The Art of the Spiel — Is Donald Trump Fulfilling Oscar Wilde’s vision by Reviving the Lost Art of Lying?
Maybe The Donald is on to something after all.
In “The Decay of Lying,” 19th century Irish writer Oscar Wilde bemoaned the lack of brazen lying among the politicians of his time, who told only insignificant distortions. “They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind,” Wilde complained.
Remind you of anyone?
Wilde predicted that, “society sooner or later must return to its lost leader, the cultured and fascinating liar.” He thought it was the province of writers and other artists to help bring that about. “What we have to do, what at any rate it is our duty to do, is to revive this old art of lying. … And when that day dawns, or sunsets reddens, how joyous we shall all be! Facts will be regarded as discreditable, Truth will be found mourning over her fetters and Romance, with her temper of wonder, will return to the land. The very aspect of the world will change to our startled eyes.”
In other words, the way to make America great again was to find a liar so skilled that he could convince us that it was, in fact, greater than it is. Halleluiah, that day is at hand!
Tony Schwartz, who co-authored Art of the Deal for Donald Trump, recently told us that Trump lies for fun, no longer even realizing he’s doing it. “Lying is second nature to him,” says Schwartz. “Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true.” “He lies about everything. In fact, lying now is his number one tactic. … He [now] believes what he is saying.”
Mr. Trump would seem to be the drug Oscar Wilde prescribed.
Those Americans who find Trump abhorrent (and I am among them), have a difficult time grappling with the idea that there could be any merit to his mendacity, or method to his madness. Perhaps there isn’t. But examining the world’s most spectacular liar through the eye of a long dead writer might allow us to view Trump’s rhetoric differently, to consider it art even if it is art we dislike. Not everyone cares for Picasso, but most of his critics would still acknowledge him as a maestro.
Wilde’s character, Vivian, tells us that the real world is dreary. Nature, he says “is so uncomfortable.” Man created architecture, furniture, and technology as false, man-made things to escape the real world and live in greater ease. Those accomplishments remove us from nature and feed humankind’s egotism, which “is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity.”
In photography, painting, poetry, or really any art form, there is a debate between the realists (think Dutch masters or photojournalists) who seek to accurately capture the world as it is, and surrealists, impressionists, or others who intentionally blur or distort what they see with their eyes to convey a greater truth that they see with their hearts.
Oscar Wilde put himself squarely in the surreal camp, asserting that “no great artist ever sees things as they really are.”
Journalists, legislators, pundits, and other policy makers who dominate the news media are not accustomed to having an artist in the White House. We expect non-fiction from our president, not works of literature. But should we reconsider that notion? Is leadership more art than science? Martin Luther King Jr. may have done more for America by telling us his dreams than recounting the brutal reality of Jim Crow.
Trump’s lies, Wilde might argue, do indeed change the world and therefore create a new reality in and of themselves. “Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life,” Wilde tells us. One need only look at the rise in hate crimes and openly displayed bigotry and sexism since Trump’s election to observe that the world is indeed imitating his words.
Some presidential lies have been good ones. John F. Kennedy both created and resolved the Cuban missile crisis by lying to the American people. Kennedy helped bring on the crisis by falsely claiming during his campaign, contrary to security briefings that both he and Richard Nixon had received, that the Soviets had a huge nuclear advantage over America — a “missile gap.” In reality, the Soviet deployment of missiles to Cuba was a reaction to the US placing missiles in Europe with first strike capacity against Russia. US security experts did not view the Cuban missiles as a significant shift in the balance of power, but the public — fueled by Kennedy’s red-baiting rhetoric — perceived a crisis. Kennedy privately regretted his error, saying, “last month I said we weren’t going to [permit Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba] and last month I should have said … we don’t care.”
While Kennedy told the American people that he had faced down the Soviets and forced them to unilaterally withdraw their missiles, the truth was he struck a secret deal to remove the US missiles in Europe that had precipitated the crisis in the first place. Kennedy blinked. He was wise to do so, and arguably, he was wise to lie about it to the American people so that it did not look like a defeat.
There were other myths to Camelot. Kennedy may be best known for inspiring the space program with the exultation, “We choose to go to the moon.” He made it sound like it was about science and exploration, but Kennedy’s real motivation was to find something, anything, that the US could accomplish but the Soviets could not. Obsessed with the Cold War, he worried that we were losing the “space race” after the successful launch of Sputnik, and we needed a symbolic show of superiority. Truth be told, symbolism matters.
Given what we’ve heard about JFK’s affairs, the entire Camelot fairy tale appears to be more fiction than fact. And yet, it was a nice story. America felt great, the economy boomed, and we looked strong to the rest of the world.
If Donald Trump’s bombast can convince conservative Americans that America is still a tough country even if North Korea maintains a capacity for building nuclear weapons, perhaps that might bring greater peace and stability to the world. If he can restore the self-esteem of factory workers whose jobs were sent overseas (or lost to automation) by offering mere words and platitudes to accompany their Walmart jobs instead of Ivy League condescension and broken promises of job training, maybe we should praise him as we did Kennedy. The power of positive thinking can indeed become a self-fulfilling prophecy. What Trump supporters may get, that his opponents do not, is that believing in something can in and of itself be of value. Just ask Tinkerbell, or the tooth fairy, or Santa Claus.
Wilde told us that “the aim of the liar is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure. He is the very basis of civilized society.” He defined lying as the telling of “beautiful untrue things.”
But most of Trump’s lies are not beautiful.
He lies about Mexicans being rapists, about three million fictional illegal votes that deprived him of winning the national popular vote, about the character of decent men and women.
Mark Twain, who may have inspired Wilde with his 1880 essay “On the Decay of the Art of Lying,” advises that “the wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously, to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others’ advantage, and not our own, to lie healingly, charitably, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously.”
By Twain’s standards, Trump is not good liar, meaning one who lies with virtue. Most of his lies are aimed at self-aggrandizement, greed, and pitting Americans against one another instead of attempting to heal. He lies to inflate his wealth, his crowd sizes, and his intellect. His real estate, “university,” and other business ventures used lies to rip people off.
Rather than devoting our entire critique of Trump to the veracity of his tweets, we would do better to assess the virtue of his lies.
Virtue-checking requires a moral judgement, something that “objective” journalists are loath to do. But fact-checking Trump hasn’t worked. It’s a bit like pointing out that a cubist painting depicting sexual assault is not accurate, when the more important critique is that it is ugly and hateful. It may require a new form of journalism, but to deal with the art of the spiel, we must assert our own values not just point out Trump’s lack of accuracy.
Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart opined, there is a difference between art and pornography, and we all know it when we see it. Trump aspires to be Oscar Wilde’s beautiful liar, but he has succeeded only in becoming Stormy Daniels’ obscene celebrity co-star.