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Why Trump's staff would lie from the start

One of the most striking features of the early Trump administration has been its political uses of lying. The big weekend story was the obviously false claim of Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, that Trump pulled in the largest inauguration crowds in American history. This raises the question of why a leader might find it advantageous to promote such lies from his subordinates.

First and most obviously, the leader wishes to mislead the public, and wants to have subordinates doing so, in part because many citizens won’t pursue fact-checking. But that’s the obvious explanation, and the truth runs much deeper.

By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.

Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters. If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you. That too is a sign of incipient mistrust within the ruling clique, and it is part of the same worldview that leads Trump to rely so heavily on family members.

In this view, loyalty tests are especially frequent for new hires and at the beginning of new regimes, when the least is known about the propensities of subordinates. You don’t have to view President Trump as necessarily making a lot of complicated calculations, rather he may simply be replicating tactics that he found useful in his earlier business and media careers.

Trump’s supporters are indeed correct to point out that previous administrations also told many lies, albeit of a different sort. Imagine, for instance, that mistruths come in different forms: higher-status mistruths and lower-status mistruths. The high-status mistruths are like those we associate with ambassadors and diplomats. The ambassador is reluctant to tell a refutable, flat-out lie of the sort that could cause embarrassment, but if all you ever heard were the proclamations of the ambassador, you wouldn’t have a good grasp of the realities of the situation. Ambassadors typically are speaking to more than one audience at once, a lot of context is required to glean the actual meaning, and if they are interpreted in a strictly literal manner (a mistake) it is easy enough to find lots of misdirection in their words. Most of all, ambassadors just won’t voice a lot of sensitive truths.

Arguably those diplomatic proclamations are not lies, but they do bear quite an indirect relationship to the blunt, bare truth. Ambassadors and diplomats behave this way because they seek maximum flexibility in maintaining delicate coalitions of support over the longer run. And indeed it is correct to think of every incoming (and ongoing) administration of doing lots of “lying” — if that is the right word — of this sort.

These higher-status lies are not Trump’s style, and thus many of his supporters, with some justification, see him as a man willing to voice important truths. If Trump’s opponents don’t understand that reality, and the sociological differences between various kinds of misdirection, they are going to underestimate his appeal and self-righteously overestimate how much they are themselves mistrusted by the public.

Trump specializes in lower-status lies, typically more of the bald-faced sort, namely stating “x” when obviously “not x” is the case. They are proclamations of power, and signals that the opinions of mainstream media and political opponents will be disregarded. The lie needs to be understood as more than just the lie. For one thing, a lot of Americans, especially many Trump supporters, are more comfortable with that style than with the “fancier” lies they believe they are hearing from the establishment. For another, joining the Trump coalition has been made costlier for marginal outsiders and ignoring the Trump coalition is now less likely for committed opponents. In other words, the Trump administration is itself sending loyalty signals to its supporters by burning its bridges with other groups.

These lower-status lies are also a short-run strategy. They represent a belief that a lot can be pushed through fairly quickly, bundled with some obfuscation of the truth, and that long-term credibility does not need to be maintained. Once we get past blaming Trump for various misdeeds, it’s worth taking a moment to admit we should be scared he might be right about that.

So the overall picture is this: The Trump administration trusts neither its own appointees nor its own supporters, and is creating a situation where that lack of trust is reciprocal. That is of all things a strategy for getting things done, and these first one hundred days are going to be a doozy.

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Letter: Christian persecution, right here at home

Persecution of Christians — it happens only in far-away, third-world countries, right? No, it is happening right here in Twin Falls. Some Christians have moved to our area because they were fleeing religious persecution in their native countries, and now ironically, they are facing similar treatment here. Because they are from other countries, their names sound and look foreign to us, so local people may assume that these new neighbors are Muslims, but they may be Christians.

Before you act in an ignorant way, find out the truth. When you get to know these people with odd-sounding names, you will probably come to like them, no matter which Abrahamic religion they follow. And like them or not, all people deserve respect.

“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness.”

“You’ll know they are Christians by their love.”

Betty Slifer


Brugger: Let's have a discussion

Why, you ask, am I attempting an opinion column for the Times-News?

That straw man will start my inaugural effort.

My first reason is that I have been complemented on my efforts so far. The second is that writing helps me think more clearly. All who know me will tell that I can go off on all sorts of tangents when I attempt to express ideas extemporaneously. The third reason is that I enjoy putting my oar in on public policy. You may wish comment on my chutzpah.

I have written some political columns recently, but I find that I am less interested in promoting a party agenda than I am in discussing ideas in general. The exchange of ideas was nurtured at the family dinner table over the Sunday roast. I will admit to being somewhat of a liberal thinker. I have always wanted more knowledge, wider experiences, and knowing “what’s new.” I am also entirely sympathetic to classic conservativism.

Telling you some things about me, I can say that I cannot remember a time when I was not a social scientist. If the subject had to do with how people live, I was drawn to it. In school, it was an easy A. In my social life, I had to learn the difference between gossip and understanding how people live their lives. I like cultural anthropology, history (especially biography), economics, political science, sociology and psychology. I am fascinated with “hard” science, but after being told by my geometry teacher that I didn’t have a “math mind,” I stuck to understanding concepts and how to judge good research but went no further. I did, however, ace my statistics final so I feel somewhat competent to understand social science research.

I am a Western Woman to my core. I understand Eastern sensibilities, but I don’t share them. I was raised by Eastern parents who fell in love with the Colorado Rockies and never left. They instilled in me a love of travel, but I’ve always felt a bit like an ambassador for the land to the west of the Missouri river and the Dakotas. I worry about water and love pine forests. I appreciate the cowboy and know that the Spanish were on this land before the English. I’m skeptical of people who put on airs and I appreciate honest labor. I love Idaho because I’m young here. In my native Colorado, I’m surrounded with life as it was. Here is new at every turn. But Idaho is a lot like the place where I grew up. I’m home.

What do I expect from this column? Discussion. I will consider it a success if people who might disagree with me will chime in with comments — especially online. I would love to include them in my musings as appropriate. I love to have new points of view to chew over. I will disregard any disparaging remarks about personality, habits, or intellectual ability. Nothing to discuss there. I would be flattered by any communication that starts out, “Have you considered ... ?”

Finally, I hope to promote a sense of community. I think people are as alike as they are different. People’s differences add spice to life. I hope that my words encourage you to participate in the life of the Magic Valley and not to feel marginalized. I do not like a broth. I like a hearty soup. I offer to break bread with you in hospitality and share with you my favorite soups.