More on Trump’s lies

A reader drew my attention to this piece by Masha Gessen, a Russia expert, who thinks that Trump has learned from Putin:

Lying is the message. It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself. Take, for example, Putin’s statements on Ukraine. In March 2014 he claimed that there were no Russian troops in newly annexed Crimea; a month later he affirmed that Russians troops had been on the ground. Throughout 2014 and 2015, he repeatedly denied that Russian troops were fighting in eastern Ukraine; in 2016 he easily acknowledged that they were there. In each case, Putin insisted on lying in the face of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, and in each case his subsequent shift to truthful statements were not admissions given under duress: they were proud, even boastful affirmatives made at his convenience. Together, they communicated a single message: Putin’s power lies in being able to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is president of his country and king of reality.

Trump has exhibited similar behavior, apparently for the same reason: when he claims that he didn’t make statements that he is on record as making, or when he claims that millions of people voting illegally cost him the popular vote, he is not making easily disprovable factual claims: he is claiming control over reality itself. Those puzzled by Trump’s election-fraud tweets, because they seem like sore-loser behavior on the part of the winner, or by his dismissing out of hand the CIA’s findings about Russian interference—against the views of many leading Republicans—are missing the point: Trump was demonstrating his ability to say whatever he wanted about the election, precisely because he had won it.

I don’t think this is right; in fact, I don’t think this is a coherent argument. What does it mean “to assert power over truth itself”? To be “king of reality”? To demonstrate one’s “ability to say whatever” one wants? These metaphors obscure rather than illuminate.

Putin and Trump are different. Putin leads an authoritarian state where journalists and political opponents are censored. He lies because he thinks he can deceive people, and he expects not to be contradicted by public figures, newspapers, or state institutions. (The Ukraine example is more complicated: he lied to give cover to western nations that did not want to issue sanctions.) Trump lives in a democratic society in which his every lie is immediately contradicted by the press, his political opponents, the opposition party, and even (sometimes) his subordinates.

Gessen’s claim that Trump shrewdly manipulates reality is contradicted later in her piece:

It appears that Trump receives a view of the world that is vastly different from that not just of the “liberal bubble” but of the majority of Americans: on one hand, The New York Times seems not to figure in his world, but on the other hand, neither does network television and, it would seem, CNN. There is no reason to think that Trump will broaden his world view once he is president. He has shown a notable lack of interest in daily intelligence briefings and in the State Department, whose expertise he has entirely ignored in his initial contacts with foreign leaders. And the utter disdain that he has displayed variously for the FBI (during the campaign) and for the CIA (since the revelations about its findings on Russia and the election) suggests he will insist on seeing only as much of the world as is convenient for him, through a prism that pleases him.

Gessen misses an important point about lying. You cannot lie unless you know the truth. Trump seems to be looking for media reports that will give him emotional sustenance by validating his world view. This is apparently the origin of the Obama wiretap claim. But if he is repeating what he thinks to be the truth, and trying to force his aides and subordinates to repeat it, when most people see reality for what it is, then Trump is not “king of reality.” He is merely damaging his credibility and that of his administration.