5 Ways President Trump’s Lies Hurt Him More Than They Help

Trump now lies more than 20 times a day. Is he getting away with it?

Posted Jun 02, 2020

Donald Trump, a new book attests, is “the most mendacious president in U.S. history.”

 Glenn Kessler, used with permission
4 Pinocchios, from Fact Checker.
Source: Glenn Kessler, used with permission

Since the opening days of the Trump presidency, a team of reporters and staff at The Washington Post have been maintaining a database of all of Trump’s false and misleading claims. It includes, for each claim, the exact wording, the date it was made, the number of times it was repeated, the explanation for its inclusion in the database, and the now-iconic fact-checker rating of between one and four Pinocchios, illustrated with a compelling visual image.

It must have seemed almost manageable at first, when in 2017, Trump told “only” six lies a day. (Ordinary people, my own research shows, tell about one or two.) By 2018, though, he was up to an average of 16 false or misleading claims every single day. For 2019, it was an astonishing 22 lies a day. (I’m going to use “lie” as a shorthand for “false or misleading claim,” though “lie” implies an intentionality that is missing from some of the relevant claims.)

As of May 29, 2020, Trump had made 19,127 claims that landed in the database. The collection is a treasure trove. Researchers will descend upon it with gusto. (I’m one who already has.)

The Touchstone for Our Understanding of Trump’s Lies

The archive of Trump’s lies can be sorted by topic and by date. It includes a collection of the claims that Trump has repeated most often. Still, it is a lot to digest. What we really need at this point is a guide, a careful document that assembles the most consequential of Trump’s lies and shows how he uses those lies to scorch his opponents, light up his base, and lionize himself. We need more than what the raw database can tell us about how Trump has weaponized Twitter to blast his lies. It would also be useful to see a considered discussion of lies about particular policies, such as immigration, economics, trade, and foreign policy. The impeachment lies deserve their own special treatment, as do the still-unfolding parade of lies about the coronavirus. And perhaps most deeply, we need something that begins the process of explaining what it all means.

 Glenn Kessler, used with permission
Source: Glenn Kessler, used with permission

In short, we need a book, and now we have it. Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly, on behalf of the fact-checker staff of The Washington Post, wrote Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth: The President’s Falsehoods, Misleading Claims and Flat-Out Lies. It was just published today (June 2, 2020).

I’ve never been a scold when it comes to lying. I don’t think it is possible to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth all the time and still have any friends. I think there is such a thing as a justifiable lie.

But I have my limits. I think we should all strive to be fundamentally honest people. Our leaders should be honest and trustworthy. And if they are not, there should be consequences.

For previous presidents, there have been consequences for lying. But for Trump, in many important ways, there have not been. Instead, as Kessler and his colleagues note,

“Trump routinely says dozens of things in each State of the Union address, campaign rally and major speech that are flat wrong—with barely any consequences.”

Trump was impeached but not convicted. His fellow Republicans, with few exceptions, support him or keep their mouths shut. Sometimes it seems like nothing can stop him.

Has Trump Remained Impervious to the Usual Harsh Consequences of Getting Caught Lying?

Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth takes us through page after page of Trump getting away with his lies, and how he manages to do it. It is eye-opening and wearying, fascinating and appalling. I was near the brink of despair when I got to the concluding chapter and found this:

“Trump’s falsehoods may have hurt him more than they have helped him.”

Here are five lines of evidence Kessler, Rizzo, and Kelly have marshaled to make their case that Trump is not Teflon Don.

1. “He failed to ever win a majority support of Americans in public opinion polls.”

This is extraordinary. Every single day that Trump has been in office, fewer than half of Americans have supported him. He did not garner the support of more than half on the day he took office, any of the days when the Dow surged or unemployment dipped, or after any other achievement that the White House touted as magnificent.

2. “Trump’s attacks on the media appear to have helped revive trust in the media.”

Fake news!” is the charge hurled at any report Trump dislikes. Even more chillingly, Trump has repeatedly called the press “the enemy of the people.” Though some of his supporters find that thrilling, the overall reputation of the press has not suffered:

“Paradoxically, Trump’s attacks on the media appear to have helped revive trust in the media, which had been falling for decades and reached a low in 2016. During Trump’s presidency, trust in the media jumped substantially…”

3. The “illusory truth effect,” in which false claims start to be believed when they are repeated often enough, seems to have eluded Trump.

Trump repeats many of his lies over and over again, even if he is contradicting himself in the process, and even if the claims have been publicly exposed as lies by Fact Checker or any of the other fact-checking organizations.

The brazen repetition of lies should work. Research as far back as 1977 and continuing into the 21st century has shown that false claims that are repeated often become accepted as true. But it may not be working for Trump.

In a survey described in the book, participants were presented with some of the falsehoods Trump has repeated most often, along with several false claims by Democrats, a true claim by Trump, and two other true statements. The person who made each statement was never identified, and of course, the veracity of the statements also went unspecified—the point was to see which statements were believed.

Strikingly, “fewer than 3 in 10 Americans—including fewer than 4 in 10 Republicans—believed Trump’s claims.”

The results are remarkable not just because they defy the empirically established illusory truth effect, but also because they flout the even more consistently documented “truth bias.” People consistently give other people the benefit of the doubt. In studies in which participants judge a whole series of statements, half of which are true and the others false, on the average they judge well over half to be true. They do so even if they are told in advance that only half of the statements are true.

True statements are more likely to be judged as truthful than deceptive ones, indicating that humans show some accuracy at detecting deception. That’s what Charlie Bond and I concluded when we analyzed the results of more than 200 studies in which more than 24,000 people had participated. We found that 61% of truthful statements were regarded as truthful, compared to 48% of the lies. And yet, that survey showed that even among Republicans hearing lies that Trump had told over and over again, fewer than 40% believed them.

4. Only about 1 in 3 Americans believes that Trump is honest and trustworthy.

More sweeping than judgments about specific statements are overall impressions of Trump’s honesty and trustworthiness. Only about one-third of Americans see Trump as honest and trustworthy. It is a stunningly low number. As Kessler and his colleagues point out, throughout their presidencies, nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) viewed President George W. Bush as trustworthy and nearly as many (61%) thought the same of President Obama.

President Clinton’s most infamous claim (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) was probably repeated and mocked in the media more often than just about any other false or misleading statement by any other president. And yet, even Bill Clinton was regarded as trustworthy by nearly half of Americans (46%), a considerably better result than Trump’s.

But do these overall impressions of trustworthiness really matter?

Kessler and his colleagues believe that they do:

“Such low marks on trustworthiness undermine a president’s authority and make it harder to rally public support for his domestic proposals and foreign-policy initiatives.”

As an example, the authors described how Trump botched his explanation for ordering the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. They concluded:

“The president had managed to turn an apparent triumph—eliminating the head of a terror organization—into a controversy over his honesty about the reasons for the strike and his understanding of the serious injuries suffered by military personnel.”

It is one thing to be disbelieved when you have told an outright lie, or when you have created a confusing and contradictory mess of claims. It is quite another to be doubted even when you are telling the truth.

5. Trump’s sky-high levels of dishonesty may be undermining his credibility even when he is telling the truth.

From that survey showing that fewer than 3 in 10 Americans believed Trump’s most frequently repeated falsehoods (described above) came another significant and surprising finding. Many people don’t believe Trump even when he is telling the truth.

The survey included a claim Trump made repeatedly when it was true, that the unemployment rate in the U.S. was the lowest it had been in about 50 years. Fewer than half of Americans who were asked about that statement (47%) believed that it was true.

The Final Answer

Are we really headed, as the title of the concluding chapter of Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth suggests, “toward a resurgence of truth”? The biggest test will come in the next presidential election.