How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?
If that quote sends shivers through you, then you know it’s provenance, George Orwell’s 1984. “How many fingers am I holding up, Winston,” says the interrogator, while ostentatiously holding up 4 fingers, “if the party says that it is not four but five…?”
Those in Donald Trump’s orbit all know the answer. Whether they believe it or not, they know that any doubt they openly express could lead them to be crushed for their disloyalty.
And that’s the essence of a Trump lie… it’s not lie at all. He’s pushing the boundaries of reality as a method of both holding his followers in his thrall for, believe it or not, “telling it like it is,” and for easily identifying the disloyal among them.
Matt Yglesias has a more direct name for what Trump is doing. He’s not lying, he’s “bullshitting.” In a recent essay, Yglesias uses the term in an academically well-defined way:
When Trump says something like he’s just learned that Barack Obama ordered his phones wiretapped, he’s not really trying to persuade people that this is true. It’s a test to see who around him will debase themselves to repeat it blindly. There’s no greater demonstration of devotion.
And, of course, Trump thrives on that devotion. As have dictators throughout the ages. Yglesias references others who have documented the extraordinary usefulness of bullshitting in the hands of an accomplished bullshit artist. He retells Václav Havel’s discussion of the greengrocer compliantly putting up a propaganda poster in his shop window as not a way of expressing true belief in the poster’s content, but in showing his loyalty to the regime.
We can diligently count the lies or, more politely, “untruths” that eminate from the White House as the Washington Post does. But if they are not really lies, but an ongoing loyalty test, then don’t expect exposing the lies for what they are to have any impact at on the current political dynamic.