What was Trump’s very first lie? Steven Reisner explores the effects of lying on children, on politics, and ultimately on our democracy. And he asks the question, if Trump has been lying all along, why, now, is he being impeached? Is it because Trump actually exposed a truth about American politics? A truth that threatens the Democrats and Republicans equally?? Tune in to episode two of Madness: where psychology and capitalism collide.
Hello everyone. I’m Steven Reisner and this is Madness, where psychology and capitalism collide. I’m speaking to you today from New York City, the birthplace of America’s two great populists, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Today, I’d like to focus on what I consider to be the most important political issue facing the country right now. I’m not referring to the impeachment, although I will be speaking about the impeachment in what I have to say, but I am referring specifically to what is really an even more important question: the question of what is truth and what is a lie where politics and politicians are concerned. I will explore the psychology of lying and its relationship to politics, ethics, populism, and the future of our democracy.
Our country has finally embarked on impeachment proceedings because, according to the popular press and the democratic leadership, Donald Trump has told an enormous lie. And what was that lie? What was the lie that crossed the line for the congressional Democrats? It is Trump’s claim that the Bidens were involved in corruption and in a conspiracy to hide that corruption. Donald Trump attempted to coerce a foreign leader to perform a public investigation into that corruption at a time when Joe Biden was the strongest opponent in Trump’s campaign for reelection.
Now, many of us believe that Trump has been violating our constitution and committing impeachable offenses from the first day of his presidency. So the question we must ask is: Why now do the Democrats in Congress believe that Trump has gone too far? I suspect, and this is what today’s show will be about, that it is not the lies that Trump tells, but the truth embedded in Trump’s lies, especially in this whopper of a lie, that has sparked so much outrage and prompted the impeachment process. I suspect that aside from the obvious aim of impeaching a dangerous and corrupt president, the impeachment process has another aim, perhaps even more dangerous to our democracy, which is to make sure we focus on Trump’s lies and not the truth embedded in those lies. Lies directing us to the truth? Exposing lies to obscure the truth? Sounds like madness.
It goes without saying that Donald Trump is the biggest liar ever to hold the office of the presidents. He’s probably the biggest liar ever to hold any political office. And you don’t have to take my word for it. The Washington post has been documenting Donald Trump’s false and misleading statements since day one. What they found is that in the first 100 days of his presidency, Donald Trump told 492 lies. That’s an average of 5 lies a day. And it increased exponentially. By the 1000th day of his presidency, which has just passed, the Post clocked 13,435 false and misleading statements. I believe we can say that Donald Trump has created an executive branch where a culture of lying is dominant. In fact, when asked about the President’s lies, Kelly Anne Conway gave a response worthy of a philosophy class. She said, quote, “the president has said that he has not lied”, which of course makes it 13,436.
But I do not believe that the country is split apart because some believe the president is lying and others believe he’s telling the truth. I would say the country is split between those who believe the president is lying and those who don’t care that the president is lying. We might even say that the country is split between those who are outraged at the president’s lies and those who love the fact that the president lies. So to understand the function of the president’s lies in our democratic process, I would like to take a look at the understanding of lies and the psychology of lying offered to us by psychoanalysis.
I’d like to start by talking about children’s lies and the impact of a child’s first lie. Why do I want to focus on the first lie? Because the first lie is the first experience in a person’s consciousness where they understand that they have an internal world, a mind that is separate from other people’s internal worlds, from their parents, from those in authority who they thought knew everything. And this has enormous consequences on our relationship with others. And on what we think of as a conscience.
I will tell three stories of first lies, starting with a bit of self psychoanalysis and talk about my own first lie. So this, as best as I can remember, was my first lie. I was four years old and visiting my best friend Amy, who was also four years old. We were playing in her apartment, which was upstairs from my family’s apartment. We lived in Brooklyn and Amy had a new toy that I fell in love with. It was called silly putty and it came in a plastic egg. Okay. We will leave aside the psychoanalysis of a toy that comes in an egg, but I thought this substance was miraculous. You could pull it slowly and stretch it. You could pull it fast and break it. You could flatten it out. And the most wonderful thing is you could press it against a comic book. And when you lifted it up, the image from the comic book was on the silly putty and then you could stretch that. I mean, it was wonderful. It was wonderful stuff. So wonderful that I coveted Amy’s silly putty. And when we moved on to play with something else, I took the silly putty and put it inside my pocket. A little while later when it was time for me to go home, I put my hand in my pocket and discovered that the silly putty had melted all over the inside of my pocket. And I started to cry and cry and cry. Amy’s mother came running into the living room and wanting to know why I was crying. And I showed her the melted, silly putty inside my pants pocket. And she so kindly reassured me that it would be okay. She took a knife and she scraped the inside of my pocket and told me all the while not to worry, it wouldn’t be a problem. And all the while, as she’s being so caring and compassionate, I am realizing that she had no clue that I was planning to steal the silly putty. She simply thought that I was just a little kid who thoughtlessly had put the silly putty in my pants pocket. And, and so here I was left all alone with the knowledge that really, I had wanted to steal it, that I was a thief. All of this started a mental process in me, since I could successfully lie to people, I had to decide for myself what kind of person I wanted to be. I would go so far as to say that my ethical explorations of in my life, and it plays a very big role in my life, can in part be traced all the way back to that silly putty experience.
I’d like to turn now to another example of a first lie. This one comes from Sigmund Freud’s famous paper entitled two lies told by children. It’s a similar story, but it ends very differently. This is the story as Freud wrote it: A girl of seven in her second year at school had asked her father for some money to buy colors for painting Easter eggs. Her father had refused, saying he had no money. Shortly afterwards, the girl asked her father for some money for a contribution toward a wreath for the funeral of their reigning princess who had recently died. Each of the school children was to bring 50 Pfennigs to class. Her father gave her 10 marks. She paid her contribution, put nine marks on her father’s writing table, and with the remaining 50 pfennigs bought some paints which she hid in her toy cupboard. At dinner, her father asked suspiciously what she had done with the missing 50 pfennigs and whether she had not bought paints with them after all. She denied it, but her brother, who was two years for elder and with whom she had planned to paint the eggs, betrayed her. The paints were found in the cupboard. The angry father handed the culprit over to her mother for punishment, and it was severely administered afterwards. Her mother was herself much shaken when she saw how great the child’s despair was, she caressed the little girl after the punishment and took her for a walk to console her. But the effects of the experience, which were described by the patient herself as the turning point in her life proved to be ineradicable. Up to then she had been a wild self-confident child. Afterwards, she became shy, timid, and afraid of breaking the rules. I find this story so poignant because here is this wild, self-confident girl who basically caught her father in a lie. She knew that he was being hypocritical when he said in one instance he had no money and in the next gives her 20 times what she asked for. I would say that she thought she was playing his game when she gave him back 9 marks and spent the 50 pfennigs on paints. I imagine she hoped that her father would laugh, because she was, in effect, saying to him, you see, you had the money all along! And so when she was severely punished, she was shocked to learn that the rules were arbitrary and based on authority and not fairness. She came away from that experience with a fear of breaking the rules – even if she didn’t know why they exist, even if the one who enforces the rules is hypocritical.
Now I’d like to tell a story of a third child, told to me by a patient in a drug rehab. His father was the CEO of a local financial institution. When the boy was in second grade, he was caught stealing lunch money from a classmate and bought himself some extra dessert with it. Another classmate saw him do it and reported it to the teacher. When he was confronted by the teacher he started to cry and admitted the crime. The teacher called the boy’s parents and asked them to deal with their child’s theft. And when the child got home, his father was angry. But he was not angry because his child had committed a theft; he castigated the boy for getting caught. “If you are going to steal” his father said, make sure no one sees you. And if you do get caught, deny it and dare them to prove it.”
So these three first lies had three very different psychological outcomes. The first child, in this case me, developed a strong conscience which, in Freudian terms, might be called an ego-ideal: self-questioning what kind of person I do and don’t want to be. If such a person lies, they need to believe there is a good reason for it. The girl with the paints also developed a strong conscience, but hers was a punitive one, what Freud would call a harsh super-ego. Her standards were external and authoritarian. She would be afraid to lie, for fear of getting caught and punished.
But the third child, who was taught from an early age that the only standards to consider are power and personal gain and any means to those ends are justified, well – You might say that such a child does not develop a conscience at all. This child lies strategically, without any internal conflict So I think it is fair to conclude that a man who lies 13,435 times in his first thousand days in office belongs to the third category – he has no conscience whatsoever. And yes, that alone is grounds for impeachment. But I don’t believe that Donald Trump became President of the United States only because he knows how to tell lies, only because of the way he manipulated and aroused the American people with lies. I believe that what makes Trump different from your run of the mill sociopath, is his ability to wield the truth in the same way. Trump has an extraordinary ability to identify people’s weaknesses and especially their hypocrisy. You might say that all bullies are like that, but bullies go after the weak; Trump goes after the week for sure, but he also brazenly goes after the strong, ferreting out their weaknesses and hypocrisies and using that hypocrisy to humiliate them. That instinct is why when the audiences for The Apprentice began to flag, he created ‘celebrity apprentice.’ So the audience could see the rich and famous, the smug and powerful, be knocked down. That’s exactly how he humiliated and defeated 16 Republican rivals and won the Republican nomination, and it’s how he defeated Hillary Clinton.
I would say that Trump’s genius is that he drew upon his ruthless, instinctive ability to zero in on weakness and hypocrisy and applied it to America itself. Trump exposed American hypocrisy – the hypocrisy of pretending to be democratic and egalitarian when the rich and powerful hold all the cards and the deck is stacked against everybody else. Trump’s genius is that he has exposed the terrible secret of American government in the 21st century: that democracy has become a cover story for what is really a corporatocracy: a system rigged in favor of the rich, where politicians are bought and sold, wars are created for profit, and government and corporate leaders regularly and consistently lie to the people. And in being so brazenly honest about the American system, Trump convinces his followers that the only one who is not a hypocrite is Trump himself. Why? Because he understands corruption. Because he acknowledges his own corruption. He himself is the King of corruption and he just simply refuses to pretend otherwise. Trump doesn’t secretly take money and pretend his hands are clean like the Bidens, or the Bushes, or the Clintons. When Trump gets enriched during his presidency, when he asks for dirt on his opponents, when he cheats on his taxes, when he enriches his family, he is doing it in broad daylight and he claims in a sense he’s doing it on behalf of all the little people in the country who hate the hypocritical politicians who claim to be honorable but are doing exactly the same thing.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates talks of the place of the noble lie in politics. The noble lie is the lie that a leader must sometimes tell his people when it is necessary to achieve a greater good. Trump offers his people the opposite. Trump sometimes tells the truth – a truth that no one else will acknowledge, but he does it strategically, for power and his own personal gain. We might call Trump’s truth the ignoble truth, a truth told for the greater evil. The question is, will we, in our attempt to get rid of Trump’s evil, get rid of the truth he has exposed at the same time? Will we blame the condition of America’s democracy on Trump so that we can go back to reassuring ourselves that the system isn’t rigged, that politicians aren’t crooked, that money doesn’t rule our government and that there is nothing corrupt about the son of the vice President being paid over a million dollars by foreign companies since, after all, no law was violated?
The dirty little truth that Trump has shown us is that maybe we didn’t have a broken law, but we have a broken system. Trump is an embarrassment for the American system because he is the system. He is the America in which only the very wealthy, the biggest corporations and foreign governments have a real vote, He is the America where influence is funnelled not through the ballot box, but through enormous secret campaign contributions, through donations to personal foundations and through lucrative contracts for politicians and their family members. He is the America where corruption empowers.
So really, right now we have two choices. We can try with the Democrats and the mainstream press to put the genie back in the bottle, or we can take to the streets, like people are doing today in Hong Kong, in Beirut, in Santiago, in Baghdad, and demand fundamental change in our system of government. As I see it, the most important issue facing us all in America today is not whether Trump is impeached, but whether we make use of or squander the opportunity that Trump has given us to see the truth about America, and to be willing, in good conscience, to change it.
This is Steven Reisner, and you’ve been listening to Madness, where psychology and capitalism collide.