Daily Dose: Why are Trump's lies so effective - and efforts to counter them so ineffective?

September 12, 2017


The fact checkers have been all over Donald Trump since before he officially announced his candidacy. The New York Times even has an entire online page that documents every "outright lie" he told since taking the oath of office. According to Politifact, nearly 60% of Trump's statements fact-checked by the media organization have been some level of false.


Contrary to what some media commentators have suggested, Trump does not lie because he thinks people are stupid. He lies because he knows that it will strengthen his message. He also knows that his opponents are currently incapable of providing an effective counter to his lies. How does he know this? Because he has used this strategy to gain power in business, and is now applying it to politics. He knows that when he lies, the fact-checkers will do their job. Then his opponents will repeat his message while stating the "real" facts about his statement. What does this accomplish? His message based on core conservative values will be repeated and reinforced. And the facts? The only people who will hear the facts are people who already don't support him. 


The lies work because they reinforce the powerful conservative metaphors that currently dominate our public discourse and language. Every time they are repeated, even in an effort to show they are untrue using facts, they are strengthened. As I have been advising people for years, the cognitive science behind this is well documented and researched - and makes Democrat/progressive strategies obsolete. Here are a few examples of Trump lies that strongly evoke the conservative moral worldview across a host of issues. All of these were rated some level of "false" by politifact:


"In 1986, President Ronald Reagan" cut the business tax rate to 34 percent and "it worked -- our economy boomed, the middle class thrived and median family income increased." (The conservative frame says that taxes and government are an immoral burden on private freedom and prosperity - taking away that burden on freedom and prosperity is just, and will increase everyone's freedom and prosperity. Of course, this itself is unsupported by economic reality - but it is a powerful metaphorical understanding of our system)


"We stopped (border) traffic coming through -- 78 percent." (In the conservative frame, Trump is the authoritarian disciplinarian, and is protecting us from the immoral, undisciplined people trying to "sneak in" and harm us. There is also a strong hierarchical element to the conservative frame which puts the US over other nations, and white people over non-white people)


"Business spirit is the highest it's ever been, according to polls." (In the conservative frame, the private sector is moral and provides for both discipline and prosperity. It is the government that is immoral and gets in the way. Trump providing for a great business climate is the best measure of success in the conservative frame.)


Deals struck on his first foreign trip as president made and saved "millions of jobs." (Nothing is more important than "deal making" for Trump. A disciplined, and therefore successful businessman will get good deals, and is deserving of them. Someone who does not get "good deals" deserves not to, because they are undisciplined, and deserve to be punished through their failure. Of course, nothing is more important in the conservative frame than the metaphorical idea of "job creation.")


In each of these cases, and countless others, Trump's lies get repeated in the media - even as they are proven to be lies. They then are repeated by Democrats and progressives as part of a strategy to "get the facts out" about how big of a liar he is. After all, people will just turn on him once they know the facts, right?


Wrong. In fact, we've been wrong time and time again when we try to use facts to counter lies that evoke deeply held metaphorical ideas - like "job creation", "tax burden", "illegal immigrants", "radical Islamic terrorists", "fiscal cliff", and many, many more.


People will ignore the facts, and remember the much stronger metaphorical ideas. This is why Trump's lies are so effective, and Democrats' attempts to counter them are so ineffective.


Tomorrow - what we can do to counter the lies!

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