When asked at his Philadelphia Town Hall last week about when we might see a COVID-19 vaccine, President Donald Trump declared, “We’re very close. We’re within weeks of getting it. You know, could be three weeks, four weeks, but we think we have it.”
This obvious lie ignores the view of government professionals like Dr. Anthony Fauci who have downplayed the possibility of a quick success. It ignores the vaccine manufacturers, who insist the Food and Drug Administration follow the science in considering vaccine approvals. They know their clinical trials are months away from completion.
And it goes without saying that it ignores the advice of public health officials across the country. They are warning that a vaccination campaign, even after one is approved, will take many months and will be just one part of a multipronged strategy to control the virus.
Meanwhile, rather than using his bully pulpit to build a national commitment to the masking and social distancing policies that could return the country to near-normal economic, educational and social activities, the president is leading the opposition.
According to the Washington Post factchecker, the vaccine claim was just one of two dozen lies Trump told during his 90 minutes on stage. We’ve grown so inured to the president’s serial fabrications that his vaccine claim barely made the news.
Any number of armchair psychologists and psychiatrists have analyzed the president’s lying and his unwillingness to confront unpleasant truths. Many borrow their analysis from the German-American psychologist Erich Fromm, who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s. He blamed the incessant lies of dictators on “malignant narcissism.”
Mary Trump, the president’s niece and a clinical psychologist, echoed that analysis in her book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. “This is far beyond garden-variety narcissism,” the president’s niece wrote. “Donald is not simply weak; his ego is a fragile thing that must be bolstered every moment because he knows deep down that he is nothing of what he claims to be.”
As I listened to the president at the town hall, I began recalling facts that would refute his claims. But then I stopped and began worrying less about his mental health and more about the nation’s. How can nearly half the country not see that his lies pose a direct threat to their health, their safety, and the scientific underpinnings of the world’s wealthiest economy?
Psychologists have analyzed this behavior, too. “When we are overwhelmed with false, or potentially false, statements, our brains pretty quickly become so overworked that we stop trying to sift through everything. It’s called cognitive load—our limited cognitive resources are overburdened,” writes Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time.
“It doesn’t matter how implausible the statements are; throw out enough of them, and people will inevitably absorb some. Eventually, without quite realizing it, our brains just give up trying to figure out what is true,” she wrote.
Trump won’t change. His lying would overwhelm everyone in a second term.
“When we are in an environment headed by someone who lies, so often, something frightening happens: We stop reacting to the liar as a liar. His lying becomes normalized. We might even become more likely to lie ourselves,” Konnikova wrote.
Courageous whistleblowers recently unmasked the administration’s efforts to censor the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which by adhering to facts, didn’t comport with Trump’s lies. Will agency scientists continue to step forward during a second term?
Trump has a sixth sense for taking advantage of institutional weaknesses. Reacting to the constant assaults of a serial liar, people may withdraw, or, even worse, start lying themselves to protect their jobs.