Voters Suborning Deceit — Why Lies Work so Well for Politicians

I am at pains to say from the start that I am not taking sides in this. My interest, and particular fascination with our two major-party Presidential candidates, is in the lies that they tell — or, at any rate, are accused of telling.

A lot of the news coverage and commentary on this election have been given over to claims that one or the other of the candidates is lying, and among the candidates themselves the accusations and counter-accusations of mendacity have gone well beyond the saturation point of the average citizen. We’re mostly just sick and tired of it.

Yet the implications of lie-telling can be serious. The fact that a candidate is seen by a majority of the populace as untrustworthy will not automatically be altered when and if that candidate is elected. The distrust will remain. And among other things it could well undermine claims to a mandate — people are reluctant to cede much authority over their lives (assuming here, that to a great extent, even a President must rely to some extent on the consent of the governed) to someone they see as fundamentally dishonest.

The lies keep coming, though. And although no one is particularly surprised by this, it’s maybe worth stopping to consider whether we, the electorate — we, the people — are in a sense encouraging and suborning deceit.

Professor Paul Ekman, in his fascinating book of some years ago (Telling Lies — Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage, W.W. Norton 1985), points out that the party on the receiving end of a lie will sometimes have a fairly compelling need to believe it. Or in other words, in certain circumstances, a lie “works” perfectly from the liar’s perspective, since the liar knows that the target of the lie finds it in his (the target’s) own interest to believe that the lie is true, and thus will tend to believe it — even if he (the target) otherwise has good reason to doubt the integrity of the liar.

Ekman cites the example of the Munich Agreement of 1938, in which the major European Powers — and most notably the British, led by prime minister Neville Chamberlain — allowed Hitler’s Germany to annex the Sudeten territory of Czechoslovakia. As Ekman puts it:

Hitler . . . had the advantage of deceiving someone who wanted to be misled. Chamberlain was a willing victim who wanted to believe Hitler’s lie that he did not plan war if only the borders of Czechoslovakia were redrawn to meet his demands. Otherwise Chamberlain would have to admit that his policy of appeasement had failed and in fact weakened his country.

Ekman goes on to make the related point that:

In many deceits the victim overlooks the liar’s mistakes, giving ambiguous behavior the best reading, collusively helping to maintain the lie, to avoid the terrible consequences of uncovering the lie. By overlooking the signs of his wife’s affairs a husband may at least postpone the humiliation of being exposed as a cuckold and the possibility of divorce. Even if he admits her infidelity to himself he may cooperate in not uncovering her lies to avoid having to acknowledge it or to avoid a showdown. As long as nothing is said he can still have the hope, no matter how small, that he may have misjudged her, that she may not be having an affair.

The lie, then, morphs into self-deception on the part of the target (or “victim,” as Ekman calls him). We persist in our belief because we have a vested interest in doing so.

It would seem too that the more downside there is in abandoning our belief in the lie, the greater our persistence in clinging to our belief in it, and thus the more we’re prepared to ignore plain-as-day evidence and glaring inconsistencies that would otherwise undermine our belief. A belief in a lie that’s really crucial to our whole world-view is not one that we’re going to abandon in a hurry. Whereas when a lie in which we have no real stake is exposed, we’re willing to let go with little more than a Gallic shrug — oh well, that always seemed a little dicey anyhow.

So let’s consider some of the big, bold lies that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have told, and their targets’ collusion in these lies. Let’s look at one particular example of a lie that each of them seems to have told, and the extent to which those hearing each of those lies (separated out into supporters the candidate, supporters of the opponent, and people who are undecided) are likely to want or even to believe them.

Here are a couple of purported lies, then:

Statement A. Hillary Clinton has no chronic, serious health problem.

Statement B. Donald Trump has always opposed the US getting involved in war in Iraq.

I myself take it as read that both of these statements are in fact falsehoods, since various sources have adduced considerable evidence of their falsehood. Based on that evidence, I am convinced that each of them is untrue. But what do various other target audiences make of them?

Perhaps the most obvious point here is that Hillary supporters have an enormous stake in believing Statement A. If it is false, then Hillary Clinton may no longer be a viable candidate for the Presidency, depending on the exact nature and seriousness of any disease or syndrome or chronic illness she may have. So her supporters have every reason to ignore or try to explain away seizure-like episodes or any other evidence that comes to light that might tend to gnaw at the foundations of this rather majestic edifice of deceit.

(A footnote here, and foreshadowing of something I elaborate on below: Many Hillary Clinton supporters are intelligent, well-educated, sensible, and highly-ethical people. How on earth could they so readily collude in a lie? I will in due course explain why I think this is, but the important point at this stage is for you, dear reader, not to abandon the thread of the argument here on cosmetic grounds and give in to circular reasoning — i.e. that Statement A cannot possibly be false because that would mean many otherwise admirable people are somehow complicit in major deceit. I say “cosmetic” because I accept that the notion of Statement A’s being false is not particularly attractive or nice.)

Trump supporters, on the other hand, might be thought to be gleeful at the prospect of Statement A turning out to be false. But — I’m thinking — not so fast here. If Statement A is finally acknowledged by one and all to be false, and if that happens just before the election, the Democratic party will have to choose a last-minute substitute for Hillary Clinton, and there’s a very good chance that any such substitute candidate will be a better candidate than Clinton. Trump supporters — and more to the point, Donald Trump himself — therefore might have reason either to believe the lie about Hillary Clinton’s health or at least not be overly sedulous in any examination of it. Much like Ekman’s cuckolded husband, Trump and his supporters might find that the best course is mostly just to leave the issue alone.

It seems, though, that undecided voters have pretty well no stake in believing the lie. I am trying to imagine circumstances in which a voter who is genuinely undecided would want to be deceived about a candidate’s physical (or for that matter, mental) fitness for office. But I can’t really imagine any plausible scenario in which such a person would actually think that way. So I’m prepared to conclude that the undecided voter will not be a willing accomplice in the lie — and therefore that it is probably the undecided voter who is most eager to know the truth about Hillary Clinton’s health.

Now as far as Statement B is concerned, Trump supporters will likely want, on balance, to believe the lie. The stakes, though, for Trump supporters would not seem to be as high as they are for Clinton supporters in respect of Statement A. In other words, Trump remains a viable candidate even if he’s lying through his teeth about his position on Iraq. This is not a sign of some sexist double-standard in Trump supporters. It’s merely because of the nature of the lie. If Statement B is false, it means that Donald Trump is misleading us about the position he has previously taken on a particular policy issue. Politicians do this all the time, and although it’s not great for a pol’s image, it’s rarely fatal. Plus, Donald Trump, for better or for worse, probably gets off even more lightly than most politicians, since he’s a first time candidate — all of his prior positions on policy were held as a private citizen with no direct effect on the actual making of law or formulation of government policy. Bottom line: Trump supporters will want to believe the lie, but few will have such a strong attachment to this belief that they will forsake their candidate — or will have great concerns about others doing so — if the lie is exposed.

Hillary Clinton supporters, naturally, have no incentive to believe Statement B and every reason to point out, and indeed shout from the rooftops, that DONALD TRUMP IS FREAKING LYING ABOUT IRAQ. Unlike Trump supporters in respect of Statement A, they have zero reason to keep alive the idea that Donald Trump has always opposed the Iraq intervention and from their point of view there is no downside to Trump being pilloried, publicly humiliated, and basically having his gonads roasted on an open hibachi for his deceit, since the lie will weaken his candidacy but not to the point where he has to be replaced by someone better.

As with Statement A, undecided voters will be the cohort most interested in knowing the truth about Statement B. Some will have strong views on Iraq, whereas others will simply want to know what’s up as part of their evaluation of Donald Trump’s integrity (although I grant that only the profoundly inattentive will not already have formed some sort of conclusion as to the latter). Also, as with Statement A, it’s hard to come up with a scenario in which a genuinely undecided voter would feel any sort of need to believe the lie.

I should also mention that there is another category of voters that we should not ignore: the own-goal partisans — i.e. the Never Hillary Democrats and the Never Trump Republicans. These people are out there in noisy and decidedly non-trivial numbers, and it is probably fair to conclude that they will not be signing on to any questionable statements that would support the candidate they oppose. In the case of the Never Trump crowd, these people will likely view Statement B much in the same manner as Hillary supporters — they’ll cite it endlessly as yet more evidence of Trump’s unfitness as a candidate. On the other hand, the Never Hillary Democrats do not have Trump supporters’ incentive to affect relative indifference when it comes to Statement A; instead, they should be all too happy to see Hillary Clinton’s health or anything else take her out of contention (and a cursory look at some of the diehard Bernie supporters’ Twitter feeds and YouTube channels seems to bear this out.)

Smart People Keeping Lies Alive

I alluded above to the idea that otherwise decent people can and will coalesce around a lie, defending it, ignoring evidence to the contrary, and otherwise colluding in perpetuating deceit — even in the case of major, serious lies that affect the future and wellbeing of an entire nation — if they are themselves sufficiently invested in the lie. Neville Chamberlain was not an evil man, but as Professor Ekman observed, he willfully bought into a lie that turned out to be of epic consequence.

How can this be?

Or, taking the flip side of that question, why on earth do we imagine that things could ever be otherwise?

Addressing this in reverse order, we do — and by “we” I think I mean the entire human race, although I am not sufficiently versed in the anthropological research to be absolutely sure of this — have a strong moral aversion to deceit. This aversion seems to sit alongside a belief that eventually truth will out, and the liar will get his comeuppance. And sometimes this karmic version of events does in fact play out that way. (This is especially true in films and stories. It’s a major feature of our literature and folklore. Which is a whole separate area of inquiry, but suffice it to say that this meme or story-arc is something that seems to be deeply ingrained in us as individuals and as a species.)

Consistent with this aspect of our morality, we deem property or power acquired on the basis of deceit to be illegitimate, and therefore do not recognize title or authority in such circumstances. This is the nub of the matter, and is why it is essential to the purported owner or holder of ill-gotten property or office that the lie be concealed.

But what of those who’ve been deceived, but nonetheless decide to play along with the lie rather than strip the liar of his property or office? Quite simply, they’re mostly just people who’ve been bought off.

In Professor Ekman’s example, Hitler bought Chamberlain’s cooperation with an agreement that permitted Chamberlain to portray himself as a peacemaker and which appeared to vindicate Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. In the case of our Statements A and B, the candidates’ respective supporters are bought with a policy agenda and promised style of leadership that furthers their individual desires and objectives. High-profile surrogates and donors are bought with even more extravagant promises, usually involving political favors and patronage jobs. Your aspiring Secretary of Commerce is perfectly content to look the other way as Hillary Clinton is dragged semi-conscious into the van or Donald Trump casually thumbs his nose at his own prior statements of support for the Iraq adventure.

Yet perhaps most interestingly in the case of our Clinton and Trump lies, it’s the more consequential lie, namely Statement A, that gets broad, bipartisan support, and thus will be largely exempt from scrutiny — with, in fact, those daring to scrutinize finding themselves rounded upon by the vested interests and belittled as conspiracy theorists and the like. As I mentioned above, even some Trump supporters will be able to work out that their candidate has a pretty clear incentive to encourage people to go a little easy on the question of Hillary’s health.

Why is Statement A the lie of greater consequence? The answer may be obvious, but just imagine what would happen if, suddenly, Statement A is widely acknowledged to be false, and the actual, medical proof of Hillary Clinton’s incapacity is put out there for all to see. Yes, of course, too much attention to the Statement B falsehood would be bad for Trump too, and might even tip the balance to the point where it loses the election for him, but the Statement A deceit would almost certainly be instantly disqualifying if the whole truth were suddenly to be revealed.

And a disqualifying event — or effectively disqualifying event — would be worse than mere electoral defeat. After all, in an election, donors, campaign workers, and various other hangers-on understand the risks associated with a nationwide vote. You pays your money and you takes your chances. But a candidacy that’s guaranteed to fail, particularly when that guaranteed failure comes to light at the last minute, is far more pernicious. The Clintons have spent years — decades, even — laying the groundwork for this. Big donors have ponied up vast sums; speaking fees and foundation donations have been forked over; surrogates and endorsers have had all manner of Cabinet seats and other patronage positions dangled before them. And poof! Away it all goes, disappearing like a post-concussion memory as the candidate’s rigid hulk is dragged off the curb and into the van.

Suddenly, goods that have been bought and paid for cannot be delivered. This is a crisis that cannot be allowed to happen. So the belief in the lie becomes not just a matter of preference, convenience, amour-propre, or prime ministerial reputation. It’s not just Trump licking his wounds in one of his gold-plated mega-suites and les deplorables ranting in barrooms and militia meetings. It’s an enormous, tentacled beast that reaches into every nook and cranny of the political and crony-capitalist establishment, and as it suffers sudden cardiac arrest, its dead weight crushes all manner of lobbyists, bundlers, federal grant recipients, and any other type of crony, grifter, or fellow-traveler one would care to mention. It would be very bad for a lot of people. A lotta people.

My point here, though, boils down to something maybe quite simple: Look not at just the liar and the morality of lying, but consider those targets of the lie whose belief in it are what, in the end, keeps it alive. Any half-decent investigative journalist with access to the relevant information and a couple of days to spare could easily dismantle Statements A and B. I am convinced of that. But it’s the Believers — from the decent, earnest Neville Chamberlains to the cynical, talking-head hacks on cable TV — and not the Liars themselves, who are the first-line defenders of the citadels of government and candidate mendacity.