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  • Reverend James Squire

Lying and Politics

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

One of the astute ethicists that you have never heard of who has greatly influenced me is Sissela Bok. Most have never heard of her, but the last name may ring a bell as her husband was once President of Harvard. Her seminal work was Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. Her expertise is on why people lie. She has helped me to understand why people lie, why Trump’s base is so devoted to him, and why our politics are so partisan in nature.

So here is some of the Gospel according to Sissela Bok integrated into my own thinking.

Why do people lie? The tendency to lie appears in childhood. When children lie and get away with it, it gives them their first sense of power. Once the power is felt, it is easy to develop a pattern as power becomes an enjoyable feeling. It is the first way that a child learns to protect himself from threat. Overt and covert threats can hurt children as well as the rest of us. One reporter commented that "President Trump’s bark is worse than his bite. He just wants to be petted”. He craves kindness and acceptance. Most children are successful in unlearning lying as there are ways of unlearning this behavior later in life as questions could be considered. What would happen if my lie was on the front page of the paper? What would a group of reasonable people say about my lie?

When I lie, I have to remember what I said. Lying is often the “gateway” experience to other immoral behavior. It is the bedrock of bad behavior as lying breaks trust in personal and social exchanges. Trust, on the other hand, is the foundation of a civil society where lying erodes any society from family to nation to international relations.

In Ethics class, I taught the “Ticking Time Bomb of Decision Making”. If there is something that is horrible that is about to happen, people will lie for a greater good. Therefore any action can be seen as good even lying. This behavior was the heart of the “24” TV series where there was no time for certain honest actions to take place. A bomb seemed always ready to be set off in the espionage thriller.

Why is Trump’s base so loyal to him? How could they identify with his “raised with a silver spoon in his mouth” lifestyle? That can’t be it. He has nothing in common with them. As I write this, Congress is still debating a stimulus bill that every economist think is necessary. What is it like for many in his base who are worried about their rent, their next meal, their lost benefits and their children’s schooling? Many refer to his base as a cult and in many ways it is. Ethics is part of every group dynamic. I always taught that groups have various characteristics. His followers are no different. Groups can make bad intentioned people worse and good intentioned people better. They have their own moral or immoral code that makes sense to the group but not to others on the outside of it. Being part of a group helps you to have the important emotions of self-esteem and belonging. Last of the dynamics which is big for Trumps’ followers is “I may be inferior, but we as a group are magnificent”. This is a powerful feeling to have when you feel that Washington is not responding to your needs. This is the replacement of your identity for another’s. In this case it is being at one with Trump’s identity. If he loses, you lose.

From the perspective of Trump's followers, they see themselves struggling (although there are those who are people of means). They look at Washington politicians “playing with the lives of those in need”, going home for a nice Christmas vacation, living without seeming to have a care in the world, free medical care, and a lifelong pension and his supporters are “mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore”. He is against the elites. Listen to what his followers say. “He has our back. He cares about us. He’s standing up against all those politicians who have ignored us forever.” It baffles people as to why they believe this when it isn’t true, but that is how they FEELand they are PASSIONATE about him. Feelings and passion for him trump (pun intended) reason. Reason doesn’t motivate more than feelings and passion do. Some say Trump is crazy. His childhood has made him “crazy like a fox”. His behavior worked when he was 7. He believes it will work when he is 74.

Every group thinks in us and them terms. He has on his side those who believe as he does as the “us”. The “them” are the elites. The elites were soon seen as that “smartest boy in the class who thinks he knows it all with his hand up”. It was easy to dislike them. We are a nation of the poor and working class, becoming more so every day. He has numbers on his side.

Partisan politics is not a Republican or Democratic thing. Partisan politics is about party loyalty that makes us blind to reality. Your identity, once again, is lost in your identity with the party. Recall the group dynamics that I mentioned. Let’s take a moment to look at two revered politicians, Reagan and Johnson, and lying.

Lyndon Johnson was the Democratic President during the 60(s). He passed more legislation to help Americans than any other president including the Civil Rights Act to Medicare. He lied about the numbers of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. He was told lies by members of his Administration which made the war longer. He also lied about the war because he couldn’t face losing, all in the context of the outstanding social programs he was instituting. He would often use a phrase to cover his lying. He would say that “There is no escalation of the war happening (at this time).” During the 60(s), the war was seen as a war of the Democrats with famous protests occurring at their convention. The lies eventually split the party. It was the reason that Johnson would not seek a second term. That was the consequence of the lying.

President Reagan did wonderful things and was one of the most popular Presidents of all time. He reduced taxes and spending. He created many jobs through his Recovery Tax Act of 1981. He rolled back Communism and won the Cold War. He was, however, also involved in the Iran Contra Affair which allegedly involved selling arms for hostages and supporting rebel troops in Nicaragua fighting against Communism. These actions were done by bypassing Congress and then lying about it. This was revealed and Reagan’s great popularity dropped. He was, however, the Great Communicator. The truth shall set you free. He went on TV and indicated that he was not honest with everyone about what occurred during the Iran Contra Affair (some say this was not as clearly stated as it should have been). Following that broadcast his popularity soared as the nation could trust him again. Telling the truth after a lie can do that for any individual. You may choose to watch his four minutes video below of his address to the American people admitting his mistake.

Sissela Bok recommended several things that we needed to do as a nation following this ethical lapse during the Reagan years. I believe that they are the same actions we must do now to make things better in our divided nation to address the Pandemic and Black Lives Matter. First, we should renew our commitment to our core values as a nation. Second, ethical action starts with us and people seeing goodness in each of us. The axiom for me is a Christian goal, “They will know that we are Christians by our love.” (You can insert your religious or secular belief system for mine). Second, we should not tolerate any “breaches of law”. Third, we should not tolerate any “breaches of promises”. Fourth, we should have transparency in government deliberations. Truth and trust are at the heart of all successful relationships for people and for the government that we hold dear. That is the Alpha and Omega of a good society.

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