What links Donald Trump, the newly-elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, and the Brexit referendum?
One word: lies.
Misinformation. Falsehoods. What Winston Churchill liked to call ‘terminological inexactitudes.’ Call them what you like: they are statements that purport to be true but are, in fact, demonstrably untrue.
And one of the biggest challenges in modern democracies is how to counter them. Because here’s the truth: a lot of people believe the lies, and a lot more people vote for the liars even if they don’t believe their lies.
Long before he was elected President, Donald Trump wrote in his best-selling book The Art of the Deal: ‘I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration.’
Innocent? Really? As a property developer selling a brand, just possibly. But as a head of state, and commander-in-chief of the world’s mightiest military power, I don’t think so.
In Brazil, the election of the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro was preceded by a deluge of lies on social media, mainly Whatsapp, designed to bolster his support at the expense of his opponents. Just two examples: a claim that Fernando Haddad, his left-wing rival, had written a book defending incest, and photo-shopped images of Haddad’s vice-presidential running mate, Manuela D’Avila, supposedly showing her with tattoos of Che Guevara and Lenin.
As for Brexit, no one will forget the Leave campaign bus and its erroneous claim ‘We send the EU £350 million a week’. It was, and is, a lie. Nevertheless, despite everything that has been said and written about it over the past two years, forty-two per cent of British voters still believe it to be true.
According to Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy at King’s College, London, who has recently published a book on public misconceptions called The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything: ‘Our attitudes and beliefs are as much a driver of our views of the world as the other way round, which makes our misperceptions partly immune to evidence … Despite more than two years of constant Brexit discussion, we still think European immigration is three times its actual level, exactly the same as in 2016; we still underestimate investment from the EU; and the same two in five believe the £350 million claim.’
Of course, not all the falsehoods told by politicians qualify as outright lies. Sometimes, politicians get things wrong because they are misinformed. Sometimes they express themselves badly. And sometimes they say something that they think is true but that turns out to be untrue.
What I think is new is politicians who simply don’t attach any importance to whether something is true or not. All that matters is that it works. Here’s how the New York Times put it in a story this week: ‘In the past couple of weeks alone, the president has spoken of riots that have not happened, claimed deals that have not been reached, cited jobs that have not been created and spun dark conspiracies that have no apparent basis in reality. He has pulled figures seemingly out of thin air, rewritten history and contradicted his own past comments.’
Just last week, when challenged about his unsubstantiated claim that there are ‘criminals and unknown Middle Easterners’ among the would-be migrants trekking through Mexico towards the US border, for which there is absolutely no proof, he replied: ‘There’s no proof of anything. But they could very well be.’
It’s all just ‘truthful hyperbole’, or perhaps ‘innocent exaggeration’. It’s what people want to believe, because it feeds into their perception of how the world is.
And the virus is spreading. The day after Trump tweeted about the ‘criminals and Middle Easteners’ among the migrants caravan, his vice-president, Mike Pence, went one better. ‘In the last fiscal year, we apprehended more than ten terrorists or suspected terrorists per day at our Southern border from countries that are referred to in the lexicon as “other than Mexico” — that means from the Middle East region.’
It was another lie. The truth, according to the US Department for Homeland Security, is that, on average, it blocks ten terrorists or suspected terrorists per day from trying to enter the US at all its entry points combined.
So how many tried to get in from Mexico? According to a State Department report published in July last year, there is ‘no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has travelled through Mexico to gain access to the United States.’
None. Not one.
What Trump instinctively understands – just as do all populists from Bolsonaro to Erdoğan, Salvini, Orban, Xi and Putin – is that fear wins over facts. Fear is an emotion; facts are logic. As Trump told Time magazine: ‘I’m a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right.’ After all, who needs truth when your instincts are always right?
Trump’s genius is to build on voters’ fears by appealing to their other emotions as well. As The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington wrote in a fascinating report after attending pro-Trump rallies across the US, the core Trump message also plays to love (‘I love you all!’), strength (‘Make America Great Again!’), hate (‘Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border ... This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!’) and hope (his constant emphasis on jobs and economic growth figures).
Much of what he says is provably untrue. But it doesn’t matter. He is telling a significant number of Americans what they most want to hear. He said it himself: ‘I play to people’s fantasies.’