Not All Presidential Liars Are Created Equal


One hardly needs to make the case that Donald Trump is a liar. Neither is it news that this is true of previous presidents as well. At the same time, the depth and breadth of Trump’s dishonesty is something decidedly new. As the MSNBC host Chris Hayes wrote in a New York Times book review 18 months after Trump’s inauguration: “The president is a liar. He lies about matters of the utmost consequence (nuclear diplomacy) and about the most trivial (his golf game). He lies about things you can see with your own eyes. He lies about things he said just moments ago. He lies the way a woodpecker attacks a tree: compulsively, insistently, instinctively.”

Trump’s ability to lie without concern for credibility is gruesomely impressive. In one three-day period in April 2019, Trump managed to make 171 “false or misleading claims,” according to The Washington Post fact-checking team. During a telephone interview with the Fox News talk-show host Sean Hannity, he managed 45 falsehoods in 45 minutes. This degree of lying qualifies as “pathological,” and so yes, America has a pathological liar for its president. How did this happen? And what are the dangers of allowing this liar to dominate US political culture?

For so common a human occurrence, lying can be a complicated matter. We tell our children that lying is always wrong, but we don’t mean it. As a young child in Hebrew school, I was taught to admire Jacob for tricking his father, Isaac, into giving the birthright blessing to him rather than its rightful recipient, his older brother, Esau. We were also taught to admire the Egyptian midwives’ lie to Pharaoh’s men about having murdered the Israelites’ firstborn sons, including the little fellow who grew up to be Moses.

While few people refer to themselves as “liars,” those of us who does not lie with some frequency are rare. Sociologists Deborah A. Kashy and Bella M. DePaulo observed that lies are “a fact of social life rather than an extraordinary or unusual event. People tell lies to accomplish the most basic social interaction goals, such as influencing others, managing impressions, and providing reassurance and support.”

In politics, Hannah Arendt sardonically noted that “no one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.” To the contrary, she went on, “lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s or the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade.”

Obviously, politics is not a profession that rewards, much less fetishizes, honesty. Journalists know this, and, in failing to hold presidents accountable for their dishonesty, the American press has reflected a larger ambivalence about doing so among the American people. Historically, Americans have tended to accept presidential lies as the cost of doing business. In 2017, C‑Span asked 91 presidential scholars to rank past chief executives for their effectiveness, a measure that included “moral authority.” What was striking about the result was that dishonesty did not appear to matter. Compulsive liars Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson both made it into the top 10. Relative truth-tellers Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter came in 12th and 26th, respectively, the latter just barely above the White House’s most egregious (pre-Trump) liar, Richard Nixon, who took the number 28 spot on the list. In presidential rankings based on public polling, the big liars largely thrive, albeit due to ongoing political arguments rather than careful historical consideration. In a 2011 Gallup poll, for instance, Reagan was number one and Bill Clinton was number three, with “Honest Abe” Lincoln squeaking into second place.


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