Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > Russiagate

Feb 15, 2017


tags: Trump,Michael Flynn,lying

Illustration by Wes Jenkins

Rick Shenkman is the editor of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Donald Trump lies repeatedly to the public like no one else ever has.  But Michael Flynn lies once to Mike Pence and he's out on his ear? 

This seems like a paradox.  It isn't.  Here's why.

  The shocking events of the last 24 hours that culminated in the resignation of the National Security Advisor demonstrate a truth that first dawned on me 20 years ago when I was writing my book, Presidential Ambition.  It's this.

Presidents can lie freely to the American public with few consequences so long as they are liked and events are going their way.  But they rarely if ever lie to other politicians.  The consequences of lying to people with whom you have to work are too high in most cases.

The only example I have seen in the last generation of a president telling a big fat lie to other politicians was Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The lie worked.  It helped keep his cabinet with him during the early months of the scandal.  By the time they learned the truth the issue was no longer whether he'd had an affair but whether Democrats were going to stand with him in a fight with the GOP.  As the polls were with Clinton that was an easy call.

Then there’s Trump.  He happens to be someone who lies both to the public and to the people around him. In this respect he's truly different from representatives of the political class.  Until now he's managed to succeed despite this moral deficiency.

But in another way he's just like normal politicians.  It's apparent he often doesn't seem to recognize the difference between the truth and a lie. This is common among politicians.  It's the main way they get away with lying.

As humans we have two main defenses against a liar.  One is that liars get a reputation for lying.  Once they do we are on our guard when they open their mouth and speak.  But this chiefly works in the sphere of life in which we operate day to day.  In the political realm a reputation for lying can often easily be dismissed as the creation of partisan enemies.

The other defense we have against a liar is that liars normally give themselves away.  They twitch or blink or look away or do something that suggests insincerity.  Our human cheater detection system goes into overdrive when we detect insincerity.  This protects us from cheaters.

But do you see the problem?  A really good liar can defeat our cheater detection system if they can lie without appearing nervous.  They do this by convincing themselves in the moment they are lying that they are not lying.  LBJ was said to be good at this.  (See Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, volumes 1 through 4.)

Trump seems to have this facility.  He doesn’t give away himself when he’s lying.  He sounds the same no matter what he’s saying.  To his believers he’s a truth teller.

The Flynn incident should serve as a lesson in morality for Mr. Trump. It should teach him that the consequences of prevarication are steep.  It won’t.  So you can expect Mr. Trump to keep lying.

This is sad.

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