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Trump’s falsehoods: Are they lies, self-deceptions, or something more frightening?

Reckoning with the post-truth presidency.

According to Bob Woodward's book, former intelligence director Dan Coats said of the president: "He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”
According to Bob Woodward's book, former intelligence director Dan Coats said of the president: "He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”Pool/Getty

Years ago I was filming at a mental hospital. One of the patients offered an important distinction: “There are two kinds of people. There are the insane and the out-sane.” At the time I found it funny. I still do, but I’m not sure why. Is it because the word “out-sane” doesn’t really mean anything? Who are the out-sane and what distinguishes them from the insane? Are they the people who aren’t in asylums but should be? Could they be us? My current interpretation is that the man meant there are as many insane people outside as inside. And many of the insane people outside should be inside.

In 2017, I was interviewed by The Daily Beast about a movie I had just made about my friend Elsa Dorfman.

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DB: I’d be remiss in not asking you about our current political reality. What do you make of President Trump? And would you like to get him in front of the Interrotron [the cinematographic system Morris uses for interviews]?

EM: I’ve had Trump in front of the Interrotron. I interviewed him 15 years ago for a piece that ran at the beginning of the Oscars. I had him speaking about Citizen Kane. [His advice to Charles Foster Kane? Get yourself a different woman.]

DB: Anything you’d like to ask him now?

EM: I’d like him to seriously consider retirement.

DB: I don’t think you’re alone in feeling that way.


The interview was done more than three years ago. In the interim, the situation has gotten much worse. We have been treated to his chaotic Muslim travel ban; his “good people on both sides” encouragement of fascist terror groups — neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, QAnon enthusiasts; innumerable violations of the Constitution; the capricious firing of honest civil servants and military personnel; more than 225,000 American deaths due to his totally bungled handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The list has become so very long. Now it has become almost a horrifying, incomprehensible blur.

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You can read all about it in the cornucopia of tell-all books that spill out from this administration. There are even summaries of the tell-all books, for those who can’t deal with the sheer number of them or wish to see them compared and contrasted. Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” John Bolton’s “The Room Where It Happened,” Mary Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough,” Michael Cohen’s “Disloyal,” Bob Woodward’s “Rage” … So many, in fact, that they too have become a horrifying, incomprehensible blur. I’m at the point where I have become suspicious of people trying to make sense out of Trump. There may be no point in trying.

There’s a scene I love in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” It’s the climactic scene in the War Room. General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) is reading to President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers).

The War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."
The War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."Columbia Pictures

GBT: General Ripper called Strategic Air Command headquarters shortly after he issued the go code. I have a portion of the transcript of that conversation if you’d like me to to read it.

PMM: Read it!

GBT: Ahem . . . the Duty Officer asked General Ripper to confirm the fact that he had issued the go code, and he said, uh, “Yes gentlemen, they are on their way in, and no one can bring them back. For the sake of our country, and our way of life, I suggest you get the rest of SAC in after them. Otherwise, we will be totally destroyed by Red retaliation. Uh, my boys will give you the best kind of start, 1,400 megatons worth, and you sure as hell won’t stop them now. So let’s get going, there’s no other choice. God willing, we will prevail, in peace and freedom from fear, and in true health, through the purity and essence of our natural fluids. God bless you all.” And he hung up.

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[beat]

GBT: Uh, we’re still trying to figure out the meaning of that last phrase, sir.

[Muffley demands to see the transcript. He reads it silently.]

PMM: There’s nothing to figure out, General Turgidson. This man is obviously a psychotic.

GBT: Well, I’d like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in.


It’s easy to agree with President Muffley. It’s so obvious. The man is psychotic.

Every day I pick up the newspaper and I’m appalled. Some of the recent exchanges in American politics could be taken right out of “Strangelove.” We are no longer dealing with the possibility of a rational interpretation of what is going on. That’s out of the question. The question becomes how to deal with total irrationalism, with insanity.

My wife and I were watching Stephen Colbert. A late night routine. This was Monday, Sept. 14, and Colbert’s guest that night was Bob Woodward — of Watergate fame and author most recently of “Rage,” which includes material from 19 audio interviews with Donald Trump.

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Woodward is America’s everyman. Raised in Wheaton, Ill. Think of him as the Tom Hanks of journalists. His account of the interviews underlines America’s problem — our problem: how to interpret what could be best described as nonsense.

Woodward diligently sets the scene for Colbert. Woodward and Trump are in the Oval Office:

“Bob, it’s so easily transmissible, you wouldn’t even believe it. I mean, you can be in the room. I was in the White House a couple of days ago, a meeting of 10 people in the Oval Office, and a guy sneezed — innocently, not a horrible [sneeze], just a sneeze. The entire room bailed out, okay? Including me, by the way.”

These remarks leave Colbert visibly stunned. “I know he’s making light there at the end, but at the heart of that is something extraordinarily shocking.”

Woodward replies: “Yes. Here he’s saying — because as you know, he’s downplaying the virus. So he’s in the Oval Office, someone sneezes, and he bails out. He goes running out. Last night in Nevada, when he was going through that rally, I mean, God knows how many people [were] there, all packed together. I wonder if someone sneezed in the front row that Trump would bail out again and get out of the way.

“This is too serious a matter. As you know, 190,000 people have died, and my reporting shows that he knew back in January, Jan. 28, when an extraordinary meeting — one of the most extraordinary meetings in the Oval Office that I have reported on for about 50 years. And that is when his national security adviser tells him that the virus is going to be the biggest national security threat to your presidency, and then the deputy Matt Pottinger — who had worked in China for seven years for the Wall Street Journal [and who is also a former Marine, fluent in Mandarin, and married to a CDC virologist] — gives specifics about how dangerous this is, how easy it is transmitted. It’s extraordinary that at that moment the man we elected … failed to protect the people. He failed to find a way to tell the truth.”

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Woodward explains that Trump knew, but what does he mean exactly? We may think of the verb “to know” differently than Trump. For Trump, knowing something is hopelessly clouded by wanting to believe something. Knowing and believing get hopelessly mushed together in a tapioca-like vision of the world.

But note: Woodward doesn’t say Trump is lying — he shrinks before the very word — just that Trump had “failed to find a way to tell the truth.” What a euphemism?! Or is this just a literal statement of how Trump does business? Does failure to find a way to tell the truth suggest that there has been an attempt to find a way to tell the truth?

Woodward is appalled by the fact that the President seemingly knows that COVID-19 is much worse than the flu. This conversation dates from Feb. 7. And then on Feb. 27, Trump says to the press: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” And in a tweet on March 9, he explicitly compares it to the common flu, noting that “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on . . .”

Woodward sees this as prevarication.

I don’t.

It is not that Trump is lying. He is merely speaking an untruth. A falsehood. But Trump may not know it. To me, it suggests something far more frightening: We may no longer have the appropriate verbs to describe this president’s behavior.

Lying requires a mental element, and it’s the almost certain absence of a mental element that troubles me. Many of the other verbs that we habitually use don’t seem relevant: “to elide,” “to omit,” “to ignore,” or “to suppress.”

All of these verbs presuppose something going on upstairs. An intention to direct us elsewhere, to confuse, to create a false impression. Think of Trump as an egg that is all shell, no yolk, no albumen. A people-pleaser. A president who wants to please his audience above everything else, particularly if his audience is impressive. Say, someone like Bob Woodward. And himself — because for him, he is his most impressive audience of all.

Woodward describes a conversation between Dan Coats, the then-director of national intelligence, and Jim Mattis, the then-secretary of defense. Trump was demanding the immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan:

“Coats was troubled by the absence of a plan or a consideration of the human dimension — the impact on the troops, the allies, the world — or a sense of the weight of the office. ‘The president has no moral compass,’ Mattis replied. The bluntness should have shocked Coats, but he’d arrived at his own hard truths about the most powerful man in the world. ‘True,’ Coats agreed. ‘To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.’”

George C. Scott (left) as General “Buck” Turgidson and Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley in "Dr. Strangelove."
George C. Scott (left) as General “Buck” Turgidson and Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley in "Dr. Strangelove."

This brings me back to the exchange between General Ripper and President Muffley. “This man is obviously a psychotic.” What is Muffley saying? That there is no need to explain General Ripper’s thinking. His words and actions are proof enough that the man is batshit crazy. We could run various tests, consult psychiatric experts, flip through the DSM-V looking for citations and definitions. Is he a hebephrenic schizophrenic? A sociopath? A borderline personality?

Do we really want to medicalize the Trump phenomenon? I don’t think so. Psychiatric nomenclature rarely explains anything. It would be like running psychological tests on Frankenstein’s monster. Is he a sociopath because he has no empathy? Or does he have no empathy because he is a sociopath?

Paging through the various tell-all books about Trump, we find various writers struggling to find adequate interpretations. For Mary Trump, a psychologist as well as Donald’s niece, “The fact is, Donald’s pathologies are so complex and his behaviors so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would require a full battery of psychological and neuropsychological tests that he’ll never sit for.”

Michael Cohen calls him “a pathological liar” and a “narcissist,” and describes his “dissociative egomania.” “Trump’s grandiose sense of self-importance,” Cohen writes, “his constant need for praise, his exploitation of others without guilt or shame was the classic definition of a narcissistic sociopath.”

There’s an entire book, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” filled with the opinions of medical experts on Trump’s derangement. Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter for “The Art of the Deal,” goes beyond psychiatric nomenclature: “In neurochemical terms, when he feels threatened or thwarted, Trump moves into a flight-or-fight state. His amygdala is triggered, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activates, and his prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that makes us capable of rationality and reflection — shuts down.” Please. Spare me.

We may have to look for a different way of describing Trump. This may be the first post-truth presidency. Even though the truth remains unaffected by those denying it — hydroxychloroquine still isn’t a treatment for COVID-19, the Earth still isn’t flat, and the climate is still warming — this is a presidency where the truth is not only denied, it isn’t even considered. I finally understand it: We are living in Trump’s out-sane world, I mean Trump’s insane world. A world in which nothing makes any sense anymore.

In July, 1,267 days into Trump’s presidency, the Washington Post enumerated 20,055 false or misleading claims he’d made to date — a hefty number, to be sure. And yet this misses the point. Go back to the false claims about the size of his inauguration crowd. Eyewitnesses were questioned, photographs were produced, flicker boxes contrasted Obama’s inauguration crowd and Trump’s. But at the heart of all of this remained a central question from which we retreated: What does Trump believe? What’s in his head? I would suggest he believed his inauguration crowd was larger — physical evidence and eyewitness testimony be damned. Truth can never trump (no pun intended) belief. We imagine that self-deception has limits — if you’re being charged by a lion and you tell yourself that it’s only a mouse, chances are you won’t survive. But what if you live in a bubble, some impenetrable alternate reality where nobody ever corrects you and your self-deceptions go unchecked?

In General Ripper’s case, it was too late for decisive action. The die was cast. His “natural fluids” ruled the day. We were all headed for the mineshaft. In our real world, it may not be too late. But we’d better act decisively and now.

Errol Morris is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker and author based in Cambridge.