According to statistics, the U.S. president tells more untruths than his predecessors. However the key question is: What political aim do the untruths he spreads serve?
We all lie. The American deception expert Pamela Meyer, whose talk on how to spot a liar achieved 16 million hits online, reveals that we are lied to between 10 and 200 times per day. Strangers we encounter tell three lies within the first 10 minutes on average.
Men tell eight times more lies to protect themselves from something; women tell eight times as many lies to protect others. Spouses lie to each other on average once in every 10 conversations. The majority of these lies are, of course, of the 'little white' variety: "No, you haven't gotten fatter," etc.
We start lying from a very early age, around 2 years old. By school age, most children are already pretty well practiced liars; not even experts, let alone their own parents, are able to discern their fabrications from truthful reports. But that is no reason to be alarmed. Lying is a sign of intelligence.
The earlier children begin to tell fantastical stories, the cleverer they are. So perhaps it is no exaggeration to claim that it is our ability to lie which distinguishes us as a species. Animals can change the color of their scales to suit their environment or feign having enormous eyes with the help of their wings. But they don't lie.
Politicians, contrary to popular belief, do not lie any more than the average citizen. The measures which many politicians opt for are silence ("no comment"), ambiguous statements and non-contradiction, especially if they want to take credit for something which, in reality, they had little to no hand in, an amazing economic boom for instance.
The lion's share of examples of politicians' lies are in truth not lies at all, but rather wishful thinking. Let's take for example Norbert Blum's famous quote, "pensions are secure,” evidence of limited intelligence, but no lie, or Helmut Kohl's promise that German unity would not cost anything and that in the former East Germany, "flourishing landscapes” would very soon spring up. Kohl did not foresee that it would take more than a generation to repair the damage left behind by socialism.
Barefaced political lies told with a wagging finger, we think of Bill Clinton's line, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," are quite uncommon in liberal democracies. There is one simple reason for this: politicians want to be re-elected. Although, as we have seen, citizens may lie incessantly in their day-to-day lives, they do not want to be represented by a liar.
As such, the incumbent American president is something special, a one-off. American newspapers have published striking graphics comparing Donald Trump with his predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. They did not always tell the truth either, but where their rates of lies remained rather stable, the curve of the incumbent president's lies is heading sharply heavenward.
It all began with the glaringly bogus comment that more people turned up for his inauguration than to Obama's. One day later in a speech in front of the CIA, he claimed that it had not rained at his inauguration, and from there it has really only gotten worse.
He Lies To Protect Himself
One can speculate about the man's mental disposition, a man who clearly feels an insatiable need to make himself seem greater than he is, constantly surrounded by conspiracies, sparing no thought for the American Constitution or the gravitas of his office. It is, however, more productive to consider the political function of Trump's lies. What aim do the president's lies serve?
On a surface level, they ought to protect him from his opponents. Let's take the biggest lie which Trump has been spreading on Twitter for a few months now, that he is the innocent victim of a "witch hunt." His election team has in no way incriminated itself, not with its collusion with the Russians, nor by hindering judicial authorities.
Any journalists who disseminate anything else are "enemies of the American people." The old elite in Washington have conspired against him. The FBI, in truth a longstanding conservative institution, is funded by the Democrats.
At first glance it seems to be a kind of distraction technique, don't look here, nothing to see here! If you'd kindly look over there! However, this technique is far too crude to achieve its aims. You would have to close your eyes to believe these claims.
Close your eyes to the glaring existence of Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign manager, after he helped Putin's friend, the Ukrainian dictator Viktor Yanukovych. Close your eyes to the meeting that the president's son held at Trump Tower with high-ranking officials from Putin's regime in the early part of the campaign.
And, last but not least, close your eyes to the fact that Trump snubs close allies of the U.S., but sings Putin's praises and recently refused to uphold the economic embargo against Russia as Congress has obligated him to do.
So on a deeper level, what aim do Trump's lies serve? They bring about community. In her video, Pamela Meyer reminds us that it takes two to lie: the one who lies and the one who allows the wool to be pulled over one’s eyes. Lying is a "cooperative act."
The interaction between Trump and that 40 percent of the U.S. population who commit themselves to him goes as follows: Trump lies and his supporters are boldly committed to believe him. The more outlandishly Trump lies, the more committedly they believe him.
If you are prepared to swallow every claim, even the most unlikely, as if it were the whole truth, you are a member of Trump's tribe. Those who refuse to believe the lies emanating from the White House are enemies. They aren't true Americans.
They are bad people and want to harm the democratically elected president. Perhaps the best analogy for this is belonging to a sect. The older among us may still remember Bhagwan who led a mass spiritual movement in the 70s.
Bhagwan was a charlatan who spouted nothing but platitudes and shamelessly fleeced his followers. In front of the hall where the guru held his speeches, there hung a sign: "Please leave your shoes and understanding outside." Bhagwan owned a fleet of Mercedes cars which he would drive around before the very eyes of his flock. If you were prepared to close your eyes to that, you belonged to the enlightened.
On Twitter, He Reaches More People than Any Television Broadcaster
The bad news is that the technological methods of spreading lies are becoming better and better. On Twitter, Trump has an audience of around 50 million people and growing. As a result he can reach many more people than any American television broadcaster.
The opportunities for fabrication are also becoming more refined. In a new film from the “Star Wars” franchise, a young Princess Leia has been computer generated. The necessary software can now be downloaded by any teenager.
It is therefore possible to produce video clips of younger versions of politicians and make them say or do anything you want. You can copy them into pornographic films or make them hold hate speeches against America. By the time the falsification is confirmed, their reputation has already long been ruined.
It would almost be a miracle if this did not play a role, and possibly a decisive one, in the next U.S. presidential election at the latest. On the flipside, it is of course also possible to talk oneself out of any new revelations, saying that you never said or did whatever it was.
It is becoming ever harder to distinguish truth from falsehood; we are entering a new era of twilight. Will liberal democracy survive this era?