Much has been made of the fact (and it is a fact) that Donald J. Trump is the most dishonest person ever to become President, at least since factcheckers made it possible to measure such things. Not only that, but he was the most dishonest person ever to run for President, in fact the most dishonest politician any of the major factchecking sites have ever reported on. He lies habitually, and even when there is no reason to lie. His lying is orders of magnitude greater than anyone else on the national stage.
But as in so many other things, he is just the most egregious example of a truism most Americans have known for years: politicians lie. It’s absolutely true that Trump has taken his lying to a new and ridiculously high level, almost as if he is trying to prove there is no lie so ridiculous that many of his supporters won’t believe it or excuse it. Still it is only a matter of degree. He is the bizarre edge example that proves the law. Politicians lie. Pretty much all of them.
The difference is that most of the rest of the politicians only lie occasionally, when it suits their political purposes, or when they have something specific to hide. Trump’s brazen lying is at any entirely different level, and demonstrates actual contempt for the concept of truth. But again, it is only a matter of degree.
Trump also demonstrates another uncomfortable truth. As a nation, we want our politicians to lie to us. We expect it and we reward it in our politicians. Of course, only some lies – the lies that we want to believe, and what those are may be different for each of us.
Oh, we always say we don’t want our politicians to lie to us, but in that we prove ourselves just as dishonest as they are. We’re lying to ourselves, too.
The fact is that the truth is messy and complicated, particularly when it comes to making national economic and political policy. There are no silver bullets or easy solutions, but nonetheless easy solutions are exactly what we want. So we repeatedly reward politicians who lie to us and promise such easy solutions by voting for them. Is it any surprise we are then disillusioned when they fail to do the impossible and fulfill their dishonest promises?
Perhaps the greatest example of this can be found in discussions of the national budget, including both taxes and spending. Majorities of Americans consistently say they are worried about the budget deficit. However, majorities also say they want a strong defense and don’t want any cuts to social security or other entitlement programs. And that they don’t want to raise taxes. These are contradictory desires. So, how does a politician deal with them? He/she lies about his planned policies. The politician tells us, as most politicians have for the last thirty years or so, that we can continue to have our cake and eat it too. That there is indeed such a thing as a free lunch.
You want truth. Here’s truth. We can’t balance the budget (and it would be advisable to at least get closer to balanced) unless we cut/reform entitlements, raise taxes or cut defense spending. Frankly, we probably need to do all three.
Do you think that any politician could win office running on a platform of raising taxes, cutting defense spending and cutting/reforming entitlements? Not any time soon. So they lie to us, and we reward them for it.
Another example is the so-called “War on Terror”. The cold hard truth is that this “war” is not winnable. As long as there are angry men willing to kill and die for some cause or grievance, real or imagined, we will have terror. Our world always has been unsafe, and always will be. The government can take some steps (usually at some cost to our rights) to make us marginally safer, but short of drastic measures to curtail our rights even further, there is no way we will ever be “safe” from terrorism. Fortunately, another cold, hard truth is that terrorism isn’t actually that great of a threat to us as a nation. Yes, terrorists will continue to kill some tens, or dozens, or even hundreds of us every year, but we lose more people each year to choking on food or bike accidents than we do to terrorism. The real danger is actually that we will overreact so much to this relatively minor threat and give away so many of our rights that we cease being who we are.
Do you think any politician could win office running on a platform that basically said that terrorism cannot be defeated and that we just must be brave in the face of it and carry on? Not any time soon. So they lie to us, and we reward them for it.
All of this is not to say that we should just shrug our shoulders and accept lying politicians as inevitable. That we should accept Trump as normal.
Quite the opposite. We need to finally grow up as a nation by acknowledging our own complicity in the lies politicians tell us. Only then, by first being honest with ourselves, can we begin to hold politicians to a higher standard.
It has to start with Trump, whose presence in the White House represents a grave threat to the nation in many ways, and not least by his overt and relentless assault on the very idea of truth. We need to stand up as a nation and finally say: “Enough!” People of all political persuasions need to put their tribal loyalties aside and remove the biggest liar ever from office.
But that won’t be enough to really address dishonesty among our politicians. More will be needed if we really want them to stop lying to us.
But it’s a good first step.