On Russian-cuddling, strange wording, and mendacity in all its forms

Hamster sitting on the lawn, happily stuffing its cheek pouches with dandelion leaves
This hamster is too busy with his tasty, tasty greens to care that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. (Source: Peter Maas)

A few thoughts on Trump:

I don’t doubt Trump is in bed with Russia. I do doubt they got his cooperation through blackmail. The man is incapable of saying what he doesn’t want to say, and fighting people who make him feel bad about himself is his lifeblood. He can’t pull off the years-long feat of self-control it would take to play along with Russian blackmailers.

Russians who flattered and praised him, though? Hell yeah.

Yesterday Trump referred to the press’s motives as “so evil, and so bad.” That’s a curious construction. When people use multiple synonyms, they usually build from weakest to strongest, or they’re hunting for the word that fits best. The first technique requires forethought, while unskilled speakers like Trump are more likely to use the second technique. Either way, Trump makes a weird choice: so evil, and so bad? The strongest synonym in the language, followed by the most generic?

It fits with the body of research that shows that psychopaths don’t process emotionally charged words the same way normal people do. In the absence of empathy, “lemur” and “koala” and “snake” are all just words. So are “evil” and “bad.”

So what happened? I don’t think Trump is a full-blown psychopath, but narcissism is psychopathy’s little brother. Top that with a dose of narcissistic decompensation, which in my experience sets in by age 40, and he’s riding the line between the two disorders. He has enough empathy to have favorite adjectives–toddler-simple ones, beautiful, nasty, bad, mess, disaster. These are the words that really mean something to him. He knows “evil” is a strong word because he speaks English. So he labels the press’s motives “evil,” but that doesn’t feel strong enough. It needs another word, one with a real kick. “Bad.”

Ahh. There we go.

Trump’s lies follow a pattern. The common term for it is “pathological lying,” but Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist doing groundbreaking work in psychopathy, uses a more specific term: mendacity. In his words,

Mendacity refers to pathological lying, often for no reason at all, even when facts can be readily checked. [….] Individuals who score high on this trait often lie for no reason whatsoever and, when caught in a lie, are unfazed and unconcerned and just move on to the next question during the interview. (The Psychopath Whisperer: Inside the Minds of Those Without a Conscience, p. 58)

Kiehl’s example is Charles Guiteau, the grifter who killed President Garfield for no clear reason:

Guiteau lied about his education, claiming he finished a bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan, though he attended only a few lectures. He lied about his occupation, often telling people he was a published author (he plagiarized his entire book); he advertised himself as an accomplished lawyer (he was disbarred); and he wrote that he was a devoted husband (his wife presented his mistress at their divorce trial). (Ibid, p. 59)

Sound familiar?

I’m currently digging into the research on pathological lying to figure out how to deal with it. Like to dig with me?

Pathological Lying, Accusation, and Swindling: A Study in Forensic Psychology, the seminal 1915 book by William Healy and Mary Tenney Healey
Defining, understanding, and diagnosing pathological lying, a doctoral thesis by Katie Elizabeth Treanor

While we’re on the subject of lying, it’s become habit to assume that whatever the White House says, assume the opposite. Flynn didn’t talk to the Russians about sanctions? He totally did. The Russian dossier is garbage? Whoops, investigators have verified several of the claims and think there’s more to come. Trump has never met X person in his life? Here’s a photo of them at lunch together. At this rate, the pee tape will be on Youtube by summer.

This weekend another small confirmation trickled through.

On Saturday, Feb. 18, CBS reported that Philip Bilden, Trump’s pick for Navy secretary, was on the verge of withdrawing his nomination. He might withdraw as early as that Sunday. On Monday Flynn had resigned and on Wednesday Puzder had withdrawn his nomination, so the Saturday report was a triple whammy. Sean Spicer immediately replied, “Those people would be wrong. Just spoke with him and he is 100% commited to being the next SECNAV pending Senate confirm.”

Ah, said I, Bilden is out.

On Sunday the Pentagon said Mattis had spoken to Bilden, and Bilden was definitely not on the way out.

Le sigh, said I, I was so looking forward to a slice of schadenfreude pie. But Mattis is a straight shooter, so if he says Bilden isn’t thinking of withdrawing, then Bilden isn’t withdrawing.

Sunday came and went, and Bilden didn’t withdraw. But something curious happened. Trump kept his mouth shut.

Remember when a reporter said the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. was missing from the Oval Office? And was corrected? And posted a correction and an apology? And the story went nowhere in the mainstream press, because the reporter corrected it quickly and it appeared to be an honest mistake? But Trump didn’t stop talking about it for weeks, because here was a real, live, actual negative story about him that was really, actually false? The Bilden story wasn’t just a pool report, it was a full news story with headlines and photos and two anonymous sources, printed by a major network and picked up by other major networks. But nothing from Trump, not a chirp, not a tweet.

The next Sunday, Bilden withdrew.

Official statements from the White House are extremely reliable. Just remember that yes is no and no is yes.


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