To take liberties with Voltaire, "Liars figure and figures lie." Taken more broadly, all of us are prone to exaggeration, stretching the truth and occasionally telling "white lies." Outright lying is hopefully less common, although virtually every political leader often succumbs to the untruth.
"I am not a crook" and "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" are perhaps two of the better -known presidential fibs. But what happens when a president or leader is so addicted to concealing, dissembling and denying the truth while inventing facts to fit his or her perception of reality? Can that prove destructive to a nation?
The answer is of course. The Soviet Union is the pre-eminent case study. From Vladimir Lenin to Mikhail Gorbachev, with Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and several geriatric successors in between, the Soviet Union was based on perpetuation of falsehoods about ideology and the condition of the state that denied reality on an industrial scale.
From 1976, when the CIA predicted Leonid Brezhnev had less than a year to live, until March 1985, the Soviet Union was headed by very infirm leaders. Brezhnev died in 1982 followed by Yuri Andropov in 1984 and Konstantin Chernenko a year later. This rapid transition in leadership catapulted 54-year-old Gorbachev into power.
As with his surviving Poliboro colleagues, Gorbachev rotated through several ministries. Each was in worse shape than the prior. For nearly seven decades, ministers had habitually lied about the condition of their agencies and offices while believing the lies of comrades about how well each was doing.
Gorbachev was so shaken by these revelations that he imposed perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) to correct past ills. These reforms led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a lesson that may not yet have been fully learned by Vladimir Putin.
A corollary to the destructive nature of interminable lies is destructive law. No better example of the pernicious effects of bad law is the 18th Amendment, prohibiting sale and consumption of alcohol in America. Regardless of one's view of alcohol, few Americans abided by the law, justifying criminality on a national basis. An added insult was the rise of major criminal organizations making billions on providing outlawed booze to millions of thirsty Americans.
Obviously, these concerns point to Donald Trump. He is the most accomplished provider of presidential falsehoods and misstatements in history. The Washington Post fact checker has listed nearly 4,000 of them so far. Last week's State of the Union address underscored the president's proclivity to steer clear of the truth.
All presidents usually exaggerate accomplishments. Whether 600,000 or 450,000 new jobs were created is within this margin of error. But when border security and North Korea were discussed, the president cut loose from reality.
A crisis on the border does NOT exist as the four border states' governors repeatedly report. A caravan of dangerous migrants does not exist. Most illegal drugs do not find their way north through illegal crossings. Illegal residents do not have higher crime rates. And El Paso was never the third most dangerous city in America.
About North Korea, the only way war was inevitable was if Trump unleashed his "fire and fury" on Little Rocket Man Kim Jong Un. Of course, to his base, what the president says is either believed or disregarded as less important than the policies and actions his administration is taking.
Why then does the president take such liberties with the truth? No satisfactory answers have been forthcoming. Is his ego so large that whatever he thinks at the time is reality and truth? Is his dependence on "building a wall and having Mexico pay" so central to his political DNA that facts make no difference? Or is he so badly read and misinformed that he actually believes what he says when clearly it is wrong, false or a lie?
The issue is not a psychoanalysis of the presidential psyche. The issue is whether a torrent of distortions, misstatements, fabrications and lies flowing form the White House will ultimately have destructive effect on American society, culture and politics. Will the younger generation come to accept this as normal? Will older generations become tone deaf? And instead, as Churchill said, that truth must be protected by a bodyguard of lies, will lies be protected by this president?
This is not an idle worry. Both parties have gyrated to extremes of left and right. While the president is less Republican than being Donald Trump, his extreme discounting of fact and truth should be deeply troubling. And it will be more troubling if, as with the 18th Amendment and prohibition, Americans conclude truth and fact no longer matter. Then lies will be destructive to the nation.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.