My essay is inspired by Toni Morrison’s claim that Bill Clinton was the first black President[i] and Adrienne Rich’s essay Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying (1975).[ii] I came to her work to understand Donald’s Trump lying. We often believe that politicians lie, but the reality is that they don’t lie very often because they know they can get caught and punished by a loss of credibility, trust, and ultimately voter confidence. Trump is different, though, in that he lies and his lying is not simply political; it is apparently pathological for it infuses all aspects of his life.
To understand why he lies, I turned to Rich’s Notes as she provides an insight into lying and from there, I developed the question as to whether Trump is the first female President.
Rich begins with the observation that a man is known by his honour. If he gives his word that something is true, then it is true for it is guaranteed by his honour.
The old, male idea of honour. A man’s “word” sufficed – to other men – without guarantee
Trump’s word is rarely, if ever, good so he is a man without honour since he cannot be trusted without a guarantee. Trump rarely keeps his word except when it suits his interests or he forced to keep it. Yet, it is not simply his own behaviour that is problematic for what he does through his lies is that he ensures that the people who serve him are also without honour. They either enable his lies or they, in turn, are compromised by his lies. If you work for Trump, you never know if you are being lied to now or in the past. More to the point, you cannot be certain that once their lie is discovered, that they will tell you the truth. When you work for Trump, the problem is that any future statement you make is most likely followed up with the unspoken question “Are you lying now?”
In contrast to a man’s honour, Rich points out, that a woman’s honour has a different relationship with the truth and lying. Women, as she explains, are prized for their loyalty or fidelity not for their honesty.
Honesty in women has not been considered important. We have been depicted as generically whimsical, deceitful, subtle, vacillating. And we have been rewarded for lying.
In a similar way, Trump has been rewarded for his lying as they help him to succeed or at least sustain his appearance of success. His promises to pay suppliers. His promises to business associates. His promises to his wives. His promises to girlfriends. His promises to relatives. His promises to the court. None of these have been kept except under extreme duress such as the court enforcement. In all these matters, Trump does not consider honesty important but he does consider loyalty from others important. He believes that they should put that loyalty beyond obedience to truth or the law.
Trump’s demand for loyalty means that he must come before others so that his feelings are what is important. The same self-centredness emerges with his lies. As Rich points out the liar is only concerned with their feelings.
But the liar is concerned with her own feelings.
However, it is more than protecting his feelings for as Rich explains, the liar lies to retain control of the relationship. A liar cannot have a relationship without manipulation which explains Trump’s relationships since manipulates others to suit his purposes. What we find is that for Trump, there is no such thing as unconditional love. Instead, all his relationships are conditional or transactional so that he can retain control.
The liar lives in fear of losing control. She cannot even desire a relationship without manipulation, since to be vulnerable to another person means for her the loss of control.
To love someone unconditionally would be to accept a loss of control, to trust them, to put them before yourself. For Trump, he cannot love someone else as much as he loves himself and that creates a life of loneliness. Despite his claims of popularity or many friends, Trump, lacks the intimacy of friendship created in mutual vulnerability or shared trust. Instead, what he lives is a life of loneliness sustained by a transactional manipulation of other people.
The liar has many friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.
What helps the liar function, though is that they never have to confront their lies or when they are confronted, they escape with a form of amnesia. Rich describes this amnesia in a way that could be a form of self “gas lighting” since it helps the liar control the other party but serves another function; it helps the liar avoid their own sub-conscious awareness of the lie. This type of amnesia emerges when Trump says he does not know someone or cannot remember who they are.
The liar often suffers from amnesia. Amnesia is the silence of the unconscious.
For Trump, though, lying is a way of life so his unconscious is dead to him. He has no self-reflection or inner life that allows him to consider his conscience since he does not want the truth that an inner spiritual life requires.
To lie habitually, as a way of life, is to lost contact with the unconscious. It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming. The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth
Honesty, though, requires that the speaker express and accept complexity within reality. Instead, the liar avoids complexity so they lie to simplify the world to serve their purposes.
This is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. Lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler – for the liar – than it really is, or ought to be.
We can see this in the way that Trump will lie about complex events or issues since that allows him to simplify them so he can understand and manage them as a pretext to controlling them to his ends.
Rich is prescient in helping us to understand why Trump has never been in love.
An honourable human relationship – that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” – is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.
It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.
It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.
It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us
Trump lies to others because he is only faithful to himself. He has cheated on his wives and he has cheated on his mistresses when cheating on his wives. He does not have an honourable relationship with anyone since that would require him to tell the truth to someone else or even to himself. He might think he is telling the truth, as when he said he would probably date his daughter if she wasn’t his daughter, but even that truth is simply a lie about his responsibility as a father since he avoids having to consider what such a thought means for him as a man or a father.
More than anything, though, Trump is haunted by fear. To keep that fear at bay, he lies. His lies, mask his fear of inadequacy that he cannot live up to his father’s image or reputation as a “real man”. Even though he is President of the United States it is apparent he cannot shake that feeling of inadequacy, a void he is desperate to fill with lies and performative spectacles.
The liar is afraid.
What is this particular fear that possesses the liar?
She is afraid that her own truths are not good enough.
She is afraid, not so much of prison guards or bosses, but of something unnamed within her.
The liar fears the void.
The fear grows from an emptiness that can never be filled no matter his success, an emptiness that keeps him from being able to enjoy who he is, what he is, and why he is. Instead, he seeks to fill that physical emptiness with the junk food and the spiritual or emotional emptiness with lies that allow him to forget for a time. The cheering crowds, the positive press statements, the grand spectacles are never enough because they do not love him for who he is but for what he means for them. It is the cost of his transactional emotional life. His lies deny the fear so that he can remain in control or at least the appearance of control to himself.
Every time he is confronted in a lie, he lies again to escape. If his inaugural wasn’t the largest, then it was because
“Someone told me it was.”
“That is what they are saying.”
“People are saying it was the largest.”
Rich understands this void for a woman confronts it in her dishonesty as her lies become a way to retain some control over herself, her relationships, and her situation.
The liar in her terror wants to fill up the void, with anything. Her lies are a denial of her fear; a way of maintaining control.
What is as consistent as his lying is his fear of and avoidance of confrontation over his lies so that he must deny that he lied, or say he forgot, he cannot remember, or he is protecting someone else. He never admits to his lies or what he lies about because he must hide how he feels.
The liar may resist confrontation, denying that she lied. Or she may use other language: forgetfulness, privacy, the protection of someone else.
Trump’s lies make him less interesting, less surprising, and less full of possibilities. He is not an inventive man who creates a greater good beyond himself for others to enjoy. In this way, his political leadership becomes the antithesis of decent politics. What makes decent politics possible is honesty, truthfulness, and honour for they provide the foundation from which something larger can be created, the exciting possibility of people coming together in a complex relationship. However, these virtues do not occur spontaneously nor do they remain unaided for once created they need to be sustained, defended, and renewed. For politics relies on honour since a man must give his word and mean it just as a woman must be faithful that is be honourable and, in this relationship, both must be truthful with each other for from that relationship a larger community can be created.
Truthfulness, honour, is not something which springs ablaze of itself. It has to be created between people.
This is true in political situations. The quality and depth of the politics evolving from a group depends in very large part on their understanding of honour.
What Trump destroys with his lies are the decency and honour needed for decent politics since his lies undermine trust and honour. The possibilities for trust between people are what Trump removes as his lies make honesty meaningless. How can you be honest in a relationship based on a transactional emotional world sustained and driven by lies? In such an environment, complex relationships from which a group can develop become impossible. Aristotle famously argued for the importance of political friendship as the basis for political society. Within that friendship, we have the trust, honour, truthfulness, and a shared intimacy. Yet, that is what Trump lacks but also what Trump requires as a basis for loyalty. You cannot be friends with others and remain loyal to Trump; it is how he corrupts those around him and the Republican Party since political friendships are impossible. Those within his political orbit are compromised, morally deformed, by their attempts to justify his behaviour or avoid his displeasure.
Trump does everything he can short of physical violence to destroy the possibilities between people to develop those complex relationships based on trust, honour, and truthfulness. We see how he attacks those who speak up or those who might show allegiance to people who have resisted him. Instead of a life of surprising possibilities created by friendship, the liar’s life is dreary and repetitious which requires them to seek stimulus from novelties, audiences, and ceremonies to replace the friendships that contain the possibility of complex relationships of love. Without those external stimuli, the liar returns to the constant dramas of the next lie but the liar and their lies cease to be interesting to anyone except the liar since the behaviour is simply repeated. In such a cycle, human possibilities cannot flourish with the liar or those he manipulates or controls through his lies as neither he nor they can live beyond the lie in a realm of trust or truth.
Rich captures the difference between the drabness of the liar’s life and the exciting alchemy of a people living honestly.
The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities. When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting. They are repetitious; the shock of human possibilities has ceased to reverberate through them.
What we find isn’t so much that Trump kills everything he touches[iii] so much as he drains it of meaning. Through his lies he drains people, events, and places of the possibility of being interesting or full of possibilities. Trump isn’t so much a female president for he lacks loyalty or even a male president[iv] since he lacks honour, but he must be considered our first eunuch president simply incapable of any lasting achievement beyond the performative spectacle of his lies.