Tuesday, April 18, 2018
Understanding Pathological Liars:
The Case of Donald Trump
Years before studying clinical psychology ever entered my mind, I heard the phrase “pathological liar.” I bet it goes all the way back to elementary school. I’m sure you heard the word, too. I never understood it that well, even after my clinical training.
Now, to my combined delight and horror, our dear leader provides an excellent, perhaps even exquisite, example of the phenomenon.
What is pathological lying?
Technically, and also known as pseudologia fantastica and mythomania, pathological lying refers to the repeated behavior of habitually, compulsively lying. Anton Delbrueck, a physician, first described it in a scholarly article in 1891. It has been defined as “falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view, may be extensive and very complicated, and may manifest over a period of years or even a lifetime.”
What an amazingly accurate description of Donald Trump’s lies!
These days, pathological lying is considered a symptom of psychopathy, meaning anti-social or criminal personality types, or of various personality disorders, like histrionic or narcissistic ones.
Having studied psychology and psychoanalysis for nearly 40 years, I can proclaim, with confidence, that Donald Trump offers the absolute best example of pathological lying.
PLEASE WATCH HIM LIE, AND LEARN.
According to the Washington Post, Trump lied some 1,628 times during his first 298 days in office. He lies an average of NINE times per day.
In fairness, all presidents lie at times. Franklyn Roosevelt kept the details of D-day secret for months; Barack Obama lied about the killing and burial of Osama bin Laden.
Notice, however, how these lies have a logic to them. These leaders lied out of consideration for the well-being of American citizens, or, arguably, for the benefit of people around the world.
Roosevelt’s lie saved millions of lives and contributed to the liberation of Europe from the Nazi’s. Obama’s lie delayed an understandable outrage from Muslim Americans, and from Muslims around the world, had they learned how the killing actually occurred. These untruths would not be considered pathological.
Because these lies, while known falsehoods, were delivered in the interest of the greater good.
And, let’s face it, we all lie. Why would I tell my wife about a 20-year-old barista I happened to find attractive?
Why tell a friend you have grown to dislike him when you can just as easily not return his phone calls or otherwise passively communicate your disinterest?
But pathological lying is an entirely different kind of beast.
As the definition above suggests, pathological lying is habitual, even compulsive. It has no particular motivation. Some people lie, apparently just for the hell of it, and apparently all the time.
Analysis of Trump’s lies, while validating the presence of clear pathological lying, actually reveals a consistent, disturbing motivation:
PURE, UNADULTERATED SELF INTEREST.
In these recent examples, you’ll notice the self-protective, self-enhancing, or self-aggrandizing theme to them:
Regarding the tax cut, Trump proclaimed:
They’re big tax cuts, the biggest cuts in the history of our country, actually.
This was an irrefutable, factual untruth.
Regarding crowds attending his visit to Vietnam, he said:
They were really lined up in the streets by the tens of thousands.
Another, undisputed lie.
While always self-serving, Trump’s lies often include cruel attacks on others.
When describing career intelligence or law enforcement professionals John Brennan, James Clapper, and James Comey, Trump described them as:
Trump claimed that Ralph Northam, who was running for the Governor of Virginia, was:
Fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs and sanctuary cities.
About Trump’s ire at Amazon, including the allegation that the company has an adverse effect on the US Post Office, Trump tweeted:
Only fools, or worse, are saying that our money-losing Post Office makes money with Amazon. THEY LOSE A FORTUNE, and this will be changed.
In truth, the Post Office makes billions of dollars through transporting Amazon’s goods.
Obviously, at nine-lies-a-day, this posting could go on endlessly. I offer one final lie, tweeted about Japan, in which Trump claimed, regarding how the country decides which American cars to import,
They take a bowling ball from 20 feet up in the air and they drop it on the hood of the car. And if the hood dents, then the car doesn’t qualify… It’s horrible, the way we’re treated.
Like Trump did to the concept of narcissistic personality disorder, he provides assistance for those of us seeking to understand the concept of pathological lying.
As you observe him in coming days and months, you might pay attention to the specific, stylistic features of his pathological lies. The lies pour out of him with ease. You’ll see no anxiety or guilt appear on his face after telling them.
Most lies seem entirely unconscious on his part. He looks like he has an idea or thought, and immediately proclaims it as truth. No consideration of its actual veracity occurs to him. Other times, however, like when he lied about the trade deficit with Canada last month to Prime Minister Trudeau, Trump bragged about it. He luxuriated in his lying!
Furthermore, Trump appears oblivious when confronted with the truth. Rather than eliciting an apology, or at least a correction, he continues to lie, sometimes even re-iterating the lie he has already told.
I have used Trump’s behavior before to shed light on obscure psychoanalytic topics like narcissism. He provides such excellent examples of several different forms of rather severe psychopathology.
Of all the varieties possible, doesn’t it seem pathetic, disturbing, perhaps horrifying that our own president is a true, card-carrying, verified pathological liar?
Absurd consolation, I suppose, but at least we can all learn something about pathological lying from Donald Trump.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP