It’s hardly news that former President Donald Trump was the lyingest President ever. A column a few months back by Thomas Edsall shared research confirming that on this one dubious metric, TFG was indeed head and shoulders above the rest.
Donald Trump can lay claim to the title of most prodigious liar in the history of the presidency. This challenges commonplace beliefs about the American political system. How could such a deceitful and duplicitous figure win the White House in the first place and then retain the loyalty of so many voters after his endless lies were exposed?
George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M and a retired editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly, stated the case bluntly: “Donald Trump tells more untruths than any previous president.” What’s more, “There is no one that is a close second.”
After establishing Trump’s position as Liar-in-Chief, Edsell got to the question that fascinates me: How do we understand the willingness of Republican voters to not simply tolerate Trump’s lies, but enthusiastically welcome them–and continue to vote for him?
Edsell quotes one researcher who attributes the acceptance of obvious untruths to our polarization:
We are intensely social creatures, but we are prone to divide ourselves into competitive groups, largely for the purpose of allocating resources. People can be prosocial — compassionate, empathetic, generous, honest — in their group and aggressively antisocial toward out-groups. When we divide people into groups, we open the door to competition, dehumanization, violence — and socially sanctioned deceit.
If we see Trump’s lies, Smith continued, “not as failures of character but rather as weapons of war, then we can come to see why his supporters might view him as an effective leader. From this perspective, lying is a feature, not a bug, of Trump’s campaign and presidency.”
Other scholars attribute acceptance of untruths to “orthodox mind-sets.” People with such mind-sets desperately need to protect cherished narratives; insights and facts that undermine those narratives threaten beliefs that are central to their worldviews.
Another theory is closely aligned to the tribal explanation– it posits that Trump’s ability to persuade “millions of voters to go along with his prevarications is his ability to tap into the deep-seated anger and resentment among his supporters. Anger, it turns out, encourages deception.”
Almost all of the research confirms the centrality of those tribal identities (giving the term “identity politics” a somewhat different meaning than its common usage).
Identity leadership refers to leaders’ capacity to influence and mobilize others by virtue of leaders’ abilities to represent, advance, create and embed a sense of social identity that is shared with potential followers.
In the process, Trump’s supporters lose their connection to real-world rules and morality.
Esdall quotes one scholar who finds Americans’ political identities becoming “increasingly salient, and potentially more destructive.” Intense partisan hostilities and polarization lead people to demonize the opposition and create a climate of “us against them.” Polarization thus invites lies that create a “moral framework” within which otherwise wrongful behavior serves a moral cause. (An obvious example is January 6th.)
It’s depressing enough when “Lie X”is accepted by large numbers of people, but the speed of its distribution is even more troubling. An article by BBC Science Focus examined that phenomenon:
Mark Twain said that a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on. Actually, that itself is a lie – Twain probably said no such thing and the true origins of the quote remain murky. Nonetheless, thanks to recent research into the spread of (mis)information on Twitter, we now know that lies spread more rapidly than facts – and it seems mostly to do with our appetite for novelty.
In a study published in early 2018 in the journal Science, three researchers at MIT analysed around 126,000 stories tweeted by around three million people between 2006 and 2017. Crucially, these stories had all been verified as true or false by six fact-checking websites, including snopes.com and factcheck.org. By comparing the tweets, the researchers found that the lies travelled faster and farther than the truth. For instance, true tweets rarely reached more than 1,000 people, whereas the most widely shared false tweets reached as many as 100,000 people. Falsehoods were 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than the truth, and it took true tweets six times as long as lies, on average, to reach 1,500 people.
MIT’s research team attributed the speed of dissemination to the fact that lies tended to be more novel and exciting than the truth. They were also better at triggering an emotional response.
Lies that travel fastest are those that support our pre-existing prejudices and are easy to understand. it helps if they’re popular with the people in your “tribe.”
Evidently, a lot of Americans actually want to be lied to.