Liars, dammed liars, and presidents

by Emrys Westacott

There is a famous exchange in Casablanca between Rick  (Humphrey Bogart) and Captain Renault (Claude Rains):

Capt. Renault:  What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick:  I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Capt. Renault: The waters?  What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick:  I was misinformed.

Rick’s response is funny because it is preposterous.  It also communicates something about him and his view of Renault, a corrupt Chief of Police working for the collaborationist Vichy government. It tells us that Rick has no respect for him or his office.  This is apparent from the fact that what Rick says is an obvious falsehood, and he is utterly indifferent to the fact that Renault must realize this.

Telling a blatant lie to someone’s face, fully aware that they know you are lying, is one way of expressing open contempt for that person. If you ask me to help you with something and I, lying in a hammock soaking up the sun, reply that I’m just too busy at the moment, I’m either making a joke, or I’m making it clear that I don’t give a damn about you, your needs, or what you think of me.

Which brings us to Trump.  He spews out a continuous stream of falsehoods, but since he clearly suffers from a fairly severe narcissistic personality disorder, it’s quite likely that at least some of the time he actually believes, or eventually comes to believe, his own fictions. A distorted view of reality is a common symptom of many mental disorders. Sometimes, though, the preposterousness of a claim rules out this possibility.  In these cases, Trump, along with his aides, spokespersons, and congressional bootlickers, are like Bogart, looking us in the eye and saying, with a straight face and an implicit sneer, “I was misinformed.”  Or in other words, “Fuck you!”

It is possible to view Trump’s recent walk-back on his more or less siding with Vladimir Putin over US intelligence reports regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election from this angle. The idea that when he said “Why would it be Russia?” he meant to say “Why wouldn’t it be Russia?” is almost impossible to believe. The original utterance was slow and definite. It cohered with everything else he said at that Helsinki press conference.  And he only got around to correcting it 24 hours later after his aides had urged him to do so in response to a tidal wave of criticism.

Anyone who really believes that Trump is telling the truth when he says he meant to say “wouldn’t” rather than “would” is a fool.  Anyone who realizes he is lying but nevertheless pretends to believe him is a knave.  Into this latter category fall several Republican politicians such as Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.  The only other option–indeed, the only reasonable response–is to employ that useful word expertly analyzed by the philosopher Harry Franfurt: viz. bullshit.

Now you might think we’ve reached some kind of nadir when a president and his aides feed us pure bullshit without any apparent shame.  But things could be even worse.  For however preposterous the lies they are feeding us, it is interesting and significant that they still feel the need to lie.  Therein lies a lingering trace of respect for–or more accurately, of feeling constrained by–the traditional conventions of rational discourse.  One such convention is that we are supposed to be sincere in what we say.  Another is that we are supposed to believe that what we say is true.  Of course, people are often insincere and often lie.  But their speech acts typically still outwardly conform to such conventions.

Take as another example Trump’s adulterous sexual activities.  Is there anyone who seriously believes him when he denies that he had sex with the women who his lawyers have paid off to keep silent, or that he knew about the payments?  Here again, there are only fools and knaves. Yet Team Trump still feels the need to go through the motions of issuing denials.

Trump and his lackeys have certainly shredded many of the norms surrounding political debate. But a thin pretense of sincerity and truthfulness remains. The final step would be to dispense with this pretense. In that case, Trump’s spokespersons would simply say things like: “Yes, the president has had adulterous sex on several occasions. His wife isn’t happy about this, but he doesn’t care. He’s actually quite proud of his sexual record.”  After Helsinki, the aides might have said: “The president says all sorts of things. He doesn’t care whether his statements are true or consistent. Some of what he says is obviously false.  What’s your problem?”

Ironically, an open admission by Trump that he doesn’t give a fig for truthfulness would itself be a giant leap toward being more truthful.  He would, finally, be doing what his supporters claim he does: he’d be “telling it like it is.” So why not take this final step? After all, it would disarm his critics to some extent.  At present,  Trump’s critics accuse him of being a liar, his aides deny this; the opposed parties tussle, bringing forth evidence, refusing to admit such evidence, and so on. The blatancy of the lies makes the attempts to defend them risible; the president’s defenders lose the last shreds of moral dignity; the nation squirms with embarrassment. But if the White House took the final step,   Interrogations would take the following form:

Earnest Journalist:   Surely, what the president said about X is false.

Trump Spokesperson:   You’re right.

EJ:   Well did he know it was false when he said it?

TS:   Probably.

EJ:   Doesn’t that make him a bare-faced liar?

TS:   Yes.

EJ:   But…..but….doesn’t that make him unfit to hold office?

TS:   No. Liars that don’t admit to lying have held office for centuries, some with distinction. So why should  merely being truthful about being a liar make one unfit?

Until now, however, Trump and his aides have preferred not to take this final step in trashing the conventions of reasonable discourse.  Why is this? I think we can dismiss the idea that they are held in check by vestigial moral scruples. The most plausible answer is simply that they think it would be against Trump’s interests to really tell it like it is.  Not that most of his supporters would care.  After all, they have been unfazed by the “grab them by the pussy” video, his refusal to release his tax returns (which he promised to do), the chaotic revolving door at the White House, and the U-turn on previous Republican attitudes towards free trade, NATO, the EU, and Russia.

They are unfazed because, except for a handful of issues such as gun control that are symbolically important,  Trump’s base don’t seem to care much about his particular policies.  His support rests to an unusual extent on the cult of personality (which is why Republican most politicians dare not oppose him).  So it’s probable that only a few of his supporters would peel off were he to start candidly admitting that he doesn’t give a damn about truth or consistency.

But Trump entered the White House after losing the popular vote by 2.8 million votes. That in itself was a little freakish.  If he wishes to be reelected he can’t afford even a slight swing toward the Democrats.  And it’s reasonable to assume that among those who would consider voting for Trump there are quite a few who could not accept the complete collapse of the conventions governing discussions in the public sphere.  They may recognize that their politicians lie; but some pretense of truthfulness and sincerity remains important to them.

And we should be grateful for this.  La Rochfoucauld famously remarked that “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”  Along similar lines, one can say that a pretense of truthfulness means that certain ideals, like a commitment to truth and sincerity, still play some role in our political discourse. Their flame may burn low, but it has not been entirely extinguished yet. Not yet.