Why does President Trump tell such stupid, obvious lies?
You know the lies I mean. Not the lies of self-service, flattery, or malice. Those lies are frequent and reprehensible, but they at least have a certain logic: We can understand why Trump would lie to advance a policy aim, to undermine a political enemy or bolster a friend, to enhance his bank account, or to protect himself from legal trouble. We can grasp the rationale of those lies while opposing their use.
But then there are the other lies. The unutterably dumb lies. The pointless, easily disprovable lies that serve no obvious purpose. Like Trump's long and continuing obsession with crowd sizes, which he consistently falsifies despite photo evidence of the truth. Or his reported insistence to GOP donors that he did not say "Tim Apple" — a minor verbal flub, caught on camera, which no one would have cared about beyond a momentary giggle had Trump not fixated on denying it. Or consider this week's whopper, in which Trump claimed his father was born in Germany, when in fact it is well-established that Fred Christ Trump was born in New York. Trump has told this lie at least thrice — but why?
In fact, why tell any of these lies? Why launch, unprompted, into what appears to be a worse-than-useless falsehood that will inevitably come under public scrutiny and be quickly debunked? "I just thought, why would you lie about that," one donor said of the "Tim Apple" thing. "It doesn't even matter!"
Why, indeed? Here are six possible explanations.
This is not pride in its more positive sense — pride in your accomplishments, for example, or in the merits of your city or loved ones — but at its most destructive. In fact, it borders on delusion.
In this scenario, Trump describes the world as he wants it to be, and that crucially means describing himself as he wants to be (and to be seen). He responds to threats to his ego by saying what he wants to be true, regardless of reality.
So if the "first mission of any Trump lie is to make Trump himself look and feel better," and if his egotism is sufficiently monstrous, then no lie is too petty or pointless to skip. Trump draws the biggest crowds, did not say "Tim Apple," and was sired by a man born in Germany because that is what Trump wants. Affirming each falsehood is a moment of satisfaction, however fleeting, for his pride.
Trump lies significantly more often than the average American, and the pace of his lying has accelerated. Perhaps he lies because he lies — that is, he tells the purposeless lies because he tells so many purposeful ones. The habit of lying created by the explainable lies holds even when there is no useful lie to be told, so Trump fills the gap with a useless lie instead.
Related to habit is compulsion, which raises the subject of mental illness. And yes, some mental health professionals have argued Trump necessitates abandoning their field's longstanding ethics rules against diagnosing public figures from afar. Sociopathy, which is identified by traits including habitual deception and impulsiveness, is a common proposal for Trump. But as I am not a mental health professional, and I do see the wisdom in banning remote diagnoses, I'll stick with "habit" as an explanatory option here.
In this explanation, Trump lies incessantly so the little, pointless lies can provide cover for the big, important ones.
"We must actively choose to accept or reject each statement we hear. In certain circumstances, that verification simply fails to take place," explains Maria Konnikova at Politico. One of those circumstances is a deluge of deception. "Our brains are particularly ill-equipped to deal with lies when they come not singly but in a constant stream," Konnikova continues:
When we are overwhelmed with false, or potentially false, statements, our brains pretty quickly become so overworked that we stop trying to sift through everything. It's called cognitive load — our limited cognitive resources are overburdened. It doesn't matter how implausible the statements are; throw out enough of them, and people will inevitably absorb some. Eventually, without quite realizing it, our brains just give up trying to figure out what is true. [Politico]
In a bizarre turn, one of Trump's former primary rivals, Rick Santorum, nearly used this explanation to defend the president's untruthfulness in a February appearance on CNN. Trump "doesn't tell the truth about a lot of things fairly consistently," Santorum said, so the "fact that he's not telling the truth about Russia fairly consistently, at least in the eyes of people around here, why is that any different?"
Perhaps the point of the pointless lie is the lie itself, because lying is a way Trump exercises power. He lies because he can, because it is a constant opportunity to express and even enforce his will.
"If you are governed by a set of rules and laws, and then tell lies that enable you to break those rules and laws, the lies give you power," argues Lucian K. Truscott IV at Salon. "It's like you're standing astride the life of the nation and saying, 'I know I'm lying. You know I'm lying. I'm powerful, and you're not. F--- you.'"
Trump could also lie because his subordinates and supporters will loyally participate in his deception, and Trump is all about loyalty.
One way Trump requires his underlings to lie is lying himself, telling a falsehood they must then perpetuate. George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen has theorized that this functions as a test of trust: "If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid." And beyond demonstrating loyalty, Cowen says, this forced deception actively cultivates it by making subordinates "grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command."
The loyalty explanation works with Trump's fans, too. Believing or pretending to believe — it doesn't really matter, psychologically — Trump's outrageous claims fosters a sense of in-group solidarity. It's a sign of tribalism, sort of like a secret handshake or codeword. Talking about how Trump had the biggest inauguration crowd of all time shows you're in, and whether you sincerely believe the crowd was record-setting is irrelevant.
Trump himself has come close to offering this explanation, telling ABC News he does not have to give evidence to back his unfounded claims about mass voter fraud because "many people feel the same way that I do. … [T]hey're saying 'We agree with Mr. Trump. We agree.' They're very smart people."
This final option may be the least conscious and strategic of them all: Maybe Trump tells useless, obvious lies because it never occurs to him not to do so. And maybe it doesn't occur to him because he struggles to relate constructively to the past and future. He cannot think long-term, so he never considers that his lies will be found out in short order.
"Like my 92-year-old mom, Trump lives in a very small window of time, and no, I don't mean he lives 'in the moment' in that healthy, New-Age-y sort of way. I mean he has trouble looking backwards or forwards in time," suggests Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, at USA Today. Epstein goes on:
[Trump is] like a rudderless sailboat blown about by the wind, with the direction largely determined moment-to-moment according to who's got his attention and whether he views that person as friend or foe. […] Not only do his views shift, he also has no trouble denying, entirely without guile, in my view, what he said yesterday. All that's shiny and real to him is what friends or foes are saying inside those small time windows. Everything else is fuzzy, and that's why he can so easily tell so many lies. From his perspective, lying has no meaning. Only reacting has meaning. Trump reacts. [USA Today]
The ability to think beyond the present moment is a mark of adulthood, and this theory goes a long way toward explaining why Trump's pointless lies feel so childish. It's the behavior of a toddler unable to calculate likely consequences or account for relevant history when a lie slips off his tongue. All that matters is right now, and right now, the lie feels like the way to go.
The troubling difference, of course, is that Trump already grew up.