Why does the President lie?

/ 05:07 AM June 11, 2019

Last Friday, he did it again. On a TV show hosted by controversial Christian cult leader Apollo Quiboloy, President Duterte invented new untruths, this time against the outstanding journalist Ellen Tordesillas. He said Tordesillas, the president of Vera Files, was suffering from cancer and asking sources for money.

In fact, Tordesillas has been cancer-free for several years already, and as she said in a straightforward statement, it was her Malaya publisher, Jake Macasaet, who had shouldered her expenses. She never asked her sources for money.


(And those of us who know Ellen know she would never compromise her integrity — not only her integrity as a journalist but as a person — by turning a reporter-source relationship into a transaction.)

These facts are, if not open knowledge, at least easily accessible information to anyone who asks. Why would the President tell such an obvious, easy-to-refute lie?


That is the question. Why would Mr. Duterte lie? His lies are countless; I mean that literally, because I’ve lost count. He lies about those he perceives as his critics: men of God like Caloocan Bishop Ambo David and Dagupan Archbishop Soc Villegas, the Philippines’ Western allies, opposition senators, even the God of the Catholics. And he lies about those he treats as his allies: whopping untruths about the Marcoses, propagandizing the war-or-else position of China’s Emperor Xi.

Sometimes, when he gets caught, he brazenly, cheerfully, admits lying. For instance, after spectacularly accusing opposition Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV of illegal wealth allegedly hidden in foreign banks, the President found himself backed into a corner when Trillanes flew to Singapore to prove he did not own offshore bank accounts. The President’s response: “Wala ’to, imbento lang” (This is nothing; it’s just made up). He also said: “Wala ito. Produkto ng isip ko” (This is nothing, a product of my imagination).

And do you remember that time he said he spoke to God while on board a plane? After fueling a news cycle that ran for a few days, with the President saying he had promised God he would stop cursing, he then revealed he had made it all up, dialogue and all. “Ang mga buang, naniwala rin. Hindi naman ako Bar topnotcher pero ’di naman ako ganoong kagago.” (The fools, they even fell for it. I’m not a Bar topnotcher but I’m not stupid.)

Why does he do it? Four possible answers.

Lying as levity. It’s clear that sometimes the President lies because he thinks the untruth he has just let loose into the world is a form of comic relief. That’s exactly how he explained his fabricated in-flight conversation with God. “Ang paborito ko sa Davao magbiro ng kung ano-ano.” (My favorite thing to do in Davao was to joke about all sorts of things.)

Behavior is reinforcement, so the Davao electorate helped create a political personality who told untruths because these made them laugh, or lulled them into a false or at least an alternate sense of reality. And that’s the President we ended up with, one who thinks entertainment value or even shock value is a good enough reason to lie to the public he serves.

Lying as strategy. I would wager that for many, Mr. Duterte’s lies are seen or taken as strategic, meant to stake out a political position or create a political opening. (I would include not only diehard Duterte supporters in this number but even many in the opposition, who invariably see every Duterte move as strategic, every counterstroke a masterstroke.)


The President’s attempt to smear Trillanes with accusations of hidden wealth was ridiculous on the face of it — except to the likes of Erwin Tulfo, who hosted the President when the accusations were made — but even Mr. Duterte explained it away as a ploy. He said he made up the claim, offering spurious account numbers, “para mahuli ko” (so I can catch him). The idea that it was an elaborate trap is belied by, well, reality, but even today you will meet people who think the President was right to try and trap Trillanes.

Lying as policy. If I were to make a guess, this category of lies is the President’s favorite. He lies in order to promote his political or personal agenda: His inflated number of drug addicts in the country, his inflated number of police officers killed in the so-called war on drugs, his inflated series of narcolists, his unceasing attacks against the journalists and the news organizations who dare report the truth or call him to account (hence his scandalous “prayer” for Tordesillas not to recover from her ailment), his constant attacks on Senators Trillanes and Leila de Lima. The lies are designed to undermine the ground on which he thinks his opposition stands.

Lying as pathology. But it should also be clear by now that Mr. Duterte sometimes manufactures lies simply because he cannot help it. Case in point: his description of US President Donald Trump as a “deep thinker.” Or maybe he meant it as levity?

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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TAGS: Ellen Tordesillas, john Nery, Newsstand, Rodrigo Duterte
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