WRITE A BIOGRAPHY of Donald Trump, and the question, posed by TV anchors, friends, and absolute strangers, comes almost every day: “Why does the president lie so much?”
Mental health experts have been furiously assessing Trump for years. They generally agree that he has a personality disorder that makes him devoid of empathy and unconcerned about social norms. This pathology underlies not only his lies but his cruel treatment of everyone from the children he ordered to be ripped from their asylum-seeking parents to the allies he denigrated at the recent NATO conference.
The diagnosis fits, but it isn’t necessary. To understand Trump’s mind-set, all one has to do is consider his perspective on humanity. As Trump told me directly, “For the most part, you can’t respect people because most people aren’t worthy of respect.”
President Trump learned how the world works from his father, Fred, a real estate magnate who used trickery and manipulation to build an empire of apartment buildings.
At home, Fred told his son, “You’re a killer, you’re a king.” He also imparted two big lessons intended to carry Donald through life. First, the rules that everyone else follows — fair play, square dealing, truthfulness — are for suckers. Second, suckers are losers, and you must never lose.
Donald Trump often tells a story to illustrate the humble sucker’s fate. It involves the dedication ceremony for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which he attended on a dark and rainy day. Trump says the chief engineer, Othmar Ammann, was denied his glory as politicians hogged credit for the project. “I realized then and there that if you let people treat you how they want, you’ll be made a fool,” he told The New York Times. “I don’t want to be made anybody’s sucker.”
The tale suits Trump’s purpose but nothing about it is true. Not only was Ammann acknowledged at the ceremony, but he was the first man given credit by the great Robert Moses, who called him “the greatest living bridge engineer, perhaps the greatest of all time.” Also, the sky was cloudless that day.
Why would Trump lie about the engineer? He lied for the same reason that he often says he had been the best high school ballplayer in New York State. (Records show he wasn’t.) He thinks the deception helps him, and he doesn’t think lies matter. When his butler at Mar-a-Lago caught Trump telling a lie about how Walt Disney painted tiles in one of the resort’s rooms, Trump responded, “Who cares?”
Under his father’s tutelage, Donald Trump became an unruly schoolboy who bullied teachers as well as fellow students. At age 13 he was sent to the New York Military Academy for discipline. Schoolmates recall that Fred visited often and buddied up to the academy brass. His charm, and donations to the academy, led to promotions for his son, who was made a cadet captain. When bad things happened under Captain Trump’s watch, he was never held accountable. When opportunities to shine became available, he got them. The ultimate reward, arranged with Fred’s help, was the chance to lead the corps of cadets and the entire line of march down Fifth Avenue in New York’s Columbus Day Parade.
In adulthood Donald Trump constantly looked for advantages and angles. His first real estate coup was accomplished with a contract that was never actually signed. Later, his massive bankruptcies betrayed financiers, vendors, and contractors. Marriage vows were no more binding to Trump than his promises to safeguard investors’ capital or his pledge, at the start of the presidential campaign, to release his taxes.
In office the president has astounded the world with his lies, which fact-checkers estimate exceed 3,000 thus far. Given the effort required to consider and then reach a conclusion about a presidential lie, this volume threatens to exhaust both our individual ability to sort them out and the larger society’s attachment to shared truths. And herein lies the ultimate explanation for Trump’s habit: He lies because he gets away with it.
The danger in Trump’s lying habit is that he could damage public trust to the point where citizens retreat to a position of cynical acceptance. If you want to see this dynamic in action, visit an authoritarian country like Russia, where everyone knows that the truth cannot be discerned. Hope resides in institutions and individuals who refuse to accept the deceptions. Businessman Trump asked, “Who cares?” President Trump may discover that lots of us do.
Michael D’Antonio is the author of “The Truth About Trump.’’