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How Trump Gets Away with Lying, as Explained by a Magician

Ever wonder how politicians cheat without consequence? Magicians don’t

Ben Chapman
Jun 27, 2018 · 13 min read
Credit: John Devolle/Ikon Images/Getty

“How does he just keep lying?”

“He can’t possibly get away with this again.”

“Why do people still trust him?”

Our current Administration has shown an unprecedented disregard for the truth, and many Americans are flabbergasted at how few people are disturbed by this disregard. As a former card magician — and therefore someone with a bit of experience deceiving audiences — I have developed some strategies to catch other people in their lies.

Magicians are the best liars in the business. Not because they tell the most lies, or the biggest lies, but because they can get away with them even when you are anticipating the lies. We all know magic doesn’t exist. We all know that magicians are somehow lying to us when they are performing. And yet, the profession of magician has been around for thousands of years. It’s the same with politicians.

Here, I will reveal five tactics magicians and politicians use to gain your trust.

1. Dress for the Occasion

This may be obvious but it’s still worth mentioning because I get to add lots of pictures to this article of comically dressed politicians.

A person in a suit is generally considered trustworthy and credible. You’ll rarely find an on-stage magician not wearing one. In fact, even when Penn & Teller are not performing as magicians but as cultural commentators (such as in “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!”), they are still dressed to the nines.

Yet, not all occasions call for suits. Street magicians, such as Dynamo and David Blaine, are frequently found in ratty t-shirts and jackets.

Photo by Andrew Toth/FilmMagic (left), Crowder/Legge/GC Images (right) via Getty

Politicians are also known to dress down for their circumstances. In fact, they take the idea further, adding props and backdrops that endear them to a certain population, generally exhibiting the “rolled-up sleeves tough-guy” look.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP (left) and Photo by Tim Sloan/AFP (right), via Getty
Photo by Mark Lyons/Getty Images

Yeah, politicians really love pretending to be farmers.

Here, then, is lesson one on how to be trusted by your audience: Dress for the occasion.

2. Separate Yourself from the Liars

I’ll defer to again to Penn & Teller, the undisputed experts at this technique. The duo fully understands that magicians are a notoriously dishonest lot, so they try their damndest to appear as if they are “rebel” magicians by occasionally criticizing “normal” magicians and revealing their secrets.

When Penn & Teller separate themselves from the other magicians, they evade the connotation of untrustworthiness usually carried by their profession. Consider this excerpt from “The Unpleasant World of Penn & Teller.” Here, they reveal how a card trick works and are sure to tell the audience that other magicians wouldn’t want that trick revealed.

Penn & Teller also made famous their version of the cups-and-balls trick, with clear cups, which essentially reveals how other magicians perform the cups-and-balls. Again, they make sure to emphasize how many rules in the “magician’s code” they are defying along the way.

By revealing the intricacies of the trick and sharing secrets traditionally only privy to magician’s circles, Penn & Teller separate themselves from the rest of the magical community as the rebels that aren’t liars like everyone else.

So, how do politicians use this technique?

Candidates for office know that politicians aren’t trusted. As a way to avoid similar mistrust, candidates go to great lengths to shed the negative connotation and separate themselves from the herd. See the below example of how Donald Trump accomplished this in one of the Republican primary debates.

Trump was smart enough to know that he could easily separate himself from the pack of untrustworthy career politicians, and even if it wasn’t necessarily in a favorable manner, it would work out for him in the end.

Secretary Clinton, when given a similar chance to separate herself, completely failed on this account. When prompted to distance herself from the status quo, she could only offer her gender as proof of being different.

As if her failure to separate herself from other politicians wasn’t enough, she went on to reiterate her experience within the government. She purposely cemented herself in the ranks of a career field that the American public instinctively distrusts.

Senator Sanders, while not as successful as Mr. Trump at appearing to be an outsider, was still far more successful than Clinton. He habitually distanced himself from both the Democratic and Republican party, arguing that both parties had been corrupted by weak campaign finance regulation. You can see an example of this distancing in the video below.

Perhaps one of his most famous moments was when Sanders was spotted running to catch a train. Even though it might not have been an intentional campaign move, it effectively separated him from the other hoity-toity private-jet-owning politicians and businessmen that the public trusts so little.

So, are Penn & Teller actually rebellious? Somewhat. Although not nearly as much as they would have you believe.

Is Trump truly as anti-establishment as his anti-bureaucratic cries of “drain the swamp” indicate? In terms of rhetoric, yes, but his policies are far from novel.

There you have lesson two if your colleagues are considered untrustworthy, make sure you take the time to properly disavow them.

3. Divert, Divert, Divert

Everyone knows that magicians use diversions. A burst of confetti or a strange tap of the wand are easily deemed diversions by most observers. However, the best magicians use diversions so natural and comfortable that the audience can’t help but fall for them. Yet again, I will refer to the expertise of Penn & Teller.

In the below effect, Penn himself is the diversion. It’s a role he has perfected over the years with invariably entertaining bombast that draws just enough of your attention so you won’t catch the slighter, quieter Teller when he makes his move.

Not every magician has a partner in crime; solo magicians must provide the diversion themselves. Below, you will see James Galea perform what’s known as a “story trick.” The routine is chock full of various sleights, some of them even repeated multiple times throughout the trick, and Galea cannot hope to succeed in fooling the audience if they remain completely fixated on the cards. Galea’s brisk banter provides just enough distraction.

In the world of politics, diversions are equally effective. A politician will find a flashy issue, one that engages even the most politically apathetic Americans, and they will frame it as a serious issue of our time.

My favorite recent example of this is the bathroom debate. North Carolina considered laws that would force transgender citizens to use the bathroom associated with their sex assigned at birth. Even though there was no realistic way to enforce it, and even though it would have only affected a miniscule percentage of the population, the potential law was a brazen affront to the LGBTQ+ community, and so there was a vicious response from the left. Because of the easy views it gathered, media agents from all sides quickly jumped on this profitable bandwagon and covered the debate relentlessly. Meanwhile, politicians elsewhere could quietly cross off agenda items one-by-one without checks from the fourth estate, which was preoccupied with the subtleties and philosophy of human genitalia.

President Trump is an expert at diversion. You may remember when Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russian-collusion investigation, which reflected poorly on an embarrassed President. Trump quickly got the media off the topic of Sessions’ recusal with this tweet about Arnold Schwarzenegger leaving “The Apprentice.”

Trump knows that few people care to understand the tedious details of a legal investigation, but everyone loves a good celebrity Twitter battle.

However, Trump’s Schwarzenegger-bashing was nothing compared to the Tweetstorm that occupied the days of embarrassment Republicans suffered after they found out they didn’t have the Senate votes to pass the American Health Care Act. They had to delay the vote. Here is a glimpse at some of Trump’s tweets from around that time, made in an effort to distract us from his Administration’s shortcomings.

This one in particular enraged cable news.

To be fair, the President did intersperse a few healthcare-related tweets throughout. It was unavoidable. However, the media delighted far more in covering these ridiculous Morning Joe incidents, and the public found much more entertainment in hearing about them.

When the Bill was ultimately put up for vote in the Senate, it failed miserably. To distract the press, Trump spoon-fed them these three tweets at 8 a.m., to ensure that the news cycle would downplay the Republicans’ failure.

“But wait,” you protest, “Trump is always tweeting crazy things. How do we know when it’s a diversion?”

You don’t. That’s exactly why it is so effective.

Remember the examples I gave of the magicians? The diverting banter doesn’t just occur when the magician needs it as a diversion. It persists through the entire act, beginning even before any magic has started. If you want to catch a magician in a sleight, or a politician in a lie, you have to look past the banter or rhetoric into the sometimes boring mechanics of what is actually going on. In the magician’s case, this means watching the hands very carefully. Don’t watch their face or their props. In the politician’s case, looking for the truth means ignoring a person’s rhetoric and instead observing what bills they vote for, author, or sponsor.

This has been lesson three of how to get away with lying: divert, divert, divert.

4. Claim You Predicted the Past

To explain this, I’ll have to let you in on a magician’s secret. When you are offered a fanned deck of cards and are told to “pick a card, any card,” you might not actually have as free a choice as you imagine. This is because magicians often use a technique known as a “pack force.” When they offer you the cards to choose from, they will actually slightly manipulate the cards in order to encourage you to pick from a certain group of maybe 5–10 cards. To explain this, see the picture below.

The face value of the “key card” is known by the magician, and 5–10 cards to the right of it are also known. Usually, the key card is an ace, and the 5–10 cards right of the ace are of the same suit in ascending order. The magician keeps an eye on this key card and will encourage you to pick one of the cards in that group. Once a card in the pack is selected, the magician can simply count to the key card and they will know the value of the selected card.

The “pack force” allows a wide range of “mind reading” effects, but an even more fun array of “prediction” reveals. Because the magician knows the audience will select one of a certain suit, he can hide notes on his person that read, “I predict you will select X card.” For example, he might hide a note that reads, “I predict you will pick the ace of hearts” in his right shoe, while his left shoe predicts the two of hearts, his left pocket predicts the three of hearts, and so on. Of course, the audience will never see the unused predictions, making it appear as though the magician foresaw the future.

So, how do politicians use this technique?

I’ll refer to the documentary “Get Me Roger Stone,” released shortly after the presidential race. This documentary examined Roger Stone, an infamous political mind known for vicious, mudslinging campaigns. In the documentary, Stone’s scorched-earth method is credited for Donald Trump’s startling victory, and Stone happily accepts that credit.

Does he deserve it though?

Let’s imagine that Stone, like a magician, has an array of different reveals he can make after the election. If you saw the documentary, you’ll know that Stone wasn’t actually directly advising the Trump campaign, so he didn’t know exactly which tactics Trump would use. This means that the “pack” of options that Stone can claim to have predicted are different variants of a Trump victory.

Let’s examine his options and how he can pretend to have predicted them.

If Trump wins by running a relatively standard campaign, Stone can pretend to have been the vicious, unofficial attack dog by his side.

If Trump wins the race while consistently polling higher than Clinton throughout the entire campaign, Stone can claim to be the political genius that knew how to unite the Republican party while simultaneously discrediting Clinton.

If Trump wins in an unpredicted victory, Stone can pretend to be the campaign manager so crafty that he outsmarted even the pollsters.

Lastly, if Trump wins the race as a vicious, blustering, anti-establishment candidate, then Stone will pretend to be the author of the ideas that catapulted this new type of candidate to victory.

In reality, the result was some combination of these outcomes; Stone simply had to determine which outcomes had occurred and claim to have predicted them.

But what if Clinton had won?

A Clinton victory is outside of Stone’s “pack” of outcomes that he can fake having predicted. He needs a backup plan. To explain this backup plan, I’ll refer to the magician. Not every “pack force” is successful. Often, an untrusting card chooser will browse through all 52 of their options and settle on a card from near the top or bottom of the deck. In this case, the magician must be ready with some other illusion that will use sleight of hand to find an unknown card in a deck. Fortunately, card-finding tricks are elementary, and each magician usually has 5–10 variants they can perform on the spot. The result will be a less impressed crowd, but at least they won’t be completely disappointed.

Roger Stone’s backup plan kicks in after a Clinton victory. In this scenario, Stone can claim his goal was to create a national movement to show Washington politicians that the American people are sick of establishment politics and political correctness. This is much less impressive, and it makes for a much less exciting documentary, but it’s a way for Stone to preserve public perception of him as a great political mind.

Now that you know this technique, you might also see why politicians refuse to give straight answers to debate questions, especially questions that require them to make a specific promise or prediction. When a promise is made, the size of the “pack” is reduced to one card. The politician has to get lucky and pray that the single predicted outcome happens, otherwise there’s going to be hell to pay. Next time you see a politician worming their way around a conclusive answer, you’ll know why.

Thus, lesson four of lying is: don’t make predictions, just pretend you predicted the past.

5. Tell People Lies they Want to Hear

“That’s ridiculous,” you protest, “who wants to be lied to?”

The answer is: Most people.

We have a whole city in California dedicated to people pretending to be what they’re not, an entire industry telling us that products it’s selling are things they’re not, and cosmetic corporations that allow us to look like people we’re not. We happily welcome these little lies because they make the world a bit nicer to live in. A spoonful of sugar helps the deception go down.

For magicians, this means they must perform effects in which people want to believe. Everyone wants to live in a world where vanishing, conjuring, transfiguring, and teleporting are possible. Raymond Teller is famous for his expertly performed effects that spur feelings of whimsy in his audience. So elegant is his magic that after seeing it, you won’t even want to find out how it is accomplished.

The first example I provide of this is his fishbowl effect, in which he transforms coins into living goldfish.

The second example of this is one of magic’s all-time most unique effects: Teller’s “Shadows.”

Fluid, exquisite, and polished. You want to be fooled because for a short time, Teller brings you into a world where the impossible is possible.

So, how do politicians tell you the lies you want to hear?

You may notice that during election season, candidates are intensely bitter about the country’s current circumstances, and they always paint a bright picture of the future. Each candidate, no matter his or her party, must denounce the current times in some way, and then promise the audience that there are better times ahead. A candidate must provide hope. Everyone wants to believe in hope.

Yet again, here is something at which Donald Trump excels. In the interview below, the then future President scorns Obama’s healthcare bill and promises some impossible word-goulash of mutually exclusive pledges which, while entirely impossible, sound wonderful.

You probably also remember Trump’s secret “Destroy ISIS in 30 Days” plan. Anyone who’s tried a “Lose Weight in 30 Days” diet knows it doesn’t work. However, people continually buy into these ideas because they sound wonderful. Trump is full of such promises, ranging from his claim that he is a great negotiator who can magically solve problems created by NAFTA and the Paris Climate Agreement, to his vow to bring back a doomed coal industry.

This is lesson five in telling lies: make sure to tell people what they want to believe.

Now What?

Now you can spot these five techniques used by both magicians and politicians to get away with lying. These techniques don’t have to be used for deception, though. They can be used for good. If you want an audience to gain your trust, make sure you use these ideas. If you need proof it works, just look at how I wrote this article.

I dressed for the occasion by using a colloquial writing style I knew was appropriate for my audience. Not too formal, not too casual.

I separated myself from the liars by telling you I was a former card magician, and by seemingly betraying the rest of the magicians by breaking our code and letting you in on our secrets.

I didn’t predict the future, I pretended to have predicted the past when I explained how Trump’s ability to lie ushered him to the presidency. In truth, I didn’t expect Trump to win either. I was only able to write this article in retrospect.

I told you things you wanted to hear when I expressed my frustration with politicians, especially with our current Administration, and when I told you there was a learnable method to the dishonesty of politicians.

The only technique I didn’t use was diversion, because it’s rather difficult to divert attention in writing.

From now on, you can be on the lookout for these techniques from both politicians and everyday people. Feel free to practice them yourself as well — as long as it’s for a good cause, of course.

Written by

I write about politics, food, and the environment. My goal is to improve the world through policy. Email me at benbart.chapman@gmail.com

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