The ‘truth’ is whatever he has in his mind
In his Nov. 1 Ideas essay (“Are Trump’s falsehoods lies — or something more frightening?”), Errol Morris provided an intriguing idea, namely that Donald Trump’s statements are not lies; rather, they are an indication that he does not even consider the truth. As a psychologist interested in cognitive development, I think this is a wonderful and accurate entryway into Trump’s mind.
People understand the world quite differently depending on their age. For example, if you pour 8 ounces of water into a short but large glass and 8 ounces of water into a tall but narrow glass, a 5-year-old will think that the tall glass has more water in it because the level of water is higher. The child is not lying, even though his or her belief is wrong. It’s simply the truth as the child sees it.
Likewise, the “truth” for Trump is whatever idea he has in his mind. Most of us have learned, as we get older, that there are other ways to determine whether what we think or say is accurate. Trump, apparently, has not learned this lesson. So, he does not lie. He simply does not know that thoughts other than his own are, in fact, true.
The upshot is, we are being governed by someone whose cognitive style is akin to that of a 5-year-old. That should be alarming to everyone.
Trump knows just what he’s doing, up to a point
Errol Morris’s probe into the nature of the president’s many false statements advances the inquiry into the nature and wellspring of what many simply call Donald Trump’s liesbut Morris, like others, may be seeing more depth than is there. Trump, he suggests, doesn’t tell lies, because the term “lies” implies an attempt to conceal truth. Truth is meaningless to Trump. He simply has no interest in it, doesn’t care about it.
Everything he says — unless, perhaps, it has been written for him by someone else — is said for effect. However, Trump is not out so much “to please his audience,” as Morris suggests, as he is to enlist them as his followers. Though, as those who have known him have said , Trump has a low opinion of his followers; he has the well-honed skill of feeding his adherents and getting them to want — to beg for — more.
He’s having fun. He has no beliefs, no philosophy, no ideals or goals beyond perhaps building the “Trump” brand. He did not expect to win either the Republican nomination or the election in 2016. Having attained the office, he’s playing with it, waiting to see where it will take him. He is the proverbial “used-car salesman,” a fellow most of his adherents would have quickly spotted and dismissed were they to have encountered him trying to sell Grandma an old heap.
Had Trump even a minimal capacity to plan ahead, he’d have handed the office of president to Vice President Mike Pence in return for a pardon for himself. His past experience has led him to believe he can escape any jam or misfortune and come up smiling. We’ll see.