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The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue

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The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue

Proclaiming the Deeper Truth About Political Illegitimacy


15 min read
10 take-aways
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What's inside?

Under what conditions might an inveterate liar appear like a paragon of truth? 

Editorial Rating



  • Analytical
  • Innovative
  • Scientific


As they watched Donald Trump storm to victory in 2016, many befuddled observers wondered about a conspicuous paradox in his campaign: How could a candidate who lied so often and so obviously be seen by his supporters as a paragon of virtue and truth-telling? In this scholarly article, researchers from Carnegie Mellon and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ran experiments in which they created a hypothetical election and asked participants to vote for a candidate. From these tests, they concluded that people can view even the most inveterate liar as truthful if the political establishment has lost legitimacy. While their academic writing style isn’t always easy to digest, the authors add important texture for understanding Trump’s rise and voter behavior in general.


The Liar as Truth Teller

During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump achieved a seemingly impossible feat: Despite lying constantly, he appeared to many voters as a fount of authenticity. It’s a conundrum that raises many questions about voter psychology, and about candidates who hope to sway the electorate. To be fair, Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, was no paragon of truth herself. The fact-checking organization PolitiFact rated 38% of Clinton’s campaign statements partly untrue, and it deemed 12% completely false. Campaign revelations exposed Clinton’s practice of failing to secure classified information and how Clinton and her husband used their fame to boost their personal wealth. It also became clear that Clinton flouted the accepted rules of fair play for primaries and debates. All of this underscored voters’ strong suspicions that Clinton was inauthentic. Trump supporters, for their part, found their candidate a breath of fresh air – even if he lied more than the truth-challenged Clinton did, seemed more concerned about personal enrichment than Clinton, and flouted norms even more freely than his opponent.

Partisanship shapes ...

About the Authors

Oliver Hahl is assistant professor of organization theory and strategy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. Minjae Kim is a PhD student in the Economic Sociology Program at MIT Sloan School of Management. Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan is deputy dean and the Alvin J. Siteman professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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