Donald Trump's lies

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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In recent weeks, I have noted Hillary Clinton's problems with her lack of trustworthiness, both real and perceived, and Donald Trump's ability to lie so frequently, and with such determination when challenged, that he tends to leave interviewers by the side of the road. Today, I would like to talk about the two big lies at the heart of Trump's candidacy.

The first was on display yesterday during Trump's press conference about raising money for veterans' organizations. Trump was furious that the press had the audacity to ask how much was raised and to whom it had been sent. At one point, Trump said, "If we could, I wanted to keep it private because I don't think it's anybody's business if I wanna send money to the vets." Of course, we all know that skipping a debate in the middle of primary season so you can hold a fundraiser for vets, and televising it, is the best way to "keep it private." It is part of Trump's brilliance that he seems unfazed by such contradictions and a voting public raised on reality TV is only too willing to suspend disbelief.

The big lie at work here is the idea that having a full-throttled narcissist as president would not be a problem. It would. The odd combination of viciousness and feigned innocence is the kind of thing only toddlers are supposed to get away with, and yet Trump seems to think that so long as the world revolves around him, everything must be fine. This obvious character flaw is also part of his success as a candidate: The man can dominate a news cycle like no candidate in memory because he thinks such dominance is only fitting, even natural, for someone as splendidly gifted as himself. He jumps from a whim to ontology in the twinkling of an eye, and that is a deeply troubling thought pattern for someone who might be invested with enormous amounts of power.

The second big lie has deeper roots in the American psyche. It is the lie that if government worked more like a business, the country would be better off, and so the obvious way to better government is to hand it over to a successful businessperson. This lie is closely related to another, the idea that government is hopelessly corrupt. (There is a ecclesial variant: Every bishop has heard someone say something like, "You couldn't do that in business," to which the obvious rejoinder is, "Good thing this is a church and not a business.")

This lie comes in several shades. Ross Perot embraced it most fully, but turned it to a kind of homey, technocratic pitch: He was just gonna look under the hood and fix what needed fixin'. Mitt Romney thought his business successes would burnish his candidacy, but it had the opposite effect once people learned something about how his successes were other people's tragedies. Jack Kennedy surrounded himself with "the best and the brightest," which is related to this theme, but it turned out that Robert McNamara was not a great secretary of defense just because he had been a successful executive at Ford Motor Company. Barry Goldwater embodied a version of this lie in two ways, first by scorning government as inherently intrusive in a culture that should be dominated by business, and second, by exhibiting the kind of excessive, deformed Calvinism that has always found strong roots in the soil of American politics and which, in Goldwater's case, was best captured by a New Yorker cartoon that showed the senator walking past a hobo and saying, "If he had any gumption, he would inherit a department store chain like the rest of us."

The lie that a successful career in business provides one with an aptitude for governance is also closely related to the belief that a nation may need a strong man if it is in crisis. Setting aside whether one can accurately describe the U.S. today as "in crisis," Trump's blustery personality, exhibited first in the business world, has translated itself easily into the public realm by tapping into the dark side of American populism. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the side of American politics that is most akin to fascism, not so much the Arian version as the Italianate variety. Trump stands before a press conference the way Il Duce stood before the crowds in the Piazza Venezia. The theatricality of both performers allows them to pay no penalty when they clumsily refer to themselves in the third person, when they berate an opponent or demean an onlooker, when they inadvertently demonstrate that they know little about the subject to which they are speaking. A wave of the hand here, a scowl there, all is forgiven, or at least lost in the acclamations for the strong man. (Cf. notes about narcissism above.)

As Arnold Schwarzenegger can tell you, however, killing bad guys in the movies is a hell of a lot easier than balancing a budget. And, in one of the truly bizarre contributions of reality TV to our culture, Trump alternates between playing the strong man and the wronged victim the way the ladies on "Downton Abbey" changed clothes. No one treats him fairly, someone else always started the fight, poor little rich boy Donald.

In the normal course of human affairs, we do not anticipate that excellence in one field creates the presumption of excellence in another. The highly talented violinist who just gave a stunning performance of Beethoven's violin concerto is not necessarily someone you would want performing open heart surgery on your uncle. The gifted chef at the local restaurant is not assumed to be someone from whom you would seek marital advice. I am grateful for the ministry of the cardinal-archbishop of Washington, but I would not call him up to fix my car if my car needed fixing (if I had a car).

Why do we think that politics, alone, requires no special skills or experiences?

Perhaps, this unique understanding of politics as something anyone, or at least a successful businessperson, can do is a reflection of our democratic ethos. After all, the only real requirement the Constitution stipulates for the presidency, apart from being 35 years of age and a natural born citizen, is that you get more votes than the other candidate. Democracy is the politics of the everyman, right? Not exactly. I am reminded of a quip made by Chesterton, who said that the most fundamental justification for the House of Lords, albeit one its members were reluctant to employ, was that while the Commons was filled with clever men -- who got there on talent -- the Lords consisted of those who arrived there by accident. (Since 1999, this applies to only 92 of the peers, who hold hereditary titles. The other 700 peers are life peers.) The fact that every person has the right to vote does not mean everyone would make an equally fine chief magistrate.

There is one other aspect of Trump's big lie that warrants examination, namely, what does it mean to be successful in real estate? It means that you are a good salesperson, that you have learned how to take advantage of a variety of tax loopholes, mostly created so that the average family can purchase a home but which end up making millionaires out of the few, and that you know how to hype your product. But, if you are in real estate, you do not actually create anything. You do not invent anything. You work, and you may work hard, but it is not a line of work that is properly considered productive, is it? The essence of the job is to show up when money is changing hands. It is far from clear to me how this prepares one for the presidency.

These, then, are the big lies that Donald Trump is trying to foist upon the nation, that there is no harm in electing a narcissist as president and that government can best be fixed by a businessperson. The worry is not primarily that Trump believes these lies. The worry is that enough Americans will believe them come November.

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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