As the old saying goes, what every salesman sells is himself. Donald Trump took that idea to a different place, one in which he was not only selling himself but selling the idea that if you gave him your money, you could become him. Sign up for Trump University and you'd learn the secrets to achieving his real estate wealth. Put on a Trump Tie, eat a Trump Steak, or drink some Trump Vodka, and the Trumpness would flow through you, giving you some measure of the wealth and success you saw in him.
It wasn't true, of course. But there is one way to become Trump: Go to work for him.
So it was that Hope Hicks, the White House communication director and one of the few people in the administration who worked for the president in his former life as a businessman, testified to the House Intelligence Committee this week that in the course of her employment with President Trump, she has on occasion been required to tell a few "white lies."
You don't say.
Really, how would it be possible to work for Trump, especially in a capacity where you had to defend him to the press, and not be lying all the time? What's remarkable is that someone actually admitted it.
But some in the press were indignant:
After every on the record statement she gives, every reporter and viewer/reader now won’t know whether she’s speaking the truth. Hard to justify using her quotes or statements in any story given this admission. https://t.co/3ePoTdCilr
— Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) February 28, 2018
I'm sure the host of Meet the Press isn't just realizing now that the honesty of Trump aides can't always be relied on. Hicks just violated a norm, one that says you aren't supposed to come out and say you're willing to lie when the boss demands it. Part of the problem is that Trump demands it constantly, since he himself lies so promiscuously. Unless you're willing to admit it when he tells lies (and you wouldn't be long in your job if you did), you'll have to lie to maintain his lies. For some people, this requirement causes obvious pain (see Sean Spicer) while others take to it with relish (see Sarah Huckabee Sanders).
However Hicks felt about that particular part of her job, the whole thing obviously became too much, because late Wednesday The New York Times broke the news that she's resigning, only the latest in a long line of senior Trump aides who have headed for the exit.
But there's a purpose to the White House's relentless falsehoods beyond trying to cast a more favorable light on what the administration is doing. As a businessman, Trump often lied with the purpose of effecting a kind of transubstantiation of falsehood into truth. The very act of speaking the lie would help bring it to reality, once people believed it. He was never the biggest developer in New York, but if he claimed enough times that he was, perhaps he could get more projects and become the biggest developer in New York. His history was full of failures, but if he said that everything he touched turned to gold, perhaps the next project's success would be guaranteed. The richer he claimed to be, the more people would be drawn to him and buy his products, and the richer he would become.
Trump passed this lesson on to his children. To take just one colorful example, part of the long and sordid saga of Trump Soho is how Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump repeatedly lied in public about how many of the building's units had been sold, in order to create the impression that demand was intense and time was short to secure a spot in this desirable residence. Had it worked, the ruse would have produced more sales, and then the lie would have become true. Alas, it never did; the project was a rolling disaster for years, the Trump Organization eventually fled, and the building has since been renamed.
Trump has applied this same principle to politics: Speak the thing you wish was true, and perhaps it will become true. The problem is that it just doesn't work as well in that arena. In business, Trump didn't need to fool everyone, just enough people to sell the next building or fill out classes in Trump University. And he didn't have an entire industry who took it as a key part of their jobs to police the truth of his claims. Now he does. So when he says his poll numbers are great, he'll quickly have a hundred news stories pointing out that isn't true, which makes it much harder for his confidence to juice his poll numbers into becoming great.
But Trump isn't going to change now, which leaves people like Hope Hicks with no choice but to repeat and defend what he says, and therefore become as dishonest as him. That in turn further undermines the idea that truth is something we value in our public sphere. It isn't just one unusual politician lying constantly about everything from the content of his policy proposals to the size of his crowds. Everyone around him gets drafted to participate in the deception, whether it's his staff or his Republican defenders. The relentless dishonesty also then requires his supporters to reduce their own cognitive dissonance by deciding that it isn't really important whether a politician tells the truth, and dismissing any fact-checking as anti-Trump propaganda.
It's hard to tell at this stage what the results of another three (or seven) years of this are going to be, and whether at the end of it nobody will care whether anyone is lying. Perhaps once Trump is gone our public debate will return to its previously imperfect state, in which at least we all agreed that truth was something worth knowing and caring about. Or perhaps Trump will leave everything more Trumpian in his wake.