The rise of twenty-first century populism, on the right and on the left, is marked by one consistent analysis: Americans not only do not believe in government, they don’t believe anything that politicians say. It is beyond ironic that the solution to this problem for a winning coalition of voters in 2016 was Donald Trump, a man who seems constitutionally unable to tell the truth and is proud of it. After four years in which, by one count, Trump told over 22,000 lies (and towards the end of the 2020 campaign, as many as 50 a day), almost 74 million Americans still voted for him.
Do Americans think presidential lying no longer matters? Perhaps a better question, journalist and historian Eric Alterman asks in his new book, Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump is Worse (Basic Books, 2020), is whether it ever mattered to voters. Following in the tradition of Isadore F. “Izzy” Stone, whose motto was “All governments lie,” Alterman offers evidence that presidential lying began with George Washington and has escalated ever since. But the consequences of those lies are less well known. In early August, Alterman and co-Executive Editor Claire Potter sat down to talk about it. What follows is a version of that conversation, cut and edited for clarity: you can watch the original, full version above.
Claire Potter: Izzy Stone famously said, “All governments lie.” If lying is a foundational government activity, why are presidential lies so consequential?
Eric Alterman: They are consequential acts in ways that other lies are not. Presidential words are things that matter. Trump represents a new era in presidential lying, of course. But if you had asked me this question before, say 2017-2018, I would still have said that when presidents lie, the lie creates its own reality. And the lie is reported as true because the media are uncomfortable reporting that a president has lied even when they know he has. What happens then is that the president has to keep lying because whatever it was he’s lied about is still a problem. The lie hasn’t changed that
So if you look at Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, he lied accidentally the very first time about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, a made up attack on a U.S. ship that became an excuse to escalate an illegal war. But he had to stick with his lie and kept lying to protect the original lie. By the time it became obvious that Johnson had lied, journalists had invented a phrase, “credibility gap,” to avoid the word lie. But that lie still ended up destroying Johnson’s presidency.
CP: In your book, you define a presidential lie as “Purposely misleading the country about a matter of political significance.” And it covers lies of omission as well as commission. For example, the Founders made a commitment to slavery, but failed to speak about it honestly. Later presidents withheld, reframed, or falsified information about foreign policy. Numerous presidents concealed health problems and sexual affairs.
Is there any difference between these lies? Do some matter more than others?
EA: You have to accept a certain amount of lying in presidents, and so it becomes a matter of deciding what kinds of lies you can live with and what kinds you can’t. If the president comes to Topeka, Kansas, and says, “I’m really happy to be here,” he’s probably lying. We can live with that.
For the first 150 years that I studied to write this book, it became clear to me that there were two kinds of lies that American presidents told that were categorically different and that we can’t—or shouldn’t—live with. One supports the need to maintain white supremacy. As you mentioned, there is slavery. There is getting the Native Americans out of the way so that whites could settle the west, and then the lies that permitted the United States to go into Latin America and then the Philippines, Puerto Rico, for economic reasons.
The United States was not prepared to admit any of these people as citizens, as equals in any way, because they were not white. Yet we have a Declaration of Independence that declares “all men are created equal.” The only way to marry this behavior to the myth of equality is to lie. And that’s what presidents have always done, up until maybe Jimmy Carter.
Secondly, and this is related, has been the need for presidents to lie for the purposes of expansion, empire, and what we now call national security. America began expanding almost immediately after it was founded. And then once we ran out of contiguous territory in the late 1800s, we looked overseas. These things had to be lied about, because again, we are champions of democracy. We preached that we were there to help other people find their own version of democratic government.
But in fact, we were threatened by democratic government, and where it arose, we undermined it. This became even more evident during the Cold War. Eisenhower overthrew the elected governments of Iran and Guatemala. Chile was overthrown during the Nixon administration with Henry Kissinger’s strong support. As Kissinger said: “I don’t see why we should let a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” In all three of those cases, there was no evidence at all, according to our own intelligence agencies of a relationship between the socialist parties that won the elections and the Soviet Union. But the idea of a country choosing to be socialist was seen as a national security threat to the United States. So they had to lie.
CP: So lies create ideological constructs that then provide evidence that the lie is true. And the nation ends up in this warped situation in which ideas like Manifest Destiny, which are a lie, then spawn a whole set of other ideas like the idea that Native Americans have mysteriously vanished, and there’s all this empty land to settle. Supporting the lies elaborates on an ideology that then spawns more lies.
EA: Well, again, this is interesting and complicated. Years from now, people will decide that we’re living a whole set of lies, even as we try to be as honest about them as we can. On the one hand, I accept the fact that people live in their own time. To not treat Native Americans as equal to whites—we know that’s a lie. But people then didn’t. And yet, even so, as a man of his time, Andrew Jackson told a lot of lies. He knew that the treaties that he was signing were not going to be upheld.
CP: And lying has aggregate effects: presidents really have no choice but to continue lying to maintain the lies of previous administrations. But aren’t there other choices?
EA: It depends on the lie and it depends on the president. Roosevelt lied about Yalta, he lied about the deal he made with Stalin, and the concessions he had to make to get the Yalta agreement. At that point, nobody knew whether or not the atom bomb would work and we really wanted the Russians to come into the war against Japan.
But Truman never knew about these secret deals. Roosevelt never spoke to him, and this is, in my opinion, is a big part of how the Cold War began. For all of the horrors of the Soviet regime, Stalin stuck to the deal that he had made with Roosevelt, and the United States did not stick to the deal because Truman was caught up in Roosevelt’s lies. By the time Truman found out that he was wrong, it was too late.
Similarly, Lyndon Johnson didn’t know that John Kennedy had lied about how he solved the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think this put him in a box and forced him to be much more aggressive in Vietnam. Had he known that Kennedy had caved to the Soviets, in my opinion, he wouldn’t have felt trapped by the need to win there.
CP: Do you know or write about ways in which governments can dismantle an edifice of lies that gets more elaborate, and more difficult to reverse, over time?
EA: The short answer is no. Lying in State is in many respects a book about the media, and about how the media have empowered our politicians to lie, particularly the Republican Party. I have Ben Bradlee, the former editor of the Washington Post, on the record saying, in effect: We went easy on Reagan. How did the country elect this nutcase? We went too easy on the guy and that’s how he got away with so many lies.
And the media have allowed Republicans to become this radical organization in which you have to lie if you want to be a successful Republican politician without warning the country that it was happening. You can’t tell the truth about global warming, you can’t tell the truth about the economy, or about immigrants, if you want to get anywhere.
That’s the party that Donald Trump came into.
But there’s also a right-wing media that promotes these lies and pretends they’re true. Rupert Murdoch is the greatest villain in this story. But I also blame all of the respectable media for saying, on the one hand, Republican leaders say this, on the other hand, Democrats say that, and then refusing to take a position.
CP: You make an argument in the conclusion of the book, which I think is very powerful. You referenced Hannah Arendt’s argument about how the overwhelming number of lies is what destabilizes us.
I want to get to why Trump is worse than past presidents.
EA: Trump’s genius is that he doesn’t care that you know that he’s lying when he’s lying. Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon lied a lot. But they pretended they were telling the truth. They were lying on behalf of a goal.
Trump doesn’t particularly lie on behalf of a goal. He lies to make himself feel big for the next five minutes. And there’s no dishonor for him in lying. He once had a meeting as President with Justin Trudeau and they were arguing about tariffs. Then Trump came out of the meeting and said, “Yeah, I lied to him.”
But what was the point of lying to the Prime Minister of Canada if you’re going to then announce to the world that you have lied to him? That undermines the purpose of lying. And yet Trump doesn’t care.
CP: What should journalists do?
EA: I want a press that says the president says this, but it’s false. And here’s why he’s saying, and here are the likely consequences of ignoring the truth.
This used to be the way that the European press operated. If you were in Europe you would pick the newspaper that matched the way you saw the world, you read Le Monde or Le Figaro. And they said, “here’s the truth.”
But our press grew up as an objective, establishment press supported by advertisers, who were not comfortable saying “no” to one side. So we got this false equivalence, where both sides have to be represented. And I think that’s broken. Now, fascinatingly, The Washington Post is why we know that Trump has said over 20,000 plus falsehoods of Trump’s. CNN has an even better reporter who tracks lies, Daniel Dale. He’s got a count that is different than the Post’s: It’s not as high. But he puts them in context. So Dale says, “This is the 300th time Trump has told this particular lie, and here are the situations in which he tells it and what he’s trying to get away from.”
Rich Bond, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, said that if you lie during a presidential debate, millions of people hear you. And then if you have to issue a correction the next day, a few people hear it. Well, that’s Trump’s genius. He’s lying to millions of people and he doesn’t get called on it 99% of the time. The corrections barely register.
CP: Eric, I want to thank you so much for doing this Public Seminar book talk. It’s a great book, and I want everyone to go buy it at, or order it through, their local independent bookstore.
EA: Thank you.
Eric Alterman (@Eric_Alterman) is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and media columnist for The Nation. Lying in State is his eleventh book.
Claire Potter (@TenuredRadical) is co-Executive editor of Public Seminar, Professor of History at The New School for Social Research, and author of Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
Linus Glenhaber assisted in the preparation of this interview.