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Commentary: The lying game

Is Donald Trump a liar?

Average people, whether they voted for Trump or not, would probably conclude that he lies on occasion. He's a politician, and that's something we expect politicians to do. "Liar" is a more loaded term, with its connotation that this is someone who lies habitually or even compulsively, and therefore can never really be trusted.

Your average journalist, I suspect, believes that Trump is a liar, and that he lies more often than your average sweaty retail pol. And sure enough, in the weeks that followed Trump's surprise victory in the Electoral College, reporters and editors engaged in a rather fierce debate as to whether it was appropriate to single out specific utterances of the president as lies.

This debate has largely quieted down in recent months; a New York Times opinion webpage dedicated to cataloguing Trump's "lies" has been dormant since July, implying that either the Times op-ed page concluded he became an honest man in August, or more likely just abandoned the project.

For his part, Trump certainly hasn't shied away from calling us media folk liars. On Tuesday, for example, he called those of us working for the big non-Fox networks "fiction writers," a claim that probably was not in reference to the unfinished novels and screenplays that gather dust on our bottom shelves.

Still, with a few notable exceptions, we don't like calling Trump a liar, or calling out his specific claims as lies. Because the word "lie" implies that the person making the claim intends to deceive, and there's no real way to prove what Trump's motivations are when he makes untruthful statements, or if they stem from ignorance, or his proclivity for mischief, the mainstream journalistic thinking is that it's best to avoid terms like "lie" and "liar."

It's impossible to argue that Trump doesn't say things that are categorically false, but we can't prove motive. In this sense, we're a bit like the prosecutor who sees a man repeatedly run over his neighbor but must allow for the fact that he's just a terrible driver.

After all, Richard Nixon was a liar, and lied about matters of great consequence. His administration was undone by lies, as his former hatchet man Chuck Colson acknowledged. But Ben Bradlee and Walter Cronkite took pains to avoid calling him a liar, so why should Trump be treated differently? Why should the standards be changed up now?

One thing to consider when asking this question is that Nixon knew he was telling lies. He spoke untruths with the intention to deceive others, and at times did so flagrantly. The same can probably be said, to some extent, of just about every other president we've had.

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But what makes Trump unique is that, a good deal of the time, his primary goal may be to deceive himself. And that's because Trump is the first president to subscribe to a life philosophy where the truth is essentially malleable, where fiction can be made fact through nothing more than tyranny of will.

Presidents are often of an agnostic bent, but Nixon imbibed enough of his mother's orthodox Quakerism to know when he had done wrong. Near the end of the Watergate Crisis, he took to his knees in the Lincoln Bedroom, begging God for forgiveness and shielding his crying eyes from Henry Kissinger. Donald Trump, meanwhile, famously told Frank Luntz during the 2016 campaign that he could never recall asking God for forgiveness once in his life.

But Trump, as the Catholic writer Matthew Schmitz once observed in First Things, "is nonetheless a man of strong and very American faith." To Schmitz, the key to understanding Trump is to know his prophet, the self-help guru Norman Vincent Peale.

Schmitz's essay on Trump and Peale is one of the best articles ever written about the president, and last week Politico's Michael Kruse did a similarly excellent dive into the relationship between the two men. The thrust of Kruse's piece is how Trump uses Peale's theory of "positive thinking" to in effect create his own reality, to overcome obstacles by insisting they are not real.

Raised Presbyterian by his Scottish-born mother, Trump gravitated to Peale's Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in his late 20s. Peale, who was already friends with Fred Trump and nearing the end of his ministry at the church, took the young Trump under his wing, praised his "profound streak of honesty and humility," and officiated his first wedding. In turn, Trump became a devout disciple of Peale's upbeat, unorthodox and theologically flimsy strain of Christianity.

Best known as the author of the 1952 bestseller "The Power of Positive Thinking," Peale saw self-doubt as essentially sinful, a view that suited Trump. "Go about your business on the assumption that what you have affirmed and visualized is true," Peale wrote. "Affirm it, visualize it, believe it, and it will actualize itself. The release of power which this procedure stimulates will astonish you."

Trump has endorsed variations on this theme for decades, telling the New York Times in 1983 that "the mind can overcome any obstacle." In 2009, he told Psychology Today he "refused to be sucked into negative thinking on any level, even when the indications weren't great." Trump has also said Peale "thought I was his greatest student of all time." Unsurprisingly, many of Trump's books belong to the self-help genre that Peale pioneered. 

As the Trump biographer Gwenda Blair told Politico, Trump took Peale's belief in the power of positive thinking and "weaponized it." He at the very least internalized it, and took its conclusions so far that his self-regard at times appears to border on the pathological.

When a president like Nixon lied, he was trying to mislead others, to get the upper hand. But Nixon wasn't trying to convince himself that he was beloved by the American people, or that he was charming, or that he was handsome. Doubts ate away at Nixon. He could look in the mirror and acknowledge what he saw. 

Trump's lies, or at least the grandiose ones we've become most accustomed to, may well stem from a parallel need to mislead himself. When he sent Sean Spicer out to insist that his inauguration had attracted the largest crowds in history, it stands to reason that Trump had willed himself into seeing those crowds. When he says that he's signed more legislation than any other president at this point in his tenure, it is worth asking whether he believes that by saying this he makes it true.

That all might may make Trump a liar of the compulsive and habitual sort. But to say that he is a liar probably doesn't describe half of what we're seeing. 

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