Is Truth in the Eyes of the Beholder?
How unorthodox Is Trump's relationship to truth?
Posted May 23, 2017
This post won’t go into Trump’s latest verbal inconsistencies as to why he fired FBI director James Comey. Nor whether he shared highly classified material with top-ranking Russian officials at the White House. Nor will it discuss Comey’s incriminating memos on his possibly attempting to obstruct the investigation of his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia in the 2016 presidential election.
Rather, this piece will focus on Trump’s unusually fluid conception of reality. His erratic and ever-changing presentation of his, and others’, words and deeds can be no less than dumbfounding. And somewhat troubling as well. Unpredictability—not to mention, impulsiveness and emotional reactivity—in one who, potentially, could steer us far off course with both our allies and enemies isn’t anything particularly conducive to our feeling more safe and secure in a world so full of hostility and violence.
Moreover, the behavioral patterns we’ve seen in Trump, both prior to and during his new Presidency, hardly seem in the process of changing. Or capable of changing. To date there’s very little evidence that the decisions he must make on the most important issues confronting our nation will show increasingly greater restraint, thoughtfulness, or wisdom. Witness, for example, his openly calling James Comey a "real nut job" (05/10/17). And, of course, his frequent Twitter rants.
There are some pundits who claim that if Trump sincerely believes his verifiable untruths, it's really not fair to call him a liar. But to give credence to the questionable statements he regularly makes risks downgrading any coherently logical—or psychological—analysis of his utterances. As so many writers have stressed: "Words have consequences."
So, to characterize Trump’s devious rhetoric as in some way “innocent” seems an almost desperate attempt to justify his often overblown fabrications—such as Obama’s “wiretapping” him. By definition, a willful distortion of empirical reality constitutes an act of deceit. And whether the person involved has managed to convince himself that such chicanery is truthful hardly gets him off the ethical hook.
Consider this cover story by Michael Scherer in Time, entitled “Can Trump Handle the Truth?”:
Often Trump’s untruths give every sign of being deliberate and thought-through. . . . Through it all, he has presented himself as the last honest man, and among his fervent supporters, he hits notes that harmonize with the facts of their lives as they deeply feel them. To beat a polygraph, it’s said you should make some part of your brain believe what you are saying. Friends of Trump report that the President would pass with flying colors. (April 3, 2017)
In the realm of belief, truth may be relative, dependent on individual experience and interpretation. But when it comes to facts—observable, provable facts—it’s objective and totally separate from personal ideology. When we look at how many people attended Trump’s inauguration vs. how many marched in protest the day following, this discrepancy becomes obvious. Unless they’re tampered with, aerial photographs don’t lie, just as Trump cannot legitimately characterize as “fake news” reporters’ directly quoting the words he’s employed in one of his attacking or self-vindicating tweets.
The public (and certainly not the media!) shouldn’t be giving a free pass to anyone when they say something that can’t withstand scrutiny. It’s not good reporting to minimize or dismiss Trump’s exaggerations and distortions as merely reflecting an absolutist, hyperbolic style: a curious quirk or anomaly that we must simply “adjust” to.
To normalize what, as a psychologist, I can only regard as evidence of a significant personality disturbance is to ignore the possibility that his words—because they’re so often ambiguous or misleading—may, directly or indirectly, put our country at risk, both from within and without. And can we really expect leaders from other countries, so many of whom find Trump’s glib declarations extremely concerning, not to conclude that they’d better take everything he says seriously, even though they’re confused or dismayed as to what he might actually mean—or do?
Again, it hardly matters whether Trump resolutely “feels” the truth of what (absent supporting evidence) he so authoritatively affirms. Repeatedly, Trump has acknowledged that in making decisions he relies primarily on gut instinct. And he assesses this instinct as not only trustworthy and predictive but as, in fact, “truthful”—clearly implying that actual facts can comfortably be disregarded, seen as fraudulent, or judged to be of only tertiary importance.
Perhaps the ultimate question here is whether Trump’s behavior warrants his being appraised as self-delusional. If someone sincerely believes they see a pink elephant—or appears to feel stridently attacked by someone merely asking about their intentions or introducing an opposing viewpoint—can that person really can’t be viewed as rational, prescient or visionary? Rather, they'd likely be viewed as arbitrarily projecting onto the outside world an alternate reality unique to themselves. (Compare Kellyanne Conway’s facile avowal of “alternative facts,” clearly recognizable as contrary to perceptible, discernible facts.)
Just on the basis of the President’s public persona, which—from all that I’ve seen and read from those who’ve known him personally—doesn’t much vary from his more private presentation and past deeds, Trump displays multiple signs of a seriously dysfunctional personality. Without attributing to him any formal psychiatric diagnosis, he nonetheless seems to exhibit classic symptoms of both extreme narcissism and sociopathy. Despite his boasting in many of his speeches and interviews that he’s endowed with a “very big heart," a great deal of historic evidence suggests otherwise—from the wide-ranging scam that was “Trump University,” to the recorded bus conversation in which he dismissed his insensitive, misogynistic leanings as simply “locker room talk,” to assorted instances of bigotry and racism. In his 70 years, he’s amply portrayed a person who:
- has feelings of grandiosity and craves not only attention but admiration as well
- is arrogant and feels his actions merit, or are entitled to, special, “privileged” consideration (as in, monetary conflicts of interests reevaluated as lawful and legitimate)
- is decidedly lacking in introspection and self-insight, and typically unable to accept even constructive criticism
- is rigidly self-righteous and defensive;
- is impulsive, aggressive, and quick to anger and rage
- is manipulative, exploitive, and deceitful;
- exhibits poor personal and interpersonal boundaries (e.g., “If Ivanka weren’t my [then 16-year-old] daughter, I’d be dating her,” and later actually bragging to Howard Stern that Ivanka was “a voluptuous piece of a--”)
- is seriously deficient in any sense of shame and shows little or no remorse for harms he’s caused others; and (closely complementary to this)
- has demonstrated a markedly limited capacity to emotionally identify—or empathize—with others’ pain
Obviously, given this not very flattering characterization, Trump isn't a man who could be said to have long devoted himself to the welfare of others, or who has richly earned our trust. For the trajectory of his life suggests how much he’s been driven by massive egoistic needs. Finally, he may not be about “making America great again,” but about amassing as much wealth, power, admiration, and esteem as his currently lofty station might afford him. Consequently, regardless of how firmly Trump may believe in himself, it would be dangerous to uncritically put our faith in him.
It makes no difference that Trump appears utterly convinced of his essential honesty, or personal integrity. For his numerous untruths (e.g., as reported by factcheck.org, politifact.com, and Snopes.com) reveal the falsity of so much of what he’s professed. Consider his impassioned campaign pledge that, as a populist, he’d work tirelessly for the people—and how that promise “aligns” with both his cabinet choices and executive orders so strongly favoring corporations and the wealthy elite.
To quote the Los Angeles Times:
The new president regularly muddies the waters of fact and fiction. It’s difficult to know whether he actually can’t distinguish the real from the unreal, or whether he intentionally conflates the two to befuddle voters, deflect criticism and undermine the very idea of objective truth. Whatever the explanation, he is encouraging Americans to reject facts, to disrespect science, documents, nonpartisanship and the mainstream media and instead to simply take positions on the basis of ideology and preconceived notions. This is a recipe for a divided country in which differences grow deeper and rational compromise becomes impossible. (“Our Dishonest President,” The Times Editorial Board, Apr 2, 2017)
In this light, it might be said that Trump may not be able to grasp that he's already betrayed so many millions of people who voted for him. Yet, finally, all that matters is that he has . . . and continues to do so.
To close with a quote taken from a Washington Post headline just yesterday (05/23/17): "How Trump's budget helps the rich at the expense of the poor" (Max Ehrenfreund).
My previous PT articles on Trump include “Trump: How Dark Is His Dark Side?", Donald Trump: Is He as Unpredictable as He Seems?”, and (in 4 parts) "Outrage and Outrageousness: The Secret to Trump's Popularity”—another version of which was published in The Journal of Psychohistory (Summer 2016, 44, 1, 73-84).
If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, please consider forwarding them its link.
To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.
© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
Finally, to be notified whenever I post something new, I invite readers to join me on Facebook—as well as on Twitter where, additionally, you can follow my various psychological and philosophical musings.