Even experts on deception don't know what to make of Donald Trump's lies

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In the year since Donald Trump first rode down that escalator in Trump Tower and told the world he was running for president, he has lied about Ted Cruz's father's relationship to the man who killed John F. Kennedy, his position on the Iraq War, whether or not Trump brand steaks still existHillary Clinton's position on the Second Amendment, and things Gandhi said. This, it should be noted, is a wildly incomplete list of things that Donald Trump has lied about.

According to PolitiFact, a fact-checking site that has spent the last 12 months rating Trump's public statements, a full 76% of the presumptive Republican nominee's major statements have been demonstrably false. (Of those statements, 19% of the things Trump said were deemed to have basically no factual basis, compared to 0% for Bernie Sanders and 1% for Hillary Clinton.)

But more than just making fact-free claims about foreign policy or whether the father of one of his primary opponents conspired to murder a president, Trump also has a weak allegiance to his own record. In a matter of months, and sometimes days or hours, he has denied, obscured, or flipped on positions he's taken on everything from abortion to the minimum wage and killing the families of suspected terrorists.


And yet his supporters don't seem bothered, and the former reality television star recently clinched the number of delegates he'll need to become the party's nominee. A handful of recent polls also show that Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, are basically neck and neck in a general election matchup. (Whether or not that remains the case after the Democratic primary wraps up remains to be seen, but the numbers are what they are right now.)

Trump is teflon in a real sense: non-stick and potentially toxic in large doses. Which is, you know, disconcerting. But is it new?

"We have turned a corner," Matt McGlone, an associate professor of communications studies at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the language of deception, told me. "Trump is not the first, but he certainly is the most successful at a national level at showing how persona itself can create a different set of evaluative criteria for the truth."

Trump doesn't have to tell the truth, McGlone explained, as long as what he is saying feels true: "People don’t take him literally at his word, which is amazing. Just amazing."


So if someone who studies lies doesn't necessarily know what to make of Trump's relationship to the truth, and voters' relationship to Trump, where does that leave the rest of the country?

Someplace new—and potentially very shitty.

Politicians lie—a lot, in fact—but the Trump phenomenon is different. Not because the lies are new, but because the conditions to support a reality-averse candidate are converging in an unprecedented way.


"This is the problem when you have a rich billionaire, a fractured media, a polarized electorate, and a weak party system," said Jennifer Mercieca, an associate professor of communications at Texas A&M University and a historian of American political rhetoric. "Conditions are ripe for demagoguery."

Fact-checking Trump has proved a challenging task for journalists. (As a person who reports on the presidential campaigns, I spend a not insignificant amount of my week doing research or writing pieces to debunk or properly contextualize the lies Trump tells.)


It has also meant that the style of coverage looks different than it did even 10 months ago, a time before most people took Trump seriously. A recent example is this CNN chyron that attempts to balance Trump's serial untruths with the non-stop coverage he receives, in real-time:

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Trump has a well-established record of saying he never said the things that he has definitely said, but Mercieca, in her own work, has identified the candidate's favored method of deception: paralipsis.

Paralipsis is like a fancy way of saying, “I’m not saying, I’m just saying.” Call it the retweet of ancient Greece. And this is exactly what Trump is doing, for example, when he retweets a follower who calls Megyn Kelly a bimbo or tells an audience that he heard somewhere that six million people over the age of 112 are currently on Social Security. (They are not.)


It isn't a new rhetorical strategy, Mercieca said, but Trump's ability to run a campaign that has yet to be harmed by it is.

"Right now it seems there is no one more powerful than Donald Trump in a position to stop him or call him out and hold him accountable for what he does," she explained. "No one—not the party, not the media, not the people. I mean, the Pope tried to call him out and it didn't work. I say that and I’m laughing, but it’s a nervous laugh."


Which returns to this idea of authenticity—or what Mercieca called his performance of an "authentic character."

"It’s that emotional sense of truth, as opposed to a literal, factual sense of truth, that I think really resonates with people," McGlone agreed. "The point is that he doesn’t sound like he’s being coached in his language, he is not using the carefully chosen words that other politicians do. And that’s the truth people seem to care about."


I traded a lot of nervous laughter with McGlone and Mercieca as they explained all the ways in which Trump has successfully launched a kind of post-truth campaign. They traded a lot of nervous laughter back when I asked what that might mean for democracy.

"I think we’re going to see a lot of things come up in the general election where people try to hold him accountable, I just don’t know that it will stick," Mercieca said.


What she sees in Trump is a candidate who has successfully built a network of supporters who can "circulate and recirculate a version of truth that is consistent with his message."

Which has meant that fact-checking had a limited effect during the Republican primary. And while the plurality of Republican voters who gave Trump the nomination are not necessarily representative of the electorate as a whole, it still raises unnerving questions about what kind of impact fact-checking will have in the general election. Particularly as it's happening, rapid-fire, as Trump's statements continue to diverge from reality.


"I don’t think that individual instances [of lying] matter that much. I think if you were to do something like eBay, where you have a reputation score, and you can look at the number—" McGlone said, pausing to reflect on the bizarreness of the question—how to get Trump's lies to matter.

"That may or may not be effective," he added with an uncertain laugh. "But I think people are beginning to wonder: How do we adapt when voters don’t seem to care?"

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