truth-telling. I think throughout much of his life he’s been rewarded for defaulting to the lie instead of the truth as most people do,” said Steve McCornack, a University of Alabama at Birmingham professor who studies deception. “I really think, cognitively, his default discourse-production setting is just to go to the lie.”
He lies to make himself look better than he is. (“The Electoral College is almost impossible for a Republican to win.”) He lies to make his predecessor look worse than he is. (“How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones.”) He lies to make his policy proposals seem more necessary than they are. (“We have an $800 billion trade deficit.”) He lies to try to embarrass his enemies. (“Watched low rated Morning Joe…”).