The problem with Donald Trump isn’t just that he lies constantly, but also that he can’t keep his story straight. On Sunday, he issued forth a string of tweets about the election results and the ongoing recount efforts launched by Green Party leader Jill Stein. They advanced three separate arguments. The first tweet read: “So much time and money will be spent [on the recount]—same result! Sad.” The subsequent tweet read: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” And the next two tweets formed a single thought: “It would have been much easier for me to win the so-called popular vote than the Electoral College in that I would only campaign in 3 or 4-states instead of the 15 states that I visited. I would have won even more easily and convincingly (but smaller states are forgotten)!”
What’s interesting about these three tweets is that, on the face of it, Trump’s second point contradicts both his first and third assertions. For if Trump truly did win the popular vote despite massive fraud (as alleged in point 2), then a recount wouldn’t give the same result, as he’s asserting in the first tweet. And saying that Trump is already the real popular-vote winner flatly goes against saying he would have been the popular-vote winner if that had been his goal. It’s logically possible that points 1 and 3 are right, or that point 2 is right. It’s impossible that all three are right.
Fact-checkers have done a fine job of debunking Trump’s wild assertion that millions voted illegally, although many headlines too credulously described it simply as a “claim” rather than a demonstrable falsehood. But the media response to Trump’s dishonesty shows the limits of fact-checking. Fact-checkers typically look at individual comments a politician makes and judge them against known evidence. That’s fine so far as it goes, but it simply establishes the accuracy or inaccuracy of that one statement, rather than the pattern of deception or even irrationality at work.
At the end of a wholly persuasive refutation of Trump’s claim about actually winning the popular vote, for instance, Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post offered this meta-analysis: “Now that Trump is on the verge of becoming president, he needs to be more careful about making wild allegations with little basis in fact, especially if the claim emerged from a handful of tweets and conspiracy-minded websites. He will quickly find that such statements will undermine his authority on other matters.”
This analysis assumes that Trump wants to govern like a normal president, so that if he’s caught in untruths, he’ll face a credibility gap like the one that plagued Lyndon Johnson. What it fails to entertain is the possibility that Trump’s lies aren’t just incidental to his approach to politics but essential to it, that the president-elect sees lying as the source of his authority rather than as something that undermines it.
To be able to constantly lie and get people to accept contrary statements is, after all, an assertion of power. And it’s a type of power Trump understands all too well.
What’s really wrong with Trump’s claim of widespread illegal voting fraud isn’t just that it is untrue but also that, when combined with his other comments, it shows Trump doesn’t care about rational logic at all. To understand what Trump is really doing, it’s worth revisiting Sigmund Freud’s analysis of irrational logic.
In The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud recounts the old joke about a man who returns a kettle to his neighbor in a damaged condition, which leads to a court case. The man offers a series of mutually exclusive defenses: “In the first place, he had returned the kettle undamaged; in the second place it already had holes in it when he borrowed it; and in the third place, he had never borrowed it at all.” Freud’s analysis: “A complicated defense, but so much the better; if only one of these three lines of defense is recognized as valid, the man must be acquitted.”
For Freud, the way the man defended himself in this story parallels the illogical connections that are commonly found in dreams. The world of dreams is governed by “kettle logic” (a phrase developed by Jacques Derrida, riffing on Freud’s original idea), whereby mutually incompatible concepts are fused together at the same time.
As Freud indicates, this can be a successful way to argue a case, since members of the jury only need to buy one of the arguments to acquit the man who damaged the kettle. But what works as a legal strategy also does damage to the possibility of arriving at any rational agreement about the truth. To use kettle logic is, in Freud’s terms, to enter the world of dreams. It’s not surprising that philosophers intent on showing the limits of rationality—not just Derrida but also Slavoj Zizek—have found kettle logic to be a potent concept.
Zizek used the idea of kettle logic to describe how the administration of George W. Bush oversold the Iraq War with a surplus of arguments (Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, we were spreading democracy in the Middle East, Hussein had connections to Al-Qaida, and so forth). The Bush examples shows how dangerous kettle logic can be in the public arena: It involves not just the spreading of lies but creating a state of dream-like delirium whereby reality and lies cannot be separated, where everything is just a pretext, an excuse or a rationale, and nothing is ever argued in good faith.
Trump wielded kettle logic to induce this state of delirium all through his campaign. Consider his various comments about the Middle East, which have been fully as shifty as anything the Bush administration came up with. Trump has variously said that he opposed the Iraq War before it started; that he opposed Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq; that America should have taken the oil; that he opposes putting more boots on the ground; and that America should re-invade Iraq.
The effect of this blizzard of untruths and half-baked assertions is two-fold: It allows Trump to appeal to different audiences (depending on what they choose to believe, Trump has words that appeal to both ultra-hawks and ultra-doves), and it also creates a post-truth world where Trump’s assertion of the moment is the only thing that counts.
When kettle logic is deployed by those with little power (the man who damaged the kettle in Freud’s joke), it’s a tactic to weasel out of a difficult situation. But kettle logic becomes something very different when it’s wielded by a person in power like Trump. A president who uses it is making a raw assertion of power: What I say is the truth, even if it contradicts what I just said a few minutes ago. This use of kettle logic is pure authoritarianism. It’s the practice of a big brother who wants his followers to repeat 2+2=5. That’s the dangerous realm we’ve entered.
Fact-checking Trump is vitally important, but it doesn’t go far enough. Unless we analyze how he’s attacking not just facts but also logic, we can’t measure the full damage he’s doing and respond accordingly.