Leonard Pitts: Are they lying to us or are they lying to themselves?

President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet Meeting in the East Room of the White House, Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Are these people lying to us or are they lying to themselves?

For years, that's been the great imponderable of American politics, the question the rest of us asked as we watched nominal "conservatives" sink ever deeper into a morass of conspiracy, lies and alternative facts. Were they yanking our collective chain, working some deep strategy, invisible to our eyes? Or did they actually believe Barack Obama was a Muslim, born in Kenya? Or that Hillary Clinton ran a child-sex ring out of a pizza parlor? Or that the victims of mass shootings were really "crisis actors"?

It would be perversely reassuring to think they were lying only to us about all that, suggesting as it would that they understood the truth, but had, simply, if cynically, chosen for political advantage to deny it. If, however, they were lying to themselves, it suggested a people enmeshed in delusion and self-deception so profound they ought not be allowed to carry sharp objects.

Well, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing a definitive answer take shape, and it is not reassuring. Bad enough bands of putative conservatives have brandished guns in resistance to measures designed to save their lives and harassed reporters for daring to report the “fake news” of a health crisis that has killed more than 90,000 Americans. Then, on Monday, Donald Trump explained how he is guarding against infection.

"I happen to be taking" hydroxychloroquine, he told reporters. Why? "'Cause I think it's good. I've heard a lot of good stories."

Unfortunately, none of those "good stories" is backed by even a smidgen of science. Hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat malaria and lupus, has not been shown to have any usefulness in warding off the coronavirus. In certain patients, it may even be linked to cardiac arrhythmia. In sum, then, hydroxychloroquine appears to be about as effective against COVID-19 as an injection of Lysol.

One may reasonably suspect, given Trump's habitual estrangement from the truth and the unlikelihood of any doctor with an ounce of integrity prescribing that drug, that he's lying and will soon claim he was just being "sarcastic." On the other hand, given his penchant for magical thinking, his aversion to masks and other pandemic safeguards and the fact that doctors without integrity are not unheard of, it's also reasonable to believe Trump is telling the truth.

More to the point, it's reasonable to believe he believes taking hydroxychloroquine will protect him from the pandemic, even as the crisis continues to fell members of his own administration. Trump's behavior, like that of the people chanting against masks and social distancing, raises an obvious question: Would they be acting this way if they thought it endangered their lives? Would they seek political advantage at the risk of their own health?

The answer is No. So what you're dealing with here are not political actors, but true believers, exercising their true belief.

Granted, it's hard to leave it at that. People are loath sometimes to credit the evidence of their own eyes and ears; they flinch from leveling judgments that clash too starkly with their understanding of how reasonable people behave. They look for a chain of logic, for reasons that might make sense to sensible people.

In so doing, they ignore the good advice of Maya Angelou: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Embrace that, and you will spend less time wondering how so many on the right can believe the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax when every day they see the death count rise.

They can because they can. And because they need to.

Angelou’s wisdom also makes the answer to that first question starkly, if frustratingly, clear. Are they lying to us, or are they lying to themselves?

The answer is, Yes.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com