Trump’s Deception Game: Two Truths and a Lie

Outliar(TM) analysis of President Trump talk in October 22 Presidential Debate. x=text segments (50 words); y=relative frequency of linguistic deception features (Z-score). More details on methodology here.

Donald Trump’s passing relationship with the truth has been widely documented by numerous factcheckers. However, the Outliar approach analyses deception – i.e. the intention to create false belief – rather than checking facts and so takes into account how deceivers piggyback their lies on truth.

Which begs the question: what are the truths that Donald Trump mixes in with his lies? I analysed Trump’s 7634 words uttered in the October 22 Presidential Debate and contrasted his most credibly spoken comments with the suspicious comments.

The results indicate that Trump does indeed veer from truth to lies on the same topic (usually preferring the truth then lie sequence). And, interestingly, Trump does have a small but distinct truthful core.

Trump’s Truthful Core

Trump does have one. At least, there are beliefs that he genuinely holds. Trump’s personal belief system centers around two key aspects: the responsibility of China for the spread of Covid-19 and his toughness in protecting America – and ensuring America profits – from all things foreign.

It’s China’s fault. They kept it from going into the rest of China for the most part, but they didn’t keep it from coming out to the world, including Europe and ourselves.

Trump also appears to genuinely believe that his early response restricting travel from China was in contrast to his political opponents apparent public support for China. Here, Trump is perhaps conflating Democrat support for Chinese Americans and strong comments against xenophobia (most clearly signalled by a public trip by Nancy Pelosi to Chinatown at the beginning of the pandemic) with a non-existent opposition to a travel ban. However, Trump’s inability to appreciate the nuance is not in itself deceptive.

Nancy Pelosi said the same thing. She was dancing on the streets in Chinatown in San Francisco. But when I closed, he said, this is a terrible thing, you xenophobic. I think he called me racist even. And because I was closing it to China. Now, he says I should have closed it earlier.

Trump also genuinely believes that his government’s economic record in response to Covid-19 had been exemplary, citing rapid jobs growth. Again, his rose-tinted interpretation – describing the partial return of jobs lost to the pandemic as job creation can be described as usual politicking rather than deception. (Snopes regarded this claim as partly true.)

We have to make our country totally successful, as it was prior to the plague coming in from China. Now we’re rebuilding it and we’re doing record numbers, 11.4 million jobs in a short period of time, etc.

In terms of protecting America, Trump talks directly and relatively honestly directly about his border achievements as well as the obstacles he faces in his desire to be tough on immigration. OK, he has replaced and reinforced – rather than built – nearly 400 miles of border wall (as of November 1 2020) but again this hyperbole is grounded in a core of truth:

We now have as strong a border as we’ve ever had. We’re over 400 miles of brand new wall. You see the numbers and we let people in. But they have to come in. A murderer would come in, a rapist would come in, a very bad person would come in. We would take their name. We have to release them into our country. And then you say they come back, less than one percent of the people come back. We have to send ICE out and Border Patrol out to find them.

Trump also claims to have been tough in making foreign powers pay, referring to his sanctioning of Russia and the increased contributions to NATO from member states.

There has been nobody tougher to Russia with between the sanctions, nobody tougher than me on Russia, between the sanctions, between all of what I’ve done with NATO. You know, I’ve got the NATO countries to put up an extra 130 billion, going to 420 billion dollars a year.

I just gave twenty eight billion dollars to our farmers. It was China….   China paid twenty eight billion. And you know what they did to pay it, Joe? They devalued their currency and they also paid up. And you know who got the money? Our farmers, our great farmers,

Trump’s use of sanctions as a foreign policy is indeed record-breaking, with twice as many sanctions issued as either Obama or Dubya (according to research by law firm Gibson Dunn). Whether China are in fact paying through currency devaluation is a sophisticated economic argument rather than a matter of true or false claims.

Two truths and a lie?

There appears to be some method to Trump’s deception. On a number of topics, Trump started with a truth then segued to deception through three steps. I’ve tried to capture the patterns in the matrices below:

Topic: Covid-19 Vaccine
Topic: Environment
Topic: Obamacare