“How do you know a politician is lying?” “His or her lips are moving.” Lying in politics is as American as motherhood and apple pie — and by that cliché I mean no disrespect for other kinds of what the Biden Administration calls “birthing people.” There are even some federal and state Supreme Court cases that could be read as saying that politicians have a “right to lie” that is protected by the Constitution.
Back when he thought of himself as a business person, Donald Trump and a ghostwriter wrote a best-seller entitled The Art of the Deal. It was pretty good. I read it and learned a few things about negotiating. But that’s not the topic of this column. The current point is that Joe Biden should write a sequel to Trump’s book entitled The Art of the Political Lie. There are already a number of good books and articles about the art and science of lying generally including the 1954 classic How to Lie with Statistics. But no one has written specifically about why political lies are so effective, and so this column attempts to begin to fill that gap. Its purpose is not to help politicians do a better job of lying; they don’t need any help in that department. Rather, the purpose is to help those of us who are the targets of the lies of politicians to be better able to recognize them and be on our guard against them.
Those who are looking for “red meat” about how Biden is a bigger liar than Trump, or Trump is a bigger liar than Biden, should stop reading right now. Comparing political liars is not my topic today. My topic is how they do it, and why lying is a such successful strategy in American politics. Joe Biden has never been much of a success in office, but he is a past master at politics, including the fine art of using political lies to get reelected, and consequently many of the examples below are of Biden lies.
Rule One: Avoid Verifiable Statements of Fact.
The usual legal rules that one may not tell a defamatory lie do not apply full force to “public figures,” including politicians. As a result, the private sector has assumed the role of thought police through hordes of self-appointed “fact checkers.” However, the “fact checkers” are themselves as partisan as the politicians whose facts they are supposedly checking. Thus, for example, it was headline news recently when the left-leaning Washington Post recently awarded Joe Biden “four Pinocchios,” its highest award for lying, for his demonstrably false claim that the new Georgia election law shortened voting hours and thus made it harder for working people to vote.
That’s the first rule for effective lying in politics: try to avoid verifiable statements of fact that can be demonstrated to be false like the claim that the recent Georgia law shortens voting hours; it didn’t and that was provable. Instead, provide judgments and interpretations that are matters of opinion and thus not likely be provably false. If Biden had merely said that the new Georgia election law “made it harder for working people to vote,” he never would have caught the attention of fact-checkers.
Same problem with Biden’s claim that Kyle Rittenhouse was a “white supremacist.” If he had merely said something vague like that Rittenhouse was a “vigilante” or a “right wing extremist,” he might have gotten away with it unchallenged.
Biden is usually pretty good at that. As the apologists for Biden at the Washington Post note, “More typical for Biden, when he uttered a false statement, was some subtle truth-stretching.” I love that attempted whitewash by the Post; Biden isn’t really lying; he is just engaged in “subtle truth-stretching.”
Rule Two: Tell a Lie that Confirms Your Audience’s Biases.
In his first news conference as president, Biden accused his predecessor of murder, saying that Trump had allowed children “to starve” at the Mexican border. The exact quote was, “The idea that I’m going to say, which I would never do, if an unaccompanied child ends up at the border, we’re just going to let them starve to death and stay on the other side, no previous administrations did either, except Trump.” No one in the press questioned this statement, even though the fact-checkers admit there are no “documented cases” of the would-be Americans that the Trump Administration kept on the other side of the Mexican border dying for lack of food. I also admire the brilliance of this attempt by the press to whitewash another Biden lie: “no documented cases of starvation” tells the gullible that there might just be a few cases of starvation here and there that slipped through the cracks, but none of them were sufficiently “documented.” Just a little issue with the paperwork.
So that’s the second lesson on the art of effective political lying: Say something that may be true at a symbolic level but is easily misinterpreted and taken literally by one’s supporters. Biden probably meant that the children who were turned back at the border and kept in Mexico while applying for asylum were not kept in luxurious conditions. But that’s not what he said; he said that Trump had allowed them to starve.
This was an effective fib because it fits in with the image of the world that Biden’s supporters carry around in their heads. Many Biden supporters think that President Trump is a heartless ogre so telling them a lie that confirms their biases will seem true to them because it fits in with their pre-existing image of the world. The technical term for this is “confirmation bias.”
Rule Three: Convince Yourself First.
The third lesson is that to be a really effective liar, you first have to convince yourself that the lie is true, at least on some level. This is because many non-verbal cues are built into us by evolution and we are less likely to be detected if we believe that something is true on some level. This is how former-president Clinton became so passionate and wagged his finger when he insisted that “he had not had sexual relations with that woman” Monica Lewinsky. He had convinced himself that “sexual relations” did not include whatever he and Monica had done. The Jesuits who trained Clinton at Georgetown developed this technique into a fine art, which is technically called “equivocation,” which means saying something that is literally true as you understand the words but will be understood by the listeners as meaning something that is not true. It is also sometimes known as “doublespeak” and for politicians, it is a fine art.
A variation is to put a meaning on the words that someone else spoke that is different from their actual intended meaning. This happened a lot during the Trump presidency as the press that was in the tank for his opponents repeatedly claimed that he had said things that he never actually said. For example, many otherwise sensible people still believe that President Trump recommended that people drink bleach to protect themselves from the corona virus. Joe Biden capitalized on that erroneous belief by stating explicitly in a speech on July 9, 2020, that Donald Trump said that “maybe if you drank bleach you may be okay.”
Trump never said that. When the scientific experts observed in a live news conference that ultraviolet light and bleach killed the virus, he asked his scientific advisers whether “disinfectants” might at some point in the future be developed as a treatment. But those fine points were lost in translation, and the impression that Trump had advocated drinking bleach was confirmed when Lysol came out the next day with a statement saying that no one should drink their products. The die was cast in people’s minds, and it didn’t matter that even the anti-Trump fact checkers at Politifact later concluded that “he didn’t say people should drink bleach.” Mark Twain supposedly said that “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on in the morning.” One of the main reasons that lying in politics is so effective is that the truth rarely catches up with a lie.
Rule Four: Repetition.
The more a lie is repeated, the more it seems true. Repeating the bleach story over and over made it seem unquestionably true to many people. “Biden supporters dotted their yards with ‘He Won’t Put Bleach In You’ signs.”
Rule Five: A Good Lie Loves Company.
A variation of the repetition strategy is to recite so many claims that the audience gets the impression that some of them must be true even if others have been refuted. This is captured by the old adage “throw enough mud, and some of it will stick.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board claims this was the strategy behind former-President Trump’s recent letter to the editor reciting numerous specific facts and figures about supposed instances of election fraud in the 2020 elections, many of which the Journal claims to have been “debunked.”
It is not my purpose here to rehash the claims pro and con about the 2020 election. That would take a book and it is not one that I am qualified to write. My point is merely that the strategy that the Journal accuses Trump of using is an effective one, whether or not it was actually what Trump was doing in his recent letter to the editor.
Politics is the art of trying to persuade the voting public that you see the world their way but that the other person running for the job does not. “Mudslinging,” making false claims about your opponent, is one of the most effective tools in the politician’s toolbox. I despair of ever getting politicians to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” as we swear witnesses to do in court. Perhaps this compendium of how politicians lie to us will help us become more critical listeners.