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We know Donald Trump lies a lot, but why?

Chicago Sun-Times/Neil Steinberg

Chicago Sun-Times/Neil Steinberg

“Why did we bother to lie?”

An interesting question, not often asked, despite the Trump era being a Golden Age of Deception, a veritable Liapalooza, with the president telling a dozen fibs a day, or more. Lying so predictably that before his address to the nation Tuesday, dramatizing his demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall, the networks struggled to form a plan to address the rain of falsehoods certain to come. Fact checkers were standing by to refute the lies before they were uttered, the way that color commentators are in place to describe the action sure to unfold on a football field.

But is this the only way lying can be handled? The media, with its dumb ox tendency to strain forward, plowing the rut it always plows, has for years kept careful track of each presidential untruth, counting them, tallying them up, as if points will be awarded at the end.

“Why did we bother to lie?”

While keeping score, the process of lying, itself, its utility, is rarely addressed. We prefer to shake our head at each one-that-got-away whopper, and ponder whether it is a deliberate, cynical fabrication or sincere delusion, as if that really matters.

“Why did we bother to lie?”

Yes, it is important to refute Donald Trump’s specific lies. Most immigrants, illegal or legal, are more law-abiding than natural-born citizens, despite the horror stories the president recited. Most drugs come through airports or checkpoints, hidden in cars and trucks, not across the desert. Most terrorists arrive on a plane or, let us never forget, are native born.

“Why did we bother to lie?”

The above question was posed in September, 1973, by Jerome Doolittle, a government spokesman during the Vietnam War. He continued:

“When I first arrived in Laos, I was instructed to answer all press questions about our massive and merciless bombing campaign in that tiny country with: ‘At the request of the Royal Laotian Government, the United States is conducting unarmed reconnaissance flights accompanied by armed escorts who have the right to return if fired upon.'”

I have been returning to the Vietnam era as an ironic source of comfort. Because as hall-of-mirrors crazy as the Trump era without question is, the harm so far is mostly spiritual and symbolic. It could be worse. Trump’s lies have not killed 57,000 Americans, the way Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s did.

Doolittle categorized his response to the press this way:

“This was a lie. Every reporter to whom I told it knew it was a lie. Hanoi knew it was a lie. The International Control Commission knew it was a lie. Every interested Congressman and newspaper reader knew it was lie.”

We find ourselves in a similar situation. Trump certainly knows that the misinformation he is delivering, into a chorus of correction, is false. His aides know it. The media knows it. His base, if they do not seem to know it, are highly incurious as to what the truth might be.

Which leads to Doolittle’s answer:

“After all, the lies did serve to keep something from somebody and the somebody was us.”

Bingo. The assumption about lies is they are uttered to deceive others, and that does happen. But they also have a far-less recognized function: lies deceive the liar, or, rather, help the liar maintain a charade.

In Trump’s case, lies are not a flaw but a feature. They are mandatory. The Mexico wall began as a popular talking point on his campaign, a way to get the crowds to chant and cheer and give the love that this miserable, emotionally-stunted man obviously craves. In his dismal failure of a presidency, this wall — which no one actually wants, including himself — has taken on a weird totemic power. It is his triumph, or will be, if he can actually push it through, greased by the suffering of 800,000 federal employees and the nation they serve. And so he lies — about a non-existent crisis on the border, about immigrants who, with each addition, make our country less violent, not more; better, not worse; richer, not poorer. The truth isn’t an option for him and his followers, and so they build an ever more convoluted wall of lies trying to block it out. They don’t see the truth because they can’t. The light would blind them.