August 28, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Believing Trump’s lies is a choice

Forty percent of Americans aren't just being duped.

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Daniel Dale is a reporter for CNN. His beat is unique, but it shouldn’t be. Every reporter and editor following the president’s reelection campaign should do what Dale does: report Donald Trump’s lies as lies, not as part of some opaque political strategy or part of another story of interest to the public. This is different categorically from fact checking. Anyone can do that. Dale, however, makes the lies the story. Moreover, he permits his methodical reporting to culminate into a moral conclusion, one vital to the healthy functioning of a free and open republic. Trump “is a serial liar,” Dale said.

Before I go on, I should say Dan Dale is special. Not just anyone can give frequent, news-making, magisterial and awe-inspiring performances on live television without notes or visual cues, as Dale did last night after Trump’s acceptance speech, knocking down one falsehood after another, informing Anderson Cooper’s viewership of the whole truth, all from his prodigious memory alone. But reporters need not be virtuosos to understand that their job—their American duty—is informing the citizenry. What’s more important than telling your fellow citizens that our president can’t be trusted?

Why aren’t we holding people responsible for their choices?

There is something more important, actually, and it makes the press burden all the heavier. While every other word coming out of this president’s mouth is a lie, about 40 percent of the country, the same percentage approving unwaveringly of Trump, despite everything, isn’t just being duped. They desire being lied to. They fear the responsibility of freedom while taking immense pleasure in surrendering themselves to the authoritarian hivemind. And based on this dense thicket of desire, they decide to believe the president’s lies. After all, believing lies—however harmful, poisonous, or even treasonous—is easier, and therefore better, than accepting and reckoning with the whole truth. More vexing, it’s a choice. Believing Trump’s lies is, therefore, rational.

This might sound surprising, but it shouldn’t. White Americans choose to believe the biggest lie of them all when they deny the existence of racism in our society and in ourselves. This lie is so omnipresent as to be blindingly invisible—unless you’re not white. In that case, you, my friend, see the truth plainly, and don’t need me explaining it. (You also don’t need me to say that you don’t need me explaining it, but I trust you appreciate the gesture.) Every white person understands how our society treats Black people. That’s why few white people would opt for walking a mile in a Black person’s shoes (even if he’s rich, as Chris Rock once said; “That’s how good it is to be white!”) While some white people fight racism, most don’t. Why should we? The system works for us, even if we struggle as individuals. Inaction by white people is action in tacit form, which is a choice made in keeping with our self-interests. The lie is rational.

Don’t forget the tip jar! I love tips!

Racism does not need proving as a precondition to reporting, because it’s always already the condition to our society. Journalists are therefore justified in thinking anyone denying racism is acting rationally in their self-interest. Journalists are therefore justified in thinking anyone denying racism is acting in bad faith. Such people are, as University of Connecticut philosopher Lewis Gordon put it, trying to “escape personal anguish” by deciding to ignore evidence counter to “cherished beliefs.” If you’re escaping something, the reporter’s job is easy. Why is truth painful? What is there to lose? Are you prepared to be held responsible for your choices? Daniel Dale’s beat is holding Trump accountable for his lies. But the press corps is justified in doing the same for 40 percent of Americans choosing to believe them.

I’ve said the reason a handful of Black people vouched for Trump at the Republican National Convention wasn’t to expand his appeal among Black voters, but to make white voters, especially Trump’s supporters, feel good about supporting a racist, and feel all right about the sadist outcomes of systemic racism. Indeed, you could say the entire point of this week’s convention was advancing, deepening and expanding the biggest lie of them all—that white Americans aren’t racists, that white Americans deserve their power and privilege, that Black Americans deserve their fate. When journalists cover lies as part of another story, instead of the story itself, they not only spread the lie but, in the case of systemic racism, fuel America’s self-destruction. The point of a free press is enabling a free people. Instead, it’s enabling our captivity.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Fred Pollack on July 30, 2021 at 11:17 pm

    Here is a description of an historical figure who was also good at using the “Big Lie” as a propaganda tool:

    “His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a BIG LIE sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”

    To find out who this was a description of, check out the wiki page for “Big Lie”,
    or, page 46 from

  2. Bennett on July 30, 2021 at 11:17 pm

    John, I’ll disagree, but only slightly.

    There are indeed many who choose to believe Trump’s lies because it makes them feel better about the benefits they reap from white privilege (and so belief in his lies is an expression of Milton Friedman-like “rational” decision making).

    However, I also believe there are many who know he lies. They really don’t believe him. But then again, they don’t need to. They support him because he lies in the service of their self-interest. In brief, they look to what he does rather than what he says–which in some ways is even MORE rational since it is the way many look at (and should look at) their political leaders. “Hear not what I say but watch what I do (or refuse to do).”

    Under that rubric, what Trump does (or refuses to do) serves them very well indeed. He suppresses votes on behalf of his white, Christian nationalist electorate, racist baby boomers, angry confederate throwbacks, fantasy-driven survivalists and gun nuts, and on and on. Who cares what he says. It’s what he does that matters. And many things that you’d think would matter to these voters–corruption, cronyism, corporate greed–never really did because they are first and foremost racists, gun nuts, religious fanatics, or what have you. And they are, as we now know, serial liars themselves. Trump is the living double standard by which they already have always lived. Adultery is fine for me–not you (see Donald Trump, David Vitter); sleeping with the same sex is fine for me–not you (see Lady G, Larry Craig); abortions OK for me–not you (Mike Murphy, Scott Desjarlais).

    John, while you’ve described Trump supporters as sadistic/masochistic, they are, first and foremost, selfish. They are the direct product of American individualism run amok and its clearest manifestation is their embrace of the double standard. OK for me but not for you, because I’m me and not you. And while this may cut across race, class, and gender, it actually goes much deeper than that.

    COVID, lack of health insurance, joblessness for others is never an issue for them until it affects them directly (and by directly I mean at the level of the individual–and not even at the level of friends or family). Sure, some true believers will die from COVID singing Trump’s praises. But those remain rarer birds than we imagine. And how do we know?

    Easy. Government shutdowns–a strategy that NEVER WORKS for Republicans once those Social Security checks stop arriving. This is why Republicans instead resort to deaths by thousand strokes where they can. Because killing strokes inevitably rebound. But those thousands cuts do work for Republican voters, whose outsized sense of self-worth–talk about American exceptionalism! “Yep, feel free to take away that health care from everyone…except me!”–makes that strategy an always available tool.

  3. Burgs on July 30, 2021 at 11:17 pm

    I’ve come to a new conclusion recently about conservatives/Republicans and their habitual lying. A lot of it is about them avoiding the negative feelings that come from taking personal responsibility for one’s actions. If you voted for Trump, and you’ve watched him destructively trounce our country, democracy, economy, public health and institutions, the only way to avoid taking any personal responsibility for propping up this reckless, orange failure is to literally pretend he’s the opposite of what he so obviously is. This tendency is applied to so much of their worldview when you look closely at it.

    I’ll give you just a few examples…

    Trump looks like a corrupt, lying traitor and Putin stooge, so they retreat into the Qanon fantasy where he’s secretly in control and working WITH Robert Mueller to solve some fantastically (and almost comically) horrible crimes that are conveniently being committed by all of Trump’s opponents.

    Trump is clearly a historically terrible president who can’t actually make any deals whatsoever, but his sycophants literally just pretend he’s the best POTUS ever.

    They love big oil, but inwardly understand that climate change would be huge and complex problem, therefore, it’s just a hoax. That’s the most convenient answer that fits their pre-held beliefs, so that’s the answer… Occam’s razor be damned.

    They love guns, but kids get shot in schools. Wait, nope, those aren’t real kids, they’re crisis actors.

    Essentially, these people pretend nothing in reality is as it appears and everything is actually they way they always thought it was, and ialso happens to be the way that makes them feel the most comfortable, self-righteous and morally superior. The problem is, none of it is true and the real world is burning down while they make stuff up online and share it with other idiots so they can engage in a mass denial of the reality that’s staring us all in the face.

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