The art of the political lie: Trump hasn’t mastered it and probably never shall


It is generally accepted that politicians lie through their teeth.
They will tell lies even when their lives depend upon telling the truth. It is the natural thing for this species to do, they cannot help it, it’s in their DNA.

But I think there are lies and then there are lies. In his book, ‘The Rise of Political Lying’, British journalist Peter Osborne shows how craftily the New Labour gang of Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson et al manipulated the public over a number of issues, some of them proving later to be quite costly.

He cites the oft-told comment by Czech dissident playwright Vaclav Havel (later president of his country) describing the old regime before the so-called Velvet Revolution, in which people were made to live “in a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formal language deprived of semantic contact with reality, and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality”.

In our region, we have had that experience time and again, and the stereotypical politician as a liar has never disappointed.

Now the political liars in our midst have found their patron saint in the shape of the man who occupies the Oval Office, and who has chosen to launch his presidency, exactly on day one of his four-year term as president, with a lie that was so unnecessary you had to worry about his mental stability.

Look, it is not as if the size of the crowd attending the presidential inauguration would take anything from his presidency or legitimacy, but he chose to make it a matter of life and death, sending his spokesperson to go and look and sound like some loony on the loose, again blaming the usual suspects – the media.

One piece of advice that would stand political liars in good stead would be to tell a lie that takes some time to expose, not one that can be disposed of by a young college student who took pictures on his mobile phone when he was in elementary school in 2009 and came back this year to do the same thing.

Put some time between your lie and possible discovery, like George W Bush and Blair lying about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, the truth about which could not be ascertained till after the invasion.

Alternative facts
But now the Trumpists have coined a new lingo in the lexicon of political lying. They call it “alternative facts,” which seems to mean that any situation has at least two alternatives from which you can choose when you are looking for facts.
When the spokesperson was saying that Trump’s inauguration was attended by the biggest crowd ever seen at any inauguration, “period,” he was looking at that alternative fact that human eyes failed to see.

And we can expect more of this to come. Many past US presidents have lied for one reason or another, usually while trying to extricate themselves from some crisis they got themselves into through indiscretion or lack of foresight.

But now Americans have elected the father of all liars to the White House, and they should brace themselves for four years (maybe eight) of constant, ceaseless, unbridled lies spewing from the Oval Office.

Remember, “Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton founded the Islamic State terror group”? And Barack himself was born in Kenya? And Hillary rigged the election? And the media are out to get him? He recanted the one about Obama not being a “born” American, but has kept quiet on the others, and he could harp on these themes again, especially if he realises there are just too many Americans out there who are uncomfortable with him as president.

In the meantime, he is telling us that water-boarding and other forms of state terrorism produce the desired results, which means he is going to re-introduce them, because he thinks these medieval forms of muscular persuasion can stop people from chopping off the heads of other people for the simple reason that they are Christians or Westerners.

A young and rather personable African man has just left office after showing Americans what being well behaved means. Now an old Scottish brute will educate them in how being abrasive and corrosive can take you to the highest office in the world, and how that can be an effective governance project.

* This commentary by Jenerali Ulimwengu first appeared in The East Africa journal.


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