Calling a statement a lie imbues it with malicious intent. You and I can easily refer to counterfactual utterances by those in power that way, but I would feel disappointed if the objective press started to do so, at least outside of its opinion pages.
While I absolutely support the resistance protocol of taking them at their word, and I will not for a moment disagree with the danger raised by their continuously reckless speech, I cannot feel certain that the new executive branch of the United States government knows what the heck they’re doing at any level. And I must fold into this the possibility that they believe what they say.
As such, I support the policy of the news media to call out the kakistrocracy’s falsehoods as such while carefully avoiding any word that implies motive, or declares the reporter’s knowledge of the speaker’s inner mind. Even when that word is so short, would fit so naturally in a headline, to the everlasting frustration of half my Twitter timeline.
Some of this view, I admit, might be grounded in personal history. When Trump speaks, I hear the cadences of my mother’s voice, and I have to accept that I probably find some comforting familiarity in this. At the address I gave at her funeral, I described how none of her surviving family knew anything about her early life, by dint of all her self-descriptive stories being mutually contradictory hogwash. But that’s only because I had the privileged position of hearing them all, over the years, and over countless shifting audiences and interlocutors. Right up to her death, she instantly befriended everyone she met, because she always knew exactly what to say to make the people right in front of her at that moment feel delighted, even loved, and eager to help her.
I don’t remember my mother as a liar. She was a fabulist. She cared only and ultimately for the health and success of her husband and children, and considered the whole world and all its facts and histories and people as entirely malleable in the service of making sure her family’s next step would be onto solid ground. She was very, very good at it. Without question, I benefited from it.
As her Alzheimer’s disease progressed, she found it increasingly easy to wholly reside in her own fiction, but I feel certain that she found ways to do that to some degree long before her illness took root. My mother lived in the worlds that she built, even as she built entirely new worlds with each new listener.
When I hear Trump tell the New York Times that he loves and supports them and thinks they are a jewel, and then hear him visit the CIA and declare that he loves and supports them and the lying media has terribly distorted their relationship, I can’t discount the possibility that both of these are true for him. I find it entirely likely that, as my mother did, he has long since moved beyond the idea of applying the same objective reality to every conversation.
And like my mother as well, this works only if you don’t hear everything he says. I overheard enough of my mother’s conversations to put two and two together, though it took a long time — well into my young adulthood — to realize the whole of it. Until the memory-decaying disease progressed to the point where individual conversation frames began to self-conflict, nobody who didn’t live with her had reason to find her charming stories suspect.
And as of a few days ago, Trump has the whole world scrutinizing everything far more than he has any experience with, calling out contradictions against both the objective world and all his past utterances the very moment he says anything (whether personally or via his surrogates). I can’t shake my assumption that the pattern he’s followed to personal wealth and success his whole life now starts to fail him, and how confusing and frustrating and scary that must feel. Like the only way he knows how to communicate has been taken from him.
I will probably call these utterances “lies” casually, sometimes. I certainly don’t mind if you do. But, I think, I feel too much pity in my heart to wish that newspaper headlines follow suit, even as it cheers me to see them get better at calling them false, harmful, wrong, and dangerous.