I can’t believe I am posing this question after a very harsh lesson I learned early in life. My mother was very kind and loving and an exemplary mother so looking back it’s hard to believe she dealt out this extreme punishment to one so young. But she wanted to make a point I would never forget. That if you lie I can never trust you. And as you grow older and want more freedom it will be yours if I can trust you to tell the truth. The punishment only lasted a half hour or so (I was locked out of our apartment) but it felt like eternity. There was plenty of love, kisses and hugs to wipe away my tears when the door finally opened, but it’s a lesson I will never ever forget.
So today I wonder what parents say to their children about lying when the president of our country has told over 12,000 or more lies since taking office. You can’t tell the famous tale about our first president, General George Washington, who never told a lie, one of the staples of childhood education. Then there is honest Abe. That’s an adjective you will not hear to describe Mr. Trump.
It’s also pretty basic morality. The Bible tells us over and over again do not bear false witness against thy neighbor. It’s in the Old Testament and the New. It’s pretty basic. Don’t lie. And if you are not afraid of crossing God, there is also a practical side. If you lie, people will not trust you. No one really trusts Donald Trump except perhaps that mythical base which will accept anything their leader says or does.
“Why the constant, often blatant lying? For one thing, it functioned as a means of fully dominating subordinates, who would have to cast aside all their integrity to repeat outrageous falsehoods and would then be bound to the leader by shame and complicity. “The great analysts of truth and language in politics,” writes Jacob T. Levy, McGill University political philosophy professor, including “George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel — can help us recognize this kind of lie for what it is ... . Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism.”
Very scary. But we witness it every day from some members of Congress and the president’s staff, current and past.
Which brings us to the recent episode of hurricanes, Alabama and circles on a map enhanced by a Sharpie. At first it seemed so silly, so ridiculous, so not mentioning. But then Trump insisted he was right and (as above) humiliated federal agency heads to back up his lie. Hurricane Dorian, one of the worst to hit the Bahamas and parts of the United States, primarily Florida and the Carolinas, was not a joke. People were told to pay attention to updates on the trajectory of the storm and to prepare accordingly. The storm was never headed toward Alabama but the president insisted it was. Even after the National Weather Service had to tell nervous Alabama residents that the storm was NOT headed their way. Trump insisted it was. Dragged out his acting head of national security with a big chart showing the trajectory of the storm with a circle added by sharpie going right for Alabama. Trump would not admit he was wrong. He kept insisting he was right, keeping this a story long before it should have ended. But it is serious. Our president lies. We cannot trust him. Congress cannot trust him. Even his own party cannot trust him. Not to mention world leaders. When you lie you lose trust. And trust is pretty important.
The secretary of commerce has now threatened to fire top employees at the federal scientific agency responsible for weather forecasts. This is after the agency’s Birmingham office contradicted Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama. And following the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration saying the weather service was wrong to say Alabama was not at risk.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.