Calling a Lie a Lie in the Age of Trump

The U.S. mainstream media bends over backward not to call the President a liar even when it’s deserved, but Donald Trump’s falsehoods are so glaring that the L word should apply, says ethicist Daniel C. Maguire.

By Daniel C. Maguire

The L word is suddenly center stage as Trump’s presidency begins. No surprise there, given the river of falsehoods flowing from the administration and his devious cabinet misfits. Journalists scruple about the propriety of calling a lie a lie, especially when the liar is the President of the United States. The New York Times made news by calling one of Trump’s manifest falsehoods a lie. National Public Radio, perhaps wary about federal funding, shies from the word.

Donald Trump speaking with the media at a hangar at Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona. December 16, 2015. (Flickr Gage Skidmore)

Underlying all this is broad public confusion as to just what a lie is. The Oxford English Dictionary oversimplifies it by saying that a lie is “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” Let ethics come to the rescue. Telling the Gestapo that the Frank family had left Amsterdam (even though you were actually bringing them food on a daily basis) would not earn you the moral stigma of “a liar.”

And that is the point. “Lie” and “liar” are not neutral words. Sometimes you have a moral obligation to deceive as when someone intent on murder asks if you know the location of his intended victim. Truth-telling in that case would be lethal; intentional deception is mandatory.

Lying is when you speak falsely intending to deceive someone who has a right to the truthThe specific evil that makes an intentional deception evil is in the denial of the truth to someone who has a right to it. An engaged woman is secretly pregnant from another man. If she says no when her suspecting fiancé asks her directly, then she is in this instance, a liar. He has a right to know the truth.

So face it: “lie” and “liar” have a nasty denotation. It would not be a compliment if you said of someone that he was “very pleasant, quite talented, and an outstanding liar.” Like the word “murder,” “lie” and “liar” denote evil. They signify an unjustifiable deception.

It is not hard to understand the skittishness of the press regarding the L word. When you say the President lied, you are accusing him of immoral activity. You are saying that he is speaking falsely in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary and is trying to deceive the public on a matter where they have a right to the truth.

But why should the President be spared the appropriate ethical term for his actions? The sacred calling of the press, well understood by the founders of this republic, is to speak the truth especially to those in power. Why would they betray that noble mission by shrinking from calling a powerful liar on his lies?

The lies of President Trump and those of his mendacity agents like Kellyanne Conway are more insulting than has been generally noted. They are despicably cynical because they insinuate that the American public and the press have no right to the truth. Fictional “alternative facts” are all they deserve.

Lying as the Tool of Despots

Truth is the natural enemy of despotism. Crushing the press and citizen protests is the instinctive reaction of despots. We are seeing this in full play today as the press is characterized as public enemy number one and as states form plans to suppress public protests and criminalize citizen protesters.

The Prophet Isaiah (Illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company)

Truth is the life blood of a democracy. The Hebrew prophets saw how labile — or liable to change — it is and worried about its loss in a society. “Truth stumbles in the market-place and honesty is kept out of court, so truth is lost to sight.” (Isa. 59:14) The people are too susceptible to “smooth words and seductive visions.” (Isa. 30:10) The tragedy, complained Hosea, comes when eventually “There is no truth … in the land.” (Hosea 4:1)

The antidote for despotic lies is not a polite silence or cowardly politeness and acquiescence. In the spirit of the prophets, it is thoroughly moral and right to call liars by their name. The prophets of Israel, who would make modern pundits seem timid and bland, would not shy from a word like “liar.”

The kings, said Jeremiah, are “stupid brutes.” (Jer 10;21). Isaiah went further saying Israel’s leaders were “blind … dumb dogs who cannot bark … lovers of sleep … greedy dogs that can never have enough … who understand nothing.” (Isa. 56:10-11)

And Jesus was no softer. He called the powerful religious and political leaders of his day “roaring lions … wolves of the plain, hypocrites, blind guides, … blind fools … snakes, vipers … who spill innocent blood.” (Matt. 23). He said they were best compared to painted sepulchers, beautified on the outside but inside filled with the stench of death.

That is precisely the blunt, blustery spirit needed today by citizen groups, the press, and the all too pusillanimous Democratic Party. Trump, ignoring the structures of constitutional governance, is bending democracy toward autocracy and he uses lies to grease the skids of this subversion. The lies of this liar must be cited and he must be called by the name his deeds merit.

Daniel C. Maguire is a Professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is author of A Moral Creed for All Christians and The Horrors We Bless: Rethinking the Just-War Legacy [Fortress Press]). He can be reached at [email protected] .


22 comments for “Calling a Lie a Lie in the Age of Trump

  1. E Sess
    February 2, 2017 at 04:41

    Im still waiting to hear a lie. Where are all these lies you speak of?

  2. Paul
    January 31, 2017 at 01:42

    I agree with all of the facts detailed in this article but have to ask “what was the choice for America?”.
    The Obama administration displayed the same lack of integrity and truth you wrote about and Clinton showed the same in her tenure in government and during the election campaign.
    In view of this, shouldn’t we be questioning the whole of the American political system, media representation and even the whole of society in general?
    The lies, deceit and part truths don’t seem to be down to one person, party or political alliance but in general down to the current system that we have adopted.
    Until this issue is addressed, how can America ever progress?

  3. Evangelista
    January 30, 2017 at 22:37

    What we need, instead of dissection of Trump’s excursions into harmless hyperbolé, showman’s bombast and Carnie-Bark exaggeration is discussion of lying and lies in todays “Age of Lies”, when, as Carl Rove smugly phrased, “We make our realities”. When forcing and reinforcing lies to audiences conditioned to believe whatever is fabricated in coloration they are accustomed to, and conditioned to respond to, are disinclined, if not unable, to reflect and research to discern if true or not true.

    Take, for an instance, something over a million women waxing overwrought over a clear false interpretation of statements made by Trump, which statements are true, for the false interpretation asserting he said something else, the perpetrators of the false statements simply made up:

    Trump stated that a type of woman, who is willing to make herself a sex-object, will allow “anything” if someone is a “star”, even to letting “you [a star] grab ’em by the pussy”. The mis-interpretors falsified the statement to an assertion that Trump “grabs women by their pussies”.

    Over a million ewe-like guppy women, hit the streets to howl about this easily investigated alsehood months after its perpetration as a campaign lie.

    Clearly it is the Age of Lies, and “construct your own reality and insist upon it [and stir up mobs of stupids to mob with torches and pitchforks in support of your obvious-to-a-child false construction]”.

    How about an article about “Calling Trump on Lies in the Age of Lies”, taking on this current state in the United States and Western World?

  4. January 30, 2017 at 18:58

    Except the two ladies of the one liners, I find myself in agreement with the rest — this article missed the broad side of a barn.

    The Age of Trump? That is pandering to a misbegotten meme, engendered by the support group of her that told Goldman Sachs, “But If Everybody’s Watching, You Know, All Of The Back Room Discussions And The Deals, You Know, Then People Get A Little Nervous, To Say The Least. So, You Need Both A Public And A Private Position.”

    So apparently, a good lie is one told skilfully, where you (rarely) get caught, a bad one is just clumsy and shabby.

    Doesn’t the ultimate harm set the bar in reality?

  5. Jill S Heavenrich
    January 30, 2017 at 13:10

    Right on! Thanks for saying what needs to be said! Over and over and over again!


    January 30, 2017 at 09:24

    Quoting Scriptures as authority in a piece about the alleged importance of “truth” or at any rate of “not-lying” is a hilarious if unintentional irony. So is citing ruling class propaganda organs known to employ CIA writers as examples of actual journalism. And of course, got to throw in a few nazis here and there for the “ooh, be very afraid!” factor.

    Oh and speak of nazis and Catholic “truth”, Pius XI issued the encyclical Mit Brendenner Sorge (“With deep anxiety”) in 1937 in response to the arrests in Germany in 1935 – 36 of many prominent Catholic leaders. With typical papal cant, he characterized these men and women as victims of religious persecution, but in reality Bavarian authorities had uncovered a widespread pedophile ring operating in their state. Slightly more than half of the thousand or so indicted were convicted at trial. Goebbels accused the Catholic church of fostering a culture within which pedophilia was tolerated and even encouraged, but this of course was denounced as yet another nazi “big lie”.

  7. MarkU
    January 29, 2017 at 22:11

    I think the modern trend towards argument by rewriting the dictionary is lamentable. To redefine a lie as essentially a moral judgement is an appalling idea in itself and if the author of this piece had thought for just a moment before writing this drivel he would have realised that it completely defeats his own intended point.

    If a piece of disinformation is not a lie if it is done for a noble purpose then that gives carte blanche to any evil bastard who thinks he/she is in the right (and don’t they all? do you think Hitler and Stalin thought they were bad guys?) Their argument goes “the recipients don’t have a right to the truth because they wouldn’t understand and it’s for their own good”. I dare say that Donald Trump only lies when he thinks that it is the right thing to do, do you think he sees himself as a bad guy?

    I suggest that we resist this rewriting of the dictionary, lying to the Gestapo is the right thing to do but it is still a lie.

  8. Florence Steichen
    January 29, 2017 at 21:58

    Thank you Daniel.

    This is excellent, powerful. I hope it gets wide distribution.

  9. John P
    January 29, 2017 at 20:26

    I think there is a distinction between policy lies, lies to cover for policy aims ie. the overthrow of Assad etc, and those connected to ego ie. Trump’s I talked directly and indirectly with Putin, the vote figures, the numbers at inauguration. Those connected to the ego should make you question the soundness of the individual’s mental status. The policy lies, one needs to gather info from multiple sources and try to make open decisions about which ones are reliable. This can unfortunately be weighted by your own biases.

  10. jfl
    January 29, 2017 at 17:19

    with no specific instances of lies or lying this little essay is nothing but an exercise in associating the words ‘trump’ and ‘lie’ … one that might have ‘effectively’ been carried out with ‘bush’, ‘obama’, and ‘lies’. can the jesuit casuists mr parry. along with their cia casuist cousins.

  11. Monte George Jr.
    January 29, 2017 at 17:10

    This author has overdosed on CNN, MSNBC, etc. A whole article devoted to accusations with no specifics or substantiation. What lies, perhaps the one about massive voting by non-citizens? 800,000 have already been unearthed and the investigation has not even begun in earnest yet. Or one about the danger of importing masses of refugees from the regions that US intervention has destabilized? Check out the request of the 3rd largest city in Sweden for federal troops to restore order and wrest their own territory from the shadow of “Sharia” zones. The need for a southern wall? What we’ve been doing has not been sufficient to enforce existing immigration laws; the failure to enforce them has resulted in massive shifts in the US demographic profile and an influx of drugs and gangs from the south. The size of crowds at the inauguration? The empty areas shown in mainstream media photos were full by the time of the actual swearing in. This media played the same tricks they played on my generation during the San Francisco anti(Iraq)-war demonstrations; I remember it well. How about the claims that NATO is obsolete, the CIA are (illegally!) interfering in domestic US politics using blatant lies about Russian activities, that ISIS and Al Nusra were directly supported (with money, arms and occasional close air support (Dier Azor, Mosul, Anbar province) for terrorist ground troops? All these “lies” have been exposed as truths, and the process is just beginning.

    The real lies are coming from the press organs of the Western Alliance. Our newspapers promulgate Fake News and our television news (excepting some shows on Fox News Channel) and evening comedy shows are a 24/7 horror show of endless, blatant propaganda. All this only serves to reveal the terror that the US deep state and it’s lackeys around the world feel at the prospect of their activities being revealed, now that they are out of power. Hillary Clinton said it best, during a tirade against her staff, after an unexpected question was presented to her at a presidential debate presidential debate. She said “If that b…..d gets elected all of our necks will be in nooses!”. And that, God willing, is the truth.

  12. Bill Bodden
    January 29, 2017 at 16:55

    “All governments lie.” I. F. “Izzy” Stone

    The worst lies are those told to trusting people or to one’s self.

    Lies are part of the fabric of American society. The lying begins as soon as children understand the spoken word and continues into adulthood when some may realize they are being lied to. Some adults are not only willing to be lied to, but they often prefer lies to truth and continue believing lies until the day they die.

    The historian James Loewen wrote a number of books about lies including “Lies My Teacher Told Me.”

  13. Jermey Cohen
    January 29, 2017 at 16:54

    A good example is the muslim entry ban. Allowed are anyone from the country that supplied 16 of the 19 9/11 terrorists. Allowed are anyone from the country that provided sanctuary for Osama Bin Laden and officially supports and funds Laskhar e Toiba, the terrorist offshoot of Al Qaida that attacked Mumbai. Not allowed are anyone from Iraq and Libya, the countries that *we* invaded on a lie and killed tens of thousands. Is the case of #noballs?

  14. Herman
    January 29, 2017 at 14:24

    Trump lies about the number of illegal votes. Obama lies about Syria. Media jumps on Trump lie, adds to the Obama one. For hurt inflicted I prefer the Trump one.

    Our country seems in the midst of hysteria and imaginings far beyond what has happened or even what Trump said or suggested.

    I read somewhere that a petition is being prepared in California to declare independence!


  15. Alton C . Thompson, Ph. D.
    January 29, 2017 at 14:06

    An example of lying by the PRESS is their practice of quoting someone, such as Trump, but then making no COMMENT on the quotation; the quotation may be filled with lies, and by REFRAINING from pointing out those lies, the press gives the impression that the quotation CONTAINS no lies. If this is not blatant dishonesty, . . . !

    • Bill Bodden
      January 29, 2017 at 19:27

      As an example, last June I tested our local “paper of record” that has shied away in the past from comments in letters to the editor referring negatively to Israel. I suggested for the today-in-history column for June 8th to note that Israeli forces attacked the USS Liberty with the intention of sinking the ship and killing the crew. My suggestion was complete with several points related to this attack. The paper did print the part of the story about the attack (but not the intent) and people killed, but it added a comment about the Israelis saying they thought the Liberty was an Egyptian ship. It was true that the Israelis said they thought the ship was Egyptian, but that was a lie as the information I provided made clear. It would have been a good bet that all but few, if any, of the readers ended with the impression of this attack being a case of mistaken identity.

  16. D5-5
    January 29, 2017 at 12:56

    First I would be suspicious of an article that demonizes in its second sentence with no further elaboration. Second, I don’t believe it’s the Oxford English Dictionary that is oversimplifying here. A lie is a lie, no matter how it’s used whether for good or evil. Denotation and connotation are not the same. Also, all very well to generalize about Trump’s lies without citing what you mean but the result is going to be shallow. I’m thankful that just the other day Robert Parry spoke about the lies of the Obama administration in terms of keeping the deep state narrative and “smart” thinking going. Possibly this author should read Robert’s piece (“magic mirror”).

  17. Zachary Smith
    January 29, 2017 at 12:51

    Telling the Gestapo that the Frank family had left Amsterdam (even though you were actually bringing them food on a daily basis) would not earn you the moral stigma of “a liar.”

    It seems to me that author Maguire forgets that there are two sides to this issue. The head of the Gestapo was Heinrich Himmler, and from his viewpoint anybody who lied about the whereabouts of somebody being hunted by his organization was both a liar and traitor. There will surely be people who dispute the validity of the “two-side” claim I make here, but the Pope in Rome wasn’t among them. So far as I’ve been able to determine, not a single Roman Catholic Nazi was excommunicated. Zero. Nada. None. To the contrary, the Vatican sanctioned “rat lines” to rescue Nazis from Allied prosecution and move them to safety in South America and other places. Lest anybody forget, the list of Catholics among the top Nazi leadership was quite an impressive one, and Himmler was one of many.

    I’m irritated that Mr. Maguire didn’t give a single example of Trump’s lies – the ones which make him so very much worse than Obama when he was lying up a storm. Or Bush or Clinton or Reagan.

    Biggest Obama lies – those were my keywords for a google search, and they turned up quite a list.

    Publicly calling out liars is a worthy project, but doing it selectively is another matter altogether.

  18. Joe J Tedesky
    January 29, 2017 at 12:26

    My mother would always cautioned me how, one lie only leads to another lie. My dad would make it perfectly clear, how two wrongs don’t make a right.

    A politician in America who seeks approval will say anything, and likewise a large media machine with a hidden agenda is capable of saying, or not saying just about whatever it is they think needs said, or not said, to sell their elitist propaganda.

    If our MSM and the so true blue politicians were trustworthy there would be no need for an honest news seeker to travel the Internet looking for niche sites like this…but here we are. When I come to consortiumnews and a few other sites I find informative I thank God that we still here in America have a free press. That’s why all this fuss lately about ‘fake news’ is like dancing on the edge of a very tall building, and I wish we would all leave it to ourselves to pass judgement on whatever it is we are using at the time to stay informed. There are no disclaimers, you need to use your own brain to decide what’s true, and not true. You don’t always believe the grocery store clerk, so what always believe a reporter?

    I think what we are currently seeing and dealing with in America is a symptom of a much deeper problem, and that is the official cover story that we are suppose to always take for granted as the truth, and a bought and paid for media who never fails to push that cover story without question. The thing that makes this Trump relationship with the MSM so interesting, is that this is one of those few first times however that the two columns aren’t on the same page. Maybe Watergate is another example of this, but although I maybe forgetting a lot, I do think that now is different, and deeper, of a split between the press and the White House.

  19. Joe B
    January 29, 2017 at 12:16

    Calling out the so-far unclear statements of Trump as lies is rather premature, especially when done by mass media that specialize in lies, and in particular lies about Trump. Not sure that this article has standing to appear here.

  20. John
    January 29, 2017 at 11:58

    In this regard, however, Drumpf is no different than his predecessors…

    • MP
      January 30, 2017 at 14:44

      I see a difference. Why does he lie about the obvious? I understand that many of these people I observe through my little boxes show contempt for the general public, but his behavior is extremely disturbing.

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