Before and since entering the White House, President Donald Trump has shown himself to be a remarkably prolific liar. There is no bogus detail too small, no claim too unbelievable, that Trump will not promote it in service of his preferred narrative.
From the size of his inaugural crowd to his knowledge of a pre-election payment to a porn star, the President has assembled a striking record of misleading statements and outright falsehoods. The Washington Post fact checker recently did the math and found that Trump lies, on average, more than six times a day – 3,001 false or misleading claims through 466 days in his current job. (And that was before Giuliani started his cable news tour.)
And yet, the fundamentals of his presidency remain largely unchanged from when he took office more than 15 months ago – or, tracking further back, to when he announced his candidacy nearly three years ago. His supporters, polls suggest, either don’t care about his habit or, if they do, don’t care enough to jump ship. Meantime, efforts to preserve past standards have failed, pundits lament, with some combination of partisanship and moral rot to blame.
But a study published in the American Sociological Review suggests that some of the most prevalent, elite analysis of the situation could be missing the mark.
Conducted by a trio of scholars from MIT and Carnegie Mellon University, “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue: Proclaiming the Deeper Truth about Political Illegitimacy” argues that some of the same “norms” being mourned by Trump critics were actually, somewhat ironically, vital components in establishing the social and political environment that helped fuel his rise to power.
Here’s how: Norms are establishment-defined expectations we have for how people should behave in a functioning society. Not lying, for example. So when anti-establishment voters see a candidate, like Trump, so blatantly and unapologetically breaking a norm, it’s not only forgivable to them, it can actually be desirable as a protest against the system.
“You should never assume that just because a norm is publicly endorsed that it’s privately endorsed as well,” says one of the authors, Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, a professor and deputy dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “And so that creates the raw material for someone (like Trump) to essentially say, ‘Hey, you know these norms that you’re feeling are imposed on you – they’re not necessarily (legitimate).”
The key, Zuckerman asserts, is to understand that even plain lies will resonate with “anti-establishment listeners” if they’re convinced of the sense that the speaker is channeling something fundamentally true.
When that happens, it’s almost like a force field can spring up around even the most obviously false rhetoric. And that makes it “much harder to defeat at some level, because I can justify almost anything under those terms and say, ‘Yeah, it’s not the explicit things I say, it’s what’s implicit, a deeper truth,’” Zuckerman says.
Trump called the system corrupt and promised to blow it up. In this study’s interpretation, voters who accepted that central argument and liked his plan to “fix it” might actually view the lies as part of his appeal.
The theory presented by Zuckerman, MIT graduate student Minjae Kim and Carnegie Mellon’s Oliver Hahl, is distinct mostly because it rejects – or at least downgrades – some of the most popular, prevailing wisdom on Trump. Their work takes the familiar suggestion that Trump supporters’ viewed his lies as “a form of symbolic protest” and goes further, ultimately concluding, through a series of sociological tests, that it’s all a bit more complicated.
Part of it is that Republicans are going to be in the Republican corner, almost without fail, no matter who their champion is, and Democrats are going to be in their corner. But escalating tribalism in US politics and the tendency of partisans to seek out friendly information bubbles only goes “part way,” the study argues, in explaining the Trump phenomenon.
In order for someone like Trump to flourish, the topsoil must be uniquely primed or, as the authors put it, his constituency needs to feel that “its interests are not being served by a political establishment that purports to represent it fairly.” That’s when – especially if there is a sense of a “legitimacy crisis” in place – “a lying demagogue can appear as a distinctively authentic champion of its interests.”
So how did they arrive here? The experiment began with a fictional college campus brouhaha.
The researchers drew up a student body election with candidates and a pressing campaign issue: the fate of an alcohol ban on campus. Some 400 real-life participants – split almost evenly between men and women and including Clinton and Trump voters – were manipulated into viewing themselves as part of either an in- or out-group with a stake in the election results.
For some participants, that meant being told, “the student government president often meets with college administrators and board members. These connections have sometimes been known to be helpful for a student’s future career.” Others were informed of the “growing resentment among some students towards the college administration for being willing to consider an alcohol ban.”
“In each study, two conditions are jointly necessary for a lying demagogue to seem authentic to a set of voters: there must be a crisis of legitimacy, and these voters must be members of the aggrieved social category,” the researchers wrote.” Zuckerman told CNN that when those feelings exist together, not only were the voters more willing to stomach the behavior of the “lying demagogue,” they often sought it out.
“It’s not ‘in spite,’ it’s ‘because,’” he said. “We can turn on and off a taste for it.”
The “we” in the experiment spanned the spectrum of identity and experience within the participant pool. Despite those differences, the “anti-establishment” groups – as defined in the context of the experiment – were content to look past their candidate’s obvious flaws.
On the flip side, the participants who did not consider themselves constituents of the lying demagogue “never attributed more authenticity” to him than the more traditional, baseline candidate, as “such voters do not have the necessary motivation to hear the lying demagogue’s implicit message.”
Still, a better understanding of the dynamics that guide this kind of political behavior doesn’t mean a change in voters’ attitudes is on the horizon.
“Insofar as politicians try to appear as authentic champions of their constituents,” MIT’s Minjae Kim said, “lying demagoguery will remain as a socially destructive but individually attractive strategy from any side of the political spectrum.”