Most politicians lie. Or do they?
Even if we could find some isolated example of a politician who was scrupulously honest—former President Jimmy Carter, perhaps—the question is how to think about the rest of them.
And if most politicians lie, then why are some Americans so hard on President Donald Trump?
According to The Washington Post, Trump has told 6,420 lies so far in his presidency. In the seven weeks leading up to the midterms, his rate increased to 30 per day.
That’s a lot, but isn’t this a difference in degree and not a difference in kind with other politicians?
From my perspective as a philosopher who studies truth and belief, it doesn’t seem so. And even if most politicians lie, that doesn’t make all lying equal.
Yet the difference in Trump’s prevarication seems to be found not in the quantity or enormity of his lies, but in the way that Trump uses his lies in service to a proto-authoritarian political ideology.
I recently wrote a book, titled Post-Truth, about what happens when “alternative facts” replace actual facts, and feelings have more weight than evidence. Looked at from this perspective, calling Trump a liar fails to capture his key strategic purpose.
Any amateur politician can engage in lying. Trump is engaging in “post-truth.”
The Oxford English Dictionaries named “post-truth” its word of the year in November 2016, right before the U.S. election.
Citing a 2,000 percent spike in usage—due to Brexit and the American presidential campaign—they defined post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Ideology, in other words, takes precedence over reality.
When an individual believes their thoughts can influence reality, we call it “magical thinking” and might worry about their mental health. When a government official uses ideology to trump reality, it’s more like propaganda, and it puts us on the road to fascism.