There is a weird debate swirling in the media right now in this surreal post-truth America about whether or not to call Donald Trump’s many, many, many false statements “lies.” Many who watched Chuck Todd’s Meet the Press interview on Sunday may have been frustrated with Todd’s refusal to call the fabrications of Sean Spicer and Trump “lies.” I thought that perhaps he didn’t want to call them lies because Conway probably had a “Are you calling me a liar?” rejoinder in the chamber, and that debate always seems to create hostility toward the press and sympathy for the liar.
Turns out, there may have been something bigger. Yesterday, NPR announced their policy on handling Trump’s fabrications.
“Our job as journalists is to report, to find facts, and establish their authenticity and share them with everybody,” Michael Oreskes, Senior Vice President of News, said on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” “It’s really important that people understand that these aren’t our opinions … These are things we’ve established through our journalism, through our reporting … and I think the minute you start branding things with a word like ‘lie,’ you push people away from you.”
Oreskes also pointed to the dictionary definition of “lie,” to explain why the organization is reluctant to use the term. A lie is “a false statement made with intent to deceive.”
“Without the ability to peer into Donald Trump’s head, I can’t tell you what his intent was,” he said. “Without the ability to peer into Donald Trump’s head, I can’t tell you what his intent was.”
In other words, it comes down to intent, and since a reporter cannot know Trump’s intent, they may not feel comfortable calling it a lie.
This received a lot of pushback online. In a Twitter stream to NPR, for instance, our own Seth Freilich — who is a lawyer and understand the nature of “intent” — argued why this is bad policy:
Many crimes allow for conviction with a presumption of intent. Circumstantial evidence can be used to prove intent. Our Dear Leader Donald Trump is pathological and methodical in his use of false statements. His administration, from Sean Spicer and Mike Pence on down, follow suit with false statement after false statement. There can be no other presumption but that Donald Trump intends to continue to deceive the American people. That makes the false statements uttered by Donald Trump and his team nothing but LIES. It is a dereliction of your duty to normalize this by refusing to call it what it is. The sky is blue, the grass is green, Donald Trump is a liar. How about you instead teach me whether I should be calling Donald Trump a ‘BOLD-faced liar’ or ‘BALD-faced liar’?
Where it concerns people like Mike Pence and Sean Spicer, I agree with Seth. There’s clearly an intent to lie. With Donald Trump, I’m not so sure. The fact that he thought his inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s, and the fact that he thought a smattering of applause at his speech at the CIA was “the biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl” suggests to me that Donald Trump is not well mentally. It’s hard to believe that he would make up a lie so big, or believe that anyone would believe a lie that egregious.
I think he thinks he’s being honest. I’m not so sure he thinks he’s lying. He’s been surrounded by Yes Men so much of his life that he is incapable of processing negative coverage.
That’s why I think that instead of calling them untruths, false statements, or even lies, we call them what they really are: Delusions.
A delusion is defined as:
An idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder.
This is exactly what I believe is happening. Donald Trump is delusional. The American public needs to accept that, and the more times we repeat it, the more they will understand it. It also doesn’t ask that we read Trump’s intent, it only asks that we understand that he is not well.
So instead of this NYTimes headline:
Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers
Doesn’t this headline make more sense:
Trump Repeats Delusion About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers
Instead of this Washington Post headline:
Trump just gave a remarkable new interview. Here’s a tally of all his lies.
We change it to:
Trump just gave a remarkable new interview. Here’s a tally of all his delusions.
Instead of his Tribune headline:
Is it another Trump lie that he’ll send the feds to crack down on Chicago?
A more accurate headline would be:
Is it another Trump delusion that he’ll send the feds to crack down on Chicago?
When people lie, there’s usually a tell. There is no tell with Trump. He seems to firmly believe what he is saying, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. That changes a “lie” into a “delusion.”
We should call it like it is.