Donald Trump

It's Not a Lie If Trump Believes It

Journalists struggle to distinguish between deceit and delusion.


Trump campaign video

This week Donald Trump revived his post-election claim that he would have won the popular vote if it weren't for millions of fraudulent ballots cast by noncitizens. Trump said so during a meeting with members of Congress on Monday, and the next day his press secretary, Sean Spicer, confirmed that the president thinks "3 to 5 million people could have voted illegally." Yesterday on Twitter, Trump promised "a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD."

Trump's renewed claims about voter fraud raise a question we will be grappling with for the next four years: Is the president deceitful or delusional? Are his "alternative facts" lies or misconceptions? There is evidence to support both conclusions, and the more charitable one is not necessarily better for the country.

While illegal voting does happen from time to time, there is no evidence that massive fraud of the sort described by Trump occurred in last fall's election. Voting by noncitizens seems to be a rare phenomenon. Ohio, for example, reported 667 allegations of fraud in the 2012 and 2014 elections, when 8.4 million votes were cast. Of those reports, 149 were credible enough to be investigated. Ohio's review found that 44 unauthorized immigrants had voted in those two elections. Election officials from around the country, including members of both major parties, say they have seen no indication that large numbers of illegal residents voted in the 2016 presidential election.

By broaching this subject again, Trump presented news organizations with a familiar challenge: how to describe the gap between his statements and reality. Two months ago, The New York Times reported that Trump had "no evidence" to support his assertion that "I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally," a claim it described as "baseless." This time around, the Times used the L-word: "Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers," the headline read. A follow-up story the next day was headlined "Trump Won't Back Down From His Voting Fraud Lie. Here Are the Facts."

The difference between an unfounded claim and a lie, of course, is that a lie requires an intent to deceive. The problem is that no one can read Trump's mind to confirm his intent. That is why other news organizations continue to refrain from calling Trump a liar. "Without the ability to peer into Donald Trump's head," observes NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly, "I can't tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares, or doesn't, with facts."

Although I have tended to describe Trump's untrue statements as lies, I may have been too hasty. There is reason to believe, in this case and others, that Trump's false assertions are fantasies rather than fabrications.

Trump, perhaps the most openly narcissistic man ever to occupy the White House, clearly wants to believe he won the popular vote, just as he wants to believe his historically narrow Electoral College victory qualified as a "landslide." It is therefore plausible that he credulously latched onto crackpot claims about widespread voting by illegal immigrants, just as he credulously latched onto crackpot claims about vaccines and autism. You could argue that his refusal to back down in the face of persuasive debunking shows he is now consciously lying about voter fraud. Presumably that was New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet's reasoning when he approved the use of the word lie. But Trump's stubbornness also can be explained by his emotional attachment to a flattering fiction, a general reluctance to admit error, and a tendency to dismiss information from sources he views as hostile, which seem to include pretty much anyone who questions him.

The Times notes that Trump's lawyers, while resisting the Michigan recount demanded by Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, seemed to dismiss the idea that the election was tainted by fraud:

On what basis does Stein seek to disenfranchise Michigan citizens? None really, save for speculation. All available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake.

Trump himself described Stein's recount efforts as "a scam," even while maintaining that millions of people had voted illegally. His explanation for this apparent inconsistency is that any fraud benefited Hillary Clinton, not him, and that it was not a significant factor in the states (such as Michigan) he happened to win. That is an awfully convenient thing for him to believe, but that does not mean he doesn't believe it.

Further evidence that Trump is sincere comes from an anecdote he reportedly shared with members of Congress who were skeptical of his claims about voter fraud. Depending on whose account you believe, the story involves either pro golfer Bernhard Langer or a friend of Langer's. This fellow, whoever it was, supposedly was standing in line at a polling place in Florida when he noticed people ahead of him and behind him who did not seem like citizens to him. The protagonist of the story was therefore all the more outraged when officials prevented him from voting (although that would have made perfect sense if the protagonist was Langer, who is a legal U.S. resident but not a citizen). The anecdote, of course, proves absolutely nothing, not even about this one particular incident. But the fact that Trump thought it should carry weight with skeptics makes him seem more delusional than dishonest—the sort of person who passes along any evidence, no matter weak, that supports his preconceptions while ignoring any evidence, no matter how strong, that points in a different direction.

A similar dynamic could explain Trump's wild claims about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Looking out at his audience, he would have seen the most tightly packed part of the crowd (the part closest to him) and may have erroneously extrapolated that density to the entire National Mall. In his CIA speech on Saturday, he described the crowd as "packed," saying, "Honestly, it looked like a million and a half people. Whatever it was, it was. But it went all the way back to the Washington Monument." That may very well have been the honest impression of a grandiose billionaire who has always been prone to self-flattering hyperbole. Sticking with that initial impression, even in the face of contradictory photographic evidence, would be natural for such a man, especially if he saw admitting error as a surrender to people who despise him.

Or consider Trump's insistence that he saw footage showing "thousands and thousands" of Muslims in Jersey City cheering when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center. No such footage has ever been identified, and it seems clear that nothing like the mass public celebration Trump described ever occurred in New Jersey. But he has never conceded his memory may have been faulty. Is his story of a celebration that never happened a lie or an ideologically convenient fantasy?

Trump is now calling for an investigation of something he previously presented as a fact: that "millions of people…voted illegally" in November. If such an investigation actually happens, will he accept its conclusion, as he eventually conceded (four months ago!) that Barack Obama was born in the United States, or will he continue to insist he was right all along, as with the phantom post-9/11 revelers in New Jersey? And if he persists in his baseless assertions, will that be a calculated lie or a sincere delusion?

Assuming Trump is honestly mistaken gives him the benefit of the doubt, but it is hardly good news for the rest of us. A man who draws conclusions so haphazardly and sticks to them so stubbornly presents obvious dangers as president, even with the best motives. All things considered, I think I would rather have a liar in the White House than a self-deceiving egomaniac.