When I was small enough for dolls, my favourite was somehow beheaded. The promise of my parents - that they would take her to the dolls’ hospital where she would be made good as new - cut short my dismay, and I warily handed her over. They told me to have faith in the doctors’ skills, and when the doll was returned in one piece I had to admit she did look much the same as before decapitation. We all declared the surgery a success. I placed her back with the other dolls in my toy box under the bed and slept soundly.
Some time later, her head came off again. At least, partially - because this second injury revealed that the head was now spiked and glued onto an old, dented pencil which had then been plunged inside her hollow torso. I was outraged. What kind of a doctor would do such a thing? I took my case to my father, who admitted that there was no hospital and no doctor, just his own clumsy repair efforts. I examined this new truth from several different angles but without having the maturity to factor in cost or good intentions, I simply felt hoodwinked.
The effects of much more pernicious untruths have been in the news throughout November, a month in which Donald Trump contested every Democratic victory in the US elections. Having just finished reading The Mirror and the Light, the last in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, I can’t help comparing Henry VIII’s characteristically ridiculous but dangerous twisting of the truth with that of President Trump. That both men were egotistical enough to believe themselves to be “the chosen one” suggests good reason for neither having bothered to develop a common-or-garden, plebeian notion of truth.
Henry’s solipsism is well-documented. Don’t like your first wife? Declare her still married to her dead husband so your own twenty-year marriage becomes invalid. Don’t like being told what to do by religious pedants? Claim direct descendancy from God and do away with the middlemen. Don’t like your second wife? Pretend she slept with her brother and anyone else with four-storey legs that sidled by the window of her locked room. Don’t like the man who concocted all these lies for you? Accuse him of heresy, treason, drinking your best Malmsey, wearing a dress. All you need is tenacity, and the truth will shrivel like a diabetic king’s penis after eating a plate of sweet egg custards.
Trump’s truth-denying faculties are also well-documented. Climate change. Tax evasion. Sexual misconduct. Covid-19. But they reached their zenith with vote denial. Don’t tell me what happened, he howled, tell me what I wanted to happen! If it didn’t happen, make it happen! For all their litigation threats, his army of aides have failed to adjust the facts with sufficient rigour to win in court. This has not prevented the President’s intermittent sulking and valedictory texts, nor the sacking of his Cybersecurity Chief for speaking the truth, and of his hairdresser for showing the truth (going from ginger to grey in a single week indicates Trump’s ‘do’ is done with).
The dolly hospital lie involved the manufacture of a narrative. I then used my own imagination to invest in an elaborate fiction which made being duped even harder to swallow. To sell their own, reinvented version of the truth, both Trump and Tudor used potent storytellers, with the result that supporters were forced to picture Anne Boleyn’s outlandish infidelities or Joe Biden’s truckloads of faked postal ballots. Objectivity faces a tough crowd once anecdotal evidence has been shared widely enough. And when you’ve seen something in your mind’s eye, it’s not exactly an invention anymore. History shows that our leaders have been daringly fabricating the ‘truth’ for a very long time. What’s scary is that our human propensity to enjoy a good story means we are doomed to keep falling for it.