“Why is everything taken at face value?” asked Kellyanne Conway, a key adviser to Donald Trump. Critics “always want to go with what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”
Here’s why. We can’t see what’s in his heart. We can hear what comes out of his mouth. He’s quickly making himself the butt of an old joke: How do you know when Trump’s telling a whopper? His lips are moving.
Take his claim that he won the Electoral College by “a landslide.” In fact, Trump won 56.5 percent of the Electoral College votes, a victory margin that ranks 12th from the bottom among the 58 U.S. presidential elections – no landslide. (For comparison, Barack Obama won 67.8 percent in 2008, 61.7 percent in 2012.)
That claim is simply silly. But some of his claims are disturbing. His false claim that on 9/11 he “watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building [the World Trade Center] was coming down.” His false claim that 81 percent of white homicide victims were killed by blacks. His false claim America has “the highest tax rate in the world.” His false claim that President Obama “wants to take in 250,000 people [refugees] from Syria.” And so on.
In some cases, he made such claims by retweeting information from others. But to recipients, the tweets came from Trump. When he tweets it, he owns it.
An intriguing analysis of Trump-like untrustworthiness is offered in a 2005 book by a Princeton philosophy professor titled “On Bulls---.” Dr. Harry Frankfurt concluded that, unlike the liar, the BS’er does not intentionally reject the authority of the truth. Instead, he pays no attention to it at all. Frankfort explains, “Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself.”
That is, the BS’er does not try to be true to the facts, but to be true to his own nature – as Conway puts it, to what’s in his heart. So when Trump says he’ll build a wonderful wall on the Mexican border and Mexico will finance it, he’s not talking about a massive construction project but about his heartfelt commitment to dramatic measures to deter illegal border crossing.
Trump’s defenders seem comfortable believing that, to use the familiar phrase, the public should take Trump seriously but not literally. To Conway, the fault is not his but ours, for expecting him to be honest and accurate. Instead of urging him to be honest, she urges the public to accept his dishonesty as inconsequential.
That’s nonsense. A president’s supporters tend to believe what he says – even when he describes a world that doesn’t exist. It’s bad if they believe it. It’s worse if he believes it, too. The French philosopher Voltaire recognized the peril: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.