Post-truth was Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year, but the word became even more relevant in 2017 as Americans suffered through the first year of a presidency frighteningly indifferent, if not openly hostile, to facts. When it comes to exaggerations, half-truths, and outright fabrications, the Trump presidency is without precedent. According to the Washington Post, Trump “has made 1,628 false or misleading claims over 298 days.” In a more conservative tally that omitted “any statement that could be plausibly defended” and “modest quantitative errors,” the New York Times found that Trump “has told 103 separate untruths, many of them repeatedly,” in his first 10 months in office. Obama told 18 over the entirety of his two terms: “That’s an average of about two a year for Obama and about 124 a year for Trump.”
Beyond the sheer quantity, Trump’s incessant lying is also qualitatively different than his predecessors. Previous presidents would correct their statements when met with contrary evidence, the New York Times points out. But “Trump is different. When he is caught lying, he will often try to discredit people telling the truth.” According to psychologist Bella DePaulo, Trump tells more self-serving lies and more cruel lies (i.e., “told to hurt or disparage others”) than participants in her two decades of research on lying.
But Trump’s lies are not only self-serving. The lies serve to prop up the problematic worldview he peddles to his base.
I found a striking pattern in the 103 statements compiled by the New York Times. Trump’s lies engage in a practice that I will call the typification of a worldview. That is, his lies often depict a characteristic or representative picture of reality as viewed through the ideological lens of Trumpian conservativism. Factual fidelity is superseded by ideological fidelity to one or more axioms that undergird the system of beliefs of Trumpism. These include the tenets that immigrants are criminals, Muslims are terrorists, and voter fraud is rampant (among other claims) that reinforce invidious stereotypes and erode trust in democratic institutions.
Take, for example, this statement in which Trump takes credit for a decline in border crossings that began before he was sworn in as president: “Since I took office we have cut illegal immigration on our southern border by record numbers. 78 percent.” Or, this statement, in which he claims President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico called him to relay the following message (Peña Nieto denied that any such call took place): “And even the President of Mexico called me—they said their southern border, very few people are coming because they know they’re not going to get through our border, which is the ultimate compliment.” In both statements, although the lies are self-serving in that they allow Trump to flatter himself or take credit for something that isn’t true, they also do important political work by reifying the Trumpian tenet that immigration poses a threat only his presidency can guard against.
Another tenet of the Trumpian worldview is a fear of foreigners and the equating of Muslims with terrorists. Here, Trump paints this picture of the world through a false statement about the vetting of refugees: “We’ve taken in tens of thousands of people. We know nothing about them. They can say they vet them. They didn’t vet them. They have no papers. How can you vet somebody when you don’t know anything about them and you have no papers? How do you vet them? You can’t.” In fact, the vetting process at the time was quite rigorous and took up to two years. But the falsehood neatly captures the pillar of Trumpism that equates Muslim refugees with terrorists and stokes xenophobia.
The Trumpian worldview also views voter fraud as rampant. Despite a lack of evidence, Trump asserts, “Between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes caused me to lose the popular vote.” The lie is not only narcissistically self-serving, but it supports a worldview that elevates the non-issue of voter fraud to justify policies that disenfranchise legal voters.
Trump’s lying does valuable political work. The lies build a compelling narrative of “the way things are,” reinforcing a picture of reality that accords with what Trumpian conservatives already know and accept as true regardless of what the facts say. In other words, Trump’s lies confirm a set of beliefs by promulgating “alternative facts” that remain ideologically faithful even if they lack factual verifiability. In many ways, a narrative based on misleading claims and fabricated evidence provides a more poignant and convincing depiction of reality than one based on banal facts—at least for those who share the worldview. What matters most for narrative believability, as Jerome Bruner (1991) points out, is verisimilitude rather than “empirical verification and logical requiredness.”
Trump’s lying also does psychological work in that the lies help maintain an intact mental model of that worldview when countervailing facts and evidence would otherwise lead to cognitive dissonance. As cognitive science research suggests, we are more likely to accept facts that accord with what we already believe and discount facts that do not. Moreover, providing empirical evidence to debunk false claims—like political fact-checking sites do—can backfire when that evidence threatens a worldview (e.g., Nyhan and Reifler 2010; Hart and Nisbet 2012). Trump’s blatant lies and the fact-checking of those lies may have little effect on his most die-hard supporters who view the Trumpian worldview as commonsense, or simply as the way things are.
For the rest of us, Trump’s incessant lying has led more people to override our “truth bias,” the bias we have toward assuming others are telling the truth. “We no longer give Trump the benefit of the doubt that we usually give so readily.” That may be a necessary survival strategy, but the erosion of trust among the public and lack of factual integrity in the White House create substantial problems for democracy.
Adam Hodges is a linguistic anthropologist with interests in political discourse. His books include The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality, and his articles have appeared in Discourse & Society, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language & Communication, and Language in Society.
Cite as: Hodges, Adam. 2018. “How Trump’s Lying Affirms a Worldview.” Anthropology News website, January 9, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.733