A More Detailed Guide to Dealing With Trump's Lies

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
I have seen this portrait, at Mar a Lago, with my own eyes, and took this photo.  (It was years ago, during an entirely non-Trump-related event that happened to be held there.)

Yesterday from China, I did a long item on the utter inadequacy of standard press practices in the face of a person like Donald Trump. Everything about “balance” and “objectivity” as news standards rests on a benefit-of-the-doubt assumption about public figures, and about the public audience. For the public figures, the assumption is that they’re at least trying not to lie, and that they’d rather not get caught. For the public audience, the assumption is that they’ll care about an ongoing record of honesty or deception. But those assumptions do not match the reality of Trump.

You can read the whole thing here. The summary is:

  • Unlike other public figures we’ve encountered, Donald Trump appears not even to register the difference between truth and lies. He lies when it’s not “necessary” or even useful. He lies when disproof is immediately at hand. He shows no flicker in the eye, or “tell” of any kind, when he is caught in a flat-out lie. Richard Nixon looked tense and sweaty when saying “I am not a crook.” Bill Clinton went into his tortured “it depends what the meaning of is is” answer precisely because he was trying to avoid a direct lie.
    Trump doesn’t care. Watching his face for discomfort or “tells” is like looking at an alligator for signs of remorse.
  • Thus the media have to start out with the assumption that anything Trump says is at least as likely to be false as true. He has forfeited any right to an “accurate until proven to be inaccurate” presumption of honesty. Thus a headline or framing that says “Trump claims, without evidence, [his latest fantasy]” does more violence to the truth than “Trump falsely claims...”

Now, two readers write in with detailed practical tips. The first, from a reader outside the U.S. with experience in publishing, is mainly about journalistic practices. This reader correctly refers to Trump’s behavior as narcissistic, without assuming any underlying medical diagnosis. The reader’s predictions and advice:

  • The mania for reporting every false or outrageous tweet as major news will eventually fade as everyone, including the public, gets tired of it. Smart people also know it’s a diversionary tactic and most people will eventually catch on. Smart people also know they’re lies, even if those persons are too partisan or embarrassed to admit it. Most  people will eventually catch up on that front too. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. There will be some settling down around the time of the inauguration, followed by a steady slide. People only have so much patience for temper tantrums. Narcissists get old and ugly, especially when overexposed to sunlight.
  • In the meantime, less scrupulous members of Congress and appointed officials will use the diversions for their own ends. There must be continuous vigilance directed at these people as well and it might be up to the hometown media to be vigilant. It’s a great opportunity for ambitious young journalists to make a name for themselves, even if it’s stories about how Congressman Whosit rolled over and played dead. It is necessary to keep them honest. The hometown reporters will be the first to notice when someone is living beyond their expected means.
  • Pressure on members of Congress will help to keep pressure on the president, in turn ensuring that they act as a check and balance. The media can then report White House news indirectly from that angle, even if they can’t get a direct angle.
  • Members of Congress who act as a check and balance on the president will see their stars rise, especially if they are accessible to the media. The Narcissist in Chief isn’t the only person in Washington with an ego. It will start first with the Never Trumpers, especially those with nothing to lose, who are near retirement. Then the younger ones will want some of the glory. Again, an indirect conduit to White House news. They can use their authority to demand information, reducing the media’s research costs.
  • The bulk of the front-facing media attention will be on members of Congress, especially if the Narcissist in Chief refuses access, out of necessity. The Narcissist in Chief will react accordingly when he is no longer the center of attention and possibly dig a very deep inescapable hole for himself. Most of his attacks are projections, so that’s your first place to look.
  • A Deep Throat will come forward within a year, if not sooner. This leads me to a related point: As long as Melania Trump remains in Trump Tower and the Secret Service has two floors, it will be difficult to get information out of Trump Tower. Perhaps NYC will get tired of the security costs and hassles and that will change.
  • There will be a renaissance in investigative journalism. Ah, back to the glory days of Watergate.
  • FOIA, FOIA, FOIA. Did I mention FOIA?  Shoe leather. Digging through court and registry files. You may also end up having to order transcripts of court hearings. SEC filings.
  • Cultivate the people who were around the failed businesses.
  • Keep a sharp eye on what the foreign press is covering. They’re watching what he’s doing in their countries and what their governments are doing to cultivate the U.S. president.
  • Get to know the people at the ACLU and other civil rights groups. They will uncover legislative initiatives the media might overlook and incidental findings that aren’t immediately relevant to the cases they’re litigating so they won’t come out in court. Some of this will be quite juicy.
  • We’ll probably see a continued increase in paid media subscriptions, as the media is seen as the only hope of keeping feet to the fire. Many more will come after people have paid off Christmas bills, if they didn’t receive them as gifts. Proposed Social Security and health insurance reforms will be big drivers of this. Baby Boomers and older seniors will be the ones buying the subscriptions initially. They’ll be frightened and Lord knows they don’t need any more tchotchkes for the house. Attention to issues that immediately affect that demographic will bring eyeballs to your sites. And a younger demographic will be wondering how they have to reorient their investment and life strategies. That’s the next wave: people needing in-depth analysis. What will they do with the new education paradigm for their kids?
  • Fake news sites will enchant for a while until the fake news hits too close to a subject the reader knows something about. Their credibility will be shot with the majority of the public before the end of the four-year term ...

Maybe I can have a bit of fun with an unrelated prediction here too. Now that no one is coming after their guns, the NRA will have a fundraising shortfall. It will be interesting to see what they do to make themselves relevant again.

I’ll keep this handy to compare against the unfolding news.

***

Next, a reader with mental-health experiences writes to point me toward what has become a very popular post on Medium, “Coping with Chaos in the White House.” It is by N. Ziehl and is adapted from an earlier Facebook post by the same writer.

The Medium post is a 10-point checklist, which I encourage you to read for yourself. Unlike most analysis of Trump’s behavior at The Atlantic or other major press outlets, it’s based on a “medicalized” discussion of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD. Again, I am explicitly not making any such medical assumptions. But if you assume that the list applies to the behaviors Donald Trump has unambiguously shown, I think you’ll find its items very useful. Samples:

1) [This behavior] is not curable and it’s barely treatable. He is who he is. There is no getting better, or learning, or adapting. He’s not going to “rise to the occasion” for more than maybe a couple hours…

2) He will say whatever feels most comfortable or good to him at any given time. He will lie a lot, and say totally different things to different people. Stop being surprised by this….  If you’re trying to reconcile or analyze his words, don’t. It’s 100% not worth your time. Only pay attention to and address his actions.

4) Entitlement is a key aspect.... As we are already seeing, he will likely not observe traditional boundaries of the office… This particular attribute has huge implications for the presidency and it will be important for everyone who can to hold him to the same standards as previous presidents…

8) People [with these traits] often foster competition for sport in people they control. Expect lots of chaos, firings and recriminations… He will punish enemies. He may start out, as he has with the NYT, with a confusing combination of punishing/rewarding, which is a classic abuse tactic for control. If you see your media cooperating or facilitating this behavior for rewards, call them on it.

And, some final how-to advice for media and citizens as we enter this new terrain:

10) Whenever possible, do not focus on the narcissist or give him attention. Unfortunately we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the president, but don’t circulate his tweets or laugh at him — you are enabling him and getting his word out. (I’ve done this, of course, we all have… just try to be aware.) Pay attention to your own emotions: do you sort of enjoy his clowning? do you enjoy the outrage? is this kind of fun and dramatic, in a sick way? You are adding to his energy. Focus on what you can change and how you can resist, where you are. We are all called to be leaders now, in the absence of leadership.

We are all called to be leaders now, in the absence of leadership.