What My Father the Pathological Liar Taught Me About Trump
Life under the new president has been unsettling, but also strangely familiar.
Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
My father never carried an umbrella. He figured if it started to rain, he'd be able to talk someone into sharing an umbrella with him. Allergic to long-term planning, he was sure he could talk his way through any sticky situation. With few exceptions, he was correct.
I don't know Donald Trump, but I bet he's never been in the habit of carrying an umbrella either.
Many people find the chaos of life under Trump baffling and confusing. The explanations for his actions—like the firing of FBI director James Comey—can shift daily. Often, it appears he doesn't really understand what he's talking about so confidently. And the president sticks to baffling statements (about voter fraud, for instance) long after they've been widely discredited.
All of this upsets me just like it does others, but I also find it familiar. It reminds me of what I experienced growing up with my father, who built entire worlds of bullshit, then lived in them as long as possible. If you're unfamiliar with the type, then you probably think such a person will eventually be caught and shamed and forced to mend their evil ways. In reality, as I know from a experience, a truly skilled liar simply pulls up stakes and moves his circus to the next town. And if you're that liar's kid, you must travel right along with it.
My father first honed his skills because he was an alcoholic. To be addicted means you must be a deft craftsman of fabrications. To appear "normal" for as long as you can. To borrow money to feed that addiction. To form excuses about why that borrowed money cannot be paid back. An addict who is an unskilled liar will not survive long.
But even when he got sober, my father's affinity for lying never left him. He lied about big things and little things. He lied to give himself an advantage, and he lied when a lie did him no good whatsoever. He lied because he had lied and knew he would lie again. The only secure bridge between one lie and the next is yet another lie.
I believe many of his lies were born of desperation. Not just the desperation of an addict, but the desperation of someone who longs to be liked.
He could lie to your face when you knew he was lying, when he knew you knew, and he wouldn't bat an eye. If you called him out on his lying, he would lie about the lying in a way that made you question your memory, even your own sanity. Did he really say that, or did I just imagine it?
This was far slicker than I'm making it sound. Many people were charmed by him, and in retrospect, I understand why. He could work a room by weaving a story or telling a joke and have everyone in stitches. He was a gifted mimic and could do any "voice" you threw at him. He was a voracious reader and had an endless well of trivia he could dip into, on nearly any topic. I believe many of his lies were born of desperation. Not just the desperation of an addict, but the desperation of someone who longs to be liked.
Acquaintances drifted in and out of his life, parting ways when they realized how much of the man they knew was an act. But there was no way to opt out of being his son, or living in his house, and thus no way to escape the wreckage that his lies created. No way to escape the angry phone calls from bill collectors looking to track him down. No way to get around town when he drove yet another car into the ground, despite his assurances he'd gotten the oil changed. No way to keep him from stealing money from my wallet late at night when he thought I was asleep—and no satisfying way to make him account for that theft, either, since he'd never admit to the theft.
Watch: Everything Trump got wrong in his speech on climate change
When you're a child relying on a parent who won't even tell you the truth about simple things, it warps your reality. The only thing I ever knew for certain was that uncertainty would reign.
Psychologists sometimes break down children in dysfunctional families into a series of archetypes. One of these is the Hero: the kid who strives to be perfect, upright, and moral, under the premise this will correct their damaged world or at the very least allow them to deny the fractured truth of their everyday lives.
These children believe the parent can be shamed into telling the truth, and that this will somehow correct the issue forever—that they, and only they, can be the family's savior through the strength of their goodness. They believe this even when their every "rescue" attempt results in failure.
As a kid, I definitely thought I was the Hero. I confronted my father about his lies on several occasions, subconsciously believing this would force him to confess and beg forgiveness. Sometimes I was calm and reasonable, sometimes I was in a rage, but the result was always the same: nothing. Given the choice between truth and lies, a liar will always double down on lies. And since a child is in no position to make the parent account for those lies, the lies continue.
If you are operating from the premise that if you catch Trump red-handed in some lie he will have to confess and apologize, you will be disappointed every time.
It's been startling to watch the political media go through the same process. I get the sense that many members of the chattering class are born Heroes who wish politics were more like The West Wing, a fantasy in which reasonable arguments were always rewarded and hypocrisy was always punished. The West Wing gang never had to confront anyone like Trump.
If you are operating from the premise that if you catch Trump red-handed in some lie he will have to confess and apologize, you will be disappointed every time. When Trump's explanation for firing FBI director James Comey contradicted that of his spokespeople, the deceit could not have been more obvious. Reporters dutifully pointed this out, no doubt expecting the kind of contrition or clarification displayed by previous presidents. None came.
Similarly, when Trump suggested that former adviser Carter Page would "blow away" all allegations of his administration's collaboration with Russian agents provocateurs, the press noted that Trump had denied ever speaking to Page just a few months ago. Surely Trump had to own up to some deceit here, was the implicit tone of the reporting. And again, the implicit response from Trump was, No, I don't.
Trump ignored these attempts to shame him for falsehoods, just as he ignored all the fact-checking during the campaign. Why should Trump care about the truth when he can just continue what he's doing? It's worked so far.
When faced with such futility, the Hero can react in a number of ways. Willful self-delusion is a popular option. When I was younger, if I really wanted to, I could convince myself my father would keep his word—especially if his word said he'd stopped drinking for good this time. Children thrive on promises, so no matter how many times he'd made the same promise and failed to deliver, I was willing to believe the next one would take.
There are many ways to delude yourself when you live in this kind of environment. As I grew older, I stopped holding out any hope my father would stop lying, but I never stopped believing that my situation would improve. Kids believe in the supremacy of fairness. He got a blue popsicle, so I should get a blue popsicle, too. If other kids got to grow up in a "normal" house, then I deserved one as well. Therefore, the universe would correct itself and make it so. How would this happen? I had no idea, but I was sure that it would.
I see a similar, desperate grasping from people who believe that at some point, Republicans will have to find the president's actions so repugnant that they will break with Trump and support impeachment. Ditto for the idea that Trump's "base" will turn on him. The relationship between Trump, Congress, and the MAGA crowd resembles a dysfunctional family unit in that whatever the conflicts, it fulfills some mutual need. Congressional Republicans want to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut taxes for the wealthy. MAGA types want the immigrants and coastal elites they blame for their woes to be punished. Trump will help them do those things as long as they don't tear him down.
I can't blame anyone who dreams of impeachment. When you're trapped in an impossible situation, you will look for any sign of salvation, no matter how improbable. This is the reason legions of people breathlessly repeat social media rumors that indictments against Trump and his underlings will be dropped any second, even when the details of those rumors change from minute to minute and make no goddamn sense.
People entertain these fantasies because they need a coping mechanism, something that allows them to cling to any scrap of sanity they have left. In a vacuum, a coping mechanism is not a bad thing. The danger begins when people actually believe some magic bullet will take down Trump any minute now, and all they have to do is wait.
When you grow up the way I did, the hardest thing to accept is that no one has to come to your rescue, and in all likelihood, no one is. Any plan for "escape" will have to come from you, and will require a great deal of time to execute. It involves not merely removing yourself from a physical location, but also changing an outlook that seeks constant retribution for what was "done" to you. It sucks, and it's exhausting and, from a mental standpoint, the process never quite ends. It's very easy to get bogged down by the unfairness of fixing yourself when someone else is the real problem. But wishing alone won't change anything.
So it is with the Trump presidency. No one is coming to save us from it. Not Barack Obama, not Hillary Clinton, not MSNBC, not Louise Mensch, and definitely not the Republican Party. As president, Donald Trump has firm control of the household of America, and there is absolutely no reason to believe he will relinquish that control for any reason other than the usual political ones.
Things don't have to get better on their own, and it will be a long time before they get better on the macro level. If you have the time and the energy to spare, do what you can on the local level, whether that's supporting candidates who will help thwart Trump's agenda, or volunteering for community organizations that will help those most hurt by his policies. Progress will feel glacial and you may be overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all, but in the long run, it's much better than resting your hopes on the idea that things have to change. In Trump's world, we all have to carry our own umbrellas.
Matthew Callan is the author of Yells For Ourselves, available for preorder at Inkshares.