Donald Trump lies with an audacity and on a scale never before seen in American politics, and it's tempting to get so caught up in the showmanship of it all that you miss what makes it work.
So let me propose a different approach. Instead of focusing on the number and scale of Trump’s lies, what if we focused more intently on one oft-repeated, run-of-the-mill Trump lie? Maybe by putting that one lie under a microscope, we can see how it functions, what it accomplishes, what messages it sends and how he gets away with it, if he does.
Here’s the lie, as Trump put it in a rally last March and which he continues to repeat in some form in rallies and press conferences:
“Hey, didn’t we surprise them with women during the election? Remember? ‘Women won’t like Donald Trump,’” he said, mimicking a cable news analyst. “I said, ‘Have I really had that kind of a problem? I don‘t think so.’ But: ‘Women won’t like Donald Trump. It will be a rough night for Donald Trump because the women won’t come out.’ We got 52 percent."
According to 2016 exit polls, Trump got trounced among women voters, with Hillary Clinton winning 54 percent while Trump got just 41 percent. So why does he keep lying about it?
Well, the first mission of any Trump lie is to make Trump himself look and feel better. In this case, he lies because he fears he can’t be seen as a strong and virile leader if women don’t like him. Therefore, he must pretend women like him. Trump is asserting that he can say and do anything he wants with women and that thanks to his raw animal magnetism, they'll still support him.
That's ugly, but go one level deeper and it gets worse.
Trump did get 52 percent of the vote of one subset of women -- white women. So his claim that “we got 52 percent of women” is a none-too-subtle way of saying that it is only white women who matter, that black, Latina and Asian women don’t count. This is not an accident; its inaccuracy has been pointed out far too many times, and it has repeated far too many times by Trump, for it to be accidental. He leaves that implication because he wants that implication.
That leads us to another truth about Trump: Getting the facts right doesn’t matter; what matters is getting the attitude right. And from the point of view of Trump and his audience, the attitude reflected in Trump’s false claim is perfect. On multiple levels, it tells them exactly what they want to hear. It's also a game of sorts: Trump pretends to tell his audience the truth, they pretend to believe it, and in that shared pretense a sort of bonding occurs. He can lie without regard to the consequences because he has built a following with whom there are no consequences.
Eventually, though, even Trump lies get tested against reality. Trump claims to have solved the North Korea nuclear problem, but North Korea continues to build nuclear missile sites. He claims to be popular with women, but women themselves have a very different opinion.
- In 2016, Trump lost women by 13 points. In 2018, Republicans running as his proxy lost women by 19 points.
- In 2016, Trump lost white women with a college degree by seven points. In 2018, Republicans lost college-educated white women by 20 points, dooming suburban candidates such as Karen Handel in the Georgia 6th.
- In 2016, Trump won white women without a college degree by 27 points; in 2018, that advantage was cut in half.
In short, telling lies and ardently believing lies can't make the lies come true. Reality wins, always. It just takes a little time.