Trump and the angry grandpa theory of political dishonesty

One of the great puzzles of the Trump administration is the constant barrage of misrepresentations from Trump himself. In many cases, the misrepresentations are contradicted by observable facts (crowd size at the inauguration). In other cases, they are supported by no evidence whatsoever (the Obama wiretapping claim). Common sense tells us that a public figure who repeatedly lies will lose credibility with the public, even with his most loyal supporters, as well as with government officials, political leaders, interest groups, and others with whom he needs to cooperate.

Back in January, Tyler Cowen proposed a theory rooted in game theory:

By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.

Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters. If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you.

I was skeptical then, and I’m even more skeptical now. Of what value to a leader are subordinates who nobody believes?

The New York Times reports that none of Trump’s subordinates will back up Trump’s most recent wiretapping lies. It is possible that they fear being held liable in a defamation lawsuit brought by Obama. But according to Cowen’s theory, Trump ought to fire all his aides. That doesn’t seem likely.

There is a better theory for Trump’s tweets. Imagine you are at a family gathering, and you hear various shouts coming from the TV room in the basement. It’s grandpa. He’s watching Fox news (or, if you want, CNN), and raging at the stupidity of the world. Now give him a cellphone and a Twitter account. You’ve got Trump. The only puzzle is how grandpa got elected.