Presidential Power Do Not Succumb to Trump's Lies

The ease with which new U.S. President Donald Trump and his staff use lies to confuse people is reminiscent of the Soviet Union, the author writes. We must resist these methods.
U.S. President Donald Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer.

When Donald Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer gave his first press conference at the White House and against all evidence claimed the crowd at Mr. Trump’s inauguration was the largest ever, in a weird way it reminded me of my mother’s tales about our lives in the Soviet Union.

Back then, officials on TV talked about record production highs in agriculture while people faced empty supermarket shelves. I never understood why a state would lie when the lie was so easy to disprove, just by using one’s own eyes.

Shouldn’t people rebel against such a cheap attempt to trick them?

The truth is, there’s a pattern behind the past Soviet lies and Mr. Trump’s present lies. A pattern that works well.

I’m not talking about the usual deceptions disseminated by every government by whitewashing the truth. I’m not talking about justifications for war that can only be disproved by classified documents.

The special power of the Trump-style lie is that everyone is able to see through it, without any sort of education, just using their senses. Its very purpose is to challenge people’s perception.

People tend to compare new information to their existing knowledge. If both align, it strengthens one’s knowledge. If they disagree, it causes cognitive dissonance. It’s an unpleasant state that people seek to avoid by adapting their knowledge to the new facts. That’s how we learn.

Inconsistent information is so unpopular because it causes cognitive dissonance – and it costs resources to deal with that.

That’s become a real problem ever since information has been available on the internet. Online, every photo can be faked, or taken out of context.

The point of the obvious lie is to prove how powerless the truth is, to change the conversation so that suddenly everything is questioned.

The confusion and strain resulting from the mass of inconsistent information on social media are immense anyway. Now add the liars’ trick that deliberately exploits this potential.

If I tell you “the sky is green,” it’s not so much my goal that you believe me instantly. My goal is rather to reiterate the claim that the sky is green until your resources to endure this dissonance are depleted and you give in and say, “that’s your opinion. I think the sky is blue. I guess there’s no way to determine the color of the sky objectively.”

Constant untruths eventually wear away the brain.

The point of the obvious lie is to prove how powerless the truth is, to change the conversation so that suddenly everything is questioned.

And it works. When I recently described this mechanism on Twitter, some users argued that the press secretary didn’t lie, adding photos of the crowd as seen from the podium. A fierce discussion ensued about the number of people in the audience and camera angles – even though it’s a fact that fewer people were present than during Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

Now, the lie about the crowd at an inauguration seems relatively trivial. But it achieves something enormous.

First, it’s a demonstration of power. They present the media with new “facts” and monitor who repeats them dutifully; all the rest can expect repression.

Second, we question our senses more than we used to. We are fighting about things that are obvious. Faced with constant inconsistencies, we are exhausted and give up – and obvious falsehoods first creep into the domain of the thinkable and then into the domain of reality.

Once established, this mechanism makes it easier to lie even about the big things. “All Muslims are criminals,” for example – and suddenly we are debating crime statistics instead of defending the achievement that suspicion based on birth or religion has no place in a democracy.

Confronted with such lunacy, sometimes people no longer trust their own eyes and ears. And that’s exactly what people like Donald Trump aim for.

It’s a fight against reason. People can control perception. The Enlightenment taught us to make good use of that. Trying to take perception away from people therefore is an anti-Enlightenment act .

Members of a free society have to reassure each other every day that this lunacy isn’t normal. That lies are lies. That there are certain principles in our society that aren’t up for debate, and questioning them isn’t covered by free speech.

The new right-wing governments and parties are currently forcing democratic societies to again fight for values we had already won. To lose this battle would be simply disastrous.

We have to start by trusting our senses and our reason.

Totalitarian methods have to be called out. It’s time to confront them.

This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]