The Mesmeric Art of the Political Lie

7 months ago Ricardo Hylton 0

Most people think that when they place an X in the polling booth that they are voting for a politician, a political party and the particular values they espouse; the views expressed in a manifesto or the ones that fly from their esteemed lips on the stump. Political voting is a particularly personal decision, which should go to the core of who we are and how we’d like to see our societies shaped. So it would be nice to think that the people we are voting for say what they mean and mean what they say. That, my friends, would be wishful thinking.

Political Manikins

Beneath the surface, the hyped political heroes are in fact political manikins. We are actually being influenced by influencers behind the scene. Professional influencers’ abilities extend way beyond hypnotising people to lose weight or quit smoking or to boost confidence. There is a fully fledged profession that exists merely to help politicians lie to the public more effectively. This runs deeper than mere public relations or media training.

Enter stage right Neuro Linguistic Programming better known by the acronym NLP. This is a communication and psychological technology that is used mostly in therapy but has now infiltrated business and politics (most major corporations in the world uses NLP today). Using old school persuasive pronouns, it seeks to train the people we elect in the ways of deception. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, two of the better lying politicians of my lifetime, trained in NLP. Statements such as:

You, like me, think that global warming is a lie’ is straight from their training manual.

Consider a politician trying to affect the way we think about a particular issue. More often than not, there is subtle manipulation going on. They display a canny ability to peer into the camera’s lens, and utter statements of utter falsehood. They display what for some is mesmeric skill. For the invisible aliens it is unadulterated deception.

Turn on CNN or BBC or Fox news and watch a politician obfuscate and twist and squirm and turn away from answering a pretty simple, straightforward question

Q. Where do you stand on coal power?

A. Well what we need to look at are the broader issues here. The issue isn’t coal so much as the need to look more broadly at our energy supply.

Q. But I didn’t ask you about broader issues. Where do you stand on coal power, Minister?

A. Coal is just one of a number of energy sources that we need to look at. One that needs careful analysis…dadadadah.

They are trained to how to not answer questions with a direct yes or no, with which they can be pinned down later on. A great leader must “be a great pretender and dissembler,” Machiavelli said in “The Prince.”


The Line of Hitler

If you look at the structure of the speech of a cult leader or a good salesperson or a politician, the structure will be identical. Paul McKenna, the British broadcaster and writer, did an analysis of the speeches of Adolph Hitler, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. What he found was very interesting because whilst the content was different the structure was almost identical.

Adolf Hitler was a monster. The insidious ideology he spawned changed the world landscape forever. But have you ever wondered how he did it? How did Hitler convince 70 million rational people to engage in such horrible atrocities and wage war against Europe?

Although his agenda was decidedly negative, Hitler was a master of the science of coercion. Through the use of his speeches and propaganda, he was able to bend the will of ordinary people into submission and create an obedient army ready to carry out his orders, no matter how absurd they might be. Hitler’s formula for coercion of a group of people was very simple. He discussed it at length in his book Mein Kampf:


  1. Keep the dogma simple. Make only 1 or 2 points.
  2. Be forthright and powerfully direct. Speak only in the telling or ordering mode.
  3. As much as possible, reduce concepts down into stereotypes which are black and white.
  4. Speak to people’s emotions and stir them constantly.
  5. Use lots of repetition; repeat your points over and over again.
  6. Forget literary beauty, scientific reasoning, balance, or novelty.
  7. Focus solely on convincing people and creating zealots.
  8. Find slogans which can be used to drive the movement forward.


This should sound familiar to anyone who has listened to Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage or any pretty much any modern politician. There are elements of deception in the vast majority of them.


What Can You Do?

So where can we benefit from this knowledge?

There seems to be a case to teach social influence in schools so that it will be easier for people to recognise when they are being manipulated. Some people are naturally savvy about this but it was Hitler who once said ‘it is the good fortune of government that people don’t think.’

Again, Adolf Hitler was a monstrous figure. By deconstructing his tools we can learn not to fall prey to them again, and apply the useful aspects of his craft towards the greater good, the way Martin Luther King did.

Since Hitler’s time, others have utilized the same structure to accomplish coercion for different ends. One of the most notable examples would be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His I Have a Dream speech follows this pattern almost perfectly, but to serve a very different purpose.


My Lying Eyes

There is also the insidious and dangerous situation where the public is forced to believe a lie; where the speaker can force the listener to repeat it and thus to lie too. The classic example comes from O’Brien’s interrogation of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

You are a slow learner, Winston,’ said O’Brien gently. ‘How can I help it?’ he blubbered. ‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.’

Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.’”

What is being demonstrated here is the primacy of power over truth. Torture may not make its victims tell the truth, but it works wonderfully to make power relations clear.

When George Orwell wrote, he was depicting the style of lying in Moscow. But he could have been describing any Western democracy. When the White House press secretary was sent out to lie to the media about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, when both he and his audience knew he was lying, we entered a new world. The truth here seems helpless against the assertion of the thing that is not so. But there is no need for despair. We are not tortured prisoners, as Winston Smith was. When asked who we believe, “me, or your lying eyes”, we defend our imperfect democracy by trusting our lying eyes.



Most of us use the acronym LOL to mean “laugh out loud”. But in political circles, it stands for “lie or lose” – the public doesn’t like the truth, and those who flirt with telling it don’t stand a chance.

There is rarely an outright political lie. Instead there’s distortion, exaggeration, misrepresentation, deception, half-truth and overstatement. The assumption is that the risk is worth it. Hubris and narcissism mean the consequences of a politician getting caught are outweighed – they think – by the benefits of telling voters what they want to hear. They know we seek support for our preconceived notions, and avoid information that challenges established views.

Strategists assume voters have an almost infant-like response to lies, believing that if something isn’t true it won’t be repeated. So the most effective political lies are repeated again and again. Say something often enough and people will begin believing it (Strong and Stable didn’t work for Theresa May but the point stands).


Read My Lips

In 1988, during the US presidential race, George Bush Senior said: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Most economists in the Treasury knew that was probably a classic lie or lose exercise, and Mr Bush believed the White House would be his if he simply told America what it wanted to hear.

The notion that a good president or prime minister doesn’t lie to the people is an illusion. Historians say many of the greatest leaders were the biggest liars — and duplicity was part of their greatness.

Political lying is a hot topic due to the rise of Donald Trump. Some political pundits warn that Trump’s ‘lies’ will undo his presidency. They say Americans won’t forgive a president who violates their trust. It’s a good sound-bite, but, as we argued here, it is bad history.

While preparing the country for World War II, Franklin Roosevelt told Americans in 1940 that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

President John F. Kennedy declared in 1961 that “I have previously stated, and I repeat now, that the United States plans no military intervention in Cuba.” All the while, he was planning an invasion of Cuba.

Ronald Reagan told Americans in 1986, “We did not, I repeat, did not trade weapons or anything else [to Iran] for hostages, nor will we,” four months before admitting that the U.S. had actually done what he had denied.


Maybe We Reap What We Sow

If you still think you want a leader who is always honest, consider the fate of one recent American president.

He vowed during his presidential campaign that “I will never tell a lie to the American people.” He wore a sweater during a nationally televised speech from the Oval Office because he had turned down the White House thermostat to conserve energy. He brought peace to the Middle East and even taught Sunday school.

He was also swept out of the Oval Office after one term.

“The country fell apart,” is one typical description of this president’s time in office. “He was too noble, too pure. He didn’t know how to play people against one another. He should have read his Machiavelli.”

That president was Jimmy Carter. He won the Nobel Peace Prize after leaving office, and he’s been widely praised for his humanitarian efforts around the globe. He still builds homes for the poor around the world. No one ever labelled Carter a liar while he was in office. But then hardly anyone calls him a great president today.