Politicians have never been known for their veracity. Indeed, there are times when politicians should lie, such as in wartime when they must conceal forthcoming operations. But, political leaders are ill-advised to lie about the big picture, for example, to promise an easy success when the road ahead is actually long and difficult. Voters punish politicians who lie to them in ways that are meant to deceive not a foreign army but the voters themselves.
It is one of the more remarkable facts about Donald Trump's candidacy that he has paid very little price for repeatedly saying things that are not true. You can go to Politifact or to the Washington Post's Fact Checker, and he consistently flunks the truth-o-meter, or gets four Pinocchios. Remarkably, it doesn’t seem to cost him. Even those who interview him seem unable, or unwilling, to challenge some of the absurd things he says and, when they do, he just seems to speak over them, to repeat the nonsense again and again, as if saying it was so would make it so.
This fact that Trump pays no penalty for his deceit is not to be confused with a different aspect of the candidate's Teflon: When Trump says something outrageous, like calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S., he also pays no price for it and, indeed, people tend to warm to him because of it. Now, a majority of Republicans support his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Still, that is being an effective demagogue -- and it is different from being caught in a lie.
It used to be said that you can get away with a big lie in politics, but a little lie will catch you every time. Republicans are still running on the idea that lowering taxes will increase government revenue, the heart of trickle-down economics that even Pope Francis recognizes is false. On the other hand, Bill Clinton takes credit for the economic boom of the 1990s, and while his 1993 budget bill gets some small measure of credit, it was really the dawning of the Internet age, and the consequent productivity gains, that led the economic resurgence.
And all sides propose plans to "balance the budget" which somehow never come to fruition. But, Al Gore, who never said he had invented the Internet, nonetheless said something close enough to that, and that something close corresponded to what people disliked about Gore to begin with, his smarty-pants demeanor, that they penalized him hugely for that and his candidacy was dogged from the beginning by the “I invented the internet” charge.
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Less important than the size of the lie is whether or not it reveals something about the politician’s personality. To my mind, the most damaging lie of this presidential election was not uttered by Trump but by Hillary Clinton. CBS News' Scott Pelley recalled that Jimmy Carter said he would never lie to the American people and then asked Mrs. Clinton if she had always told the truth. "I've always tried to. Always." When pressed she stated flatly, "I don’t believe I have ever have [lied]. I don’t believe I ever will." The look on both their faces tells the story. She looks like she is biting a lemon. Pelley is overwhelmed with incredulity. It is painful to watch.
It is also, to me, inexplicable especially because of the way Pelley prompted the question, recalling Jimmy Carter's promise to never lie to the American people. In 1976, reporters went to Plains, Ga., to interview the candidate's mother, Miss Lillian, a spry elderly lady. They asked her if her son had ever lied and she told them she was sure he had told white lies but that he had never told a black lie. The reporters objected that a lie is a lie is a lie. She replied, "Well, I don’t know if I can explain the difference between a white lie and a black lie, but I think I can give you an example. A moment ago, when I met you all at the door and said how pleased I was to see you. ..." If Ms. Lillian can manage an artful and endearing response, why can't Hillary Clinton?
The more important question about the role of veracity in this campaign, however, is different this year. In their different ways, both Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are raising questions about the establishment and the establishment has a lot to answer for. Yes, the Republicans in Congress have been singularly obstructionist. And, yes, their obstructionism is rooted in the fact that the highly partisan redistricting made many House Republicans' re-election contingent only on winning the GOP primary. But, both parties traffic in deceit all the time.
Take the issue of gun control. Clinton has been more vocal about her support for gun control than most national candidates in the past: There are lots of voters in key swing states like Pennsylvania who lean towards the Democrats on all issues, but they are also strong Second Amendment supporters. The kind of gun control that works, as witnessed in Australia, really does entail confiscating guns and, so, it really would mean revoking the Second Amendment or altering it significantly. But, Clinton can't go that far, so she talks about more comprehensive background checks, and waiting periods, and a bunch of other policy proposals, none of which would effectively deter a criminal from getting a gun.
Take the issue of ISIS. Some times, President Obama will admit that this fight will take a generation, that it is a fight within Islam, that it is a fight in which U.S. involvement can easily make things worse and that it is far more difficult to make things better. But, most of the time, he talks about how we are succeeding in the war against ISIS, just as four years ago we had done well enough in Iraq to withdraw our troops, but now they have returned, and just as the prospect for a final withdrawal from Afghanistan fades into the far future.
Take the issue of income inequality. No one, not even Sen. Sanders, will come out and say that the business model upon which Wall Street is based is not only fraudulent, but morally corrupt. Wall Street responds to two emotions, greed and fear. What could possibly go wrong? The market goes up and it goes down, as often the shift the results of rumors or faulty computer program or who knows what. Yet, big businesses have come to depend on Wall Street. It is their opiod.
Donald Trump's willingness to say outrageous things is less odious in the minds of many, many people, than the polite lies we have been told by professional politicians and establishment thinkers and writers for decades. Those people are wrong: Trump’s nativism and narcissism are worse than the lies we have been told. A strong candidate could turn the tables on Trump, but I fear, and fear greatly, that the candidate who told Scott Pelley she had never lied will have trouble doing so.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]