As the first presidential debate looms, the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is being billed as something more than red versus blue, rich versus poor, or war versus peace. The election is being billed as something even larger — a national referendum on the nature of truth itself.
The choice, according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, is between a respected politician with some regard for the facts, and a “charlatan,” “con man,” and “duplicitous demagogue.” The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and New Yorker have all drawn up detailed anthologies of Trump’s lies. Hopes that the debates’ moderators might call Trump out on his bad facts are looking unlikely to be fulfilled. “What is a big fact? What is a little fact?” Janet Brown, the head of the Commission on Presidential Debates, asked CNN’s Brian Stelter on Sunday afternoon. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica.”
Instead, Brown said, it will be up to each candidate to call the other a liar.
Those who are calling Trump out as a liar are right. He is a liar. His deceptions are apparent both from the records compiled above, and in the way he talks. And for those who might believe that these charges are extensions of bias, we have Politifact and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, designated experts with the authority to call a lie a lie. A friend who works in New York City real estate once told me that Trump’s syntax is a familiar one in his business. The goal is to keep on filling the air with meaningless noise until your opponent adopts a defined position, which you can then proceed to undermine. Sometimes Trump lies to adjust his stated positions to the contingencies of the moment. Sometimes, as in this interview on foreign policy, his casual, fragmented way of speaking comes across as an attempt to conceal how little he knows. Sometimes, as with his claims that some U.S. cities are more dangerous than Afghanistan, and that African-American communities “are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before,” Trump’s words are so egregiously wrong, so obviously playing to emotion, that they are something closer to apocalyptic wishes than outright lies.
Part of the media’s job is to check politicians’ statements against the known facts. But there is something patronizing and hypocritical about the media’s sudden interest in Trump’s deceptions, as though his lies were larger and more harmful than anything in recent memory. “Our job is not stenography, but truth telling,” is how Kristof puts it.
Where was all this hard-nosed skepticism in 2002 and early 2003, during the Bush administration’s run-up to the Iraq War? In Kristof’s column, he presents himself as a prescient Cassandra during this period. Indeed, he did warn his readers that governing Iraq after Saddam Hussein would be difficult. But several weeks after the invasion of Iraq began, Kristof still wasn’t ready to call George W. Bush out on his lies about Iraqi connections to al Qaeda and the mythical weapons of mass destruction. He still wanted to believe in the administration’s good intentions. “I don’t want to believe that top administration officials tried to win support for the war with a campaign of wholesale deceit,” he wrote, in May 2003, and then gingerly pointed out “indications that the U.S. government souped up intelligence.” Three months before, his paper’s editorial board wrote that the Bush-Cheney WMD allegations were different from their “unproved assertions” about al Qaeda. For the WMDs, the Times wrote, there was “ample evidence.”
The backlash against Trump isn’t really about his lying. It’s that he is lying too clumsily, too openly, and in the service of the wrong causes. Earlier this month, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a summary of their report on Edward Snowden’s disclosures. They wrote that Snowden washed out of the Army because of “shin splints,” “doctored his performance evaluations,” and never received a high school degree. All three of these claims are lies, as spelled out by Barton Gellman. These lies came from 24 sitting members of Congress who are charged with overseeing the intelligence community. But there has been little outcry, no correction, and no demands that these assertions be backed up by evidence. This may be because our political culture has come to accept certain abuses of the truth as normal, and the lack of accountability for those officials behind the Bush-era deceptions has not improved matters.
Today, if you want to use your official position to slander Edward Snowden, or to claim that only three men were waterboarded at Guantánamo, or to argue against the release of 28 pages of a publicly funded report on the 9/11 attacks, the worst that most newspapers will do is quote someone who disagrees with you. Senior official says X, some critics say Y. This is stenography, and for those interested in figuring out how we came to inhabit a post-fact world, this might be one place to begin.
Trump’s lies are an essential part of his candidacy. Debunking them is crucial. But the attention given to logging Trump’s lies often comes at the expense of addressing the deeper truths that run through his “rigged system” rhetoric. Trump, more than Clinton, has played to the growing sense that the country is run by an elite network of self-dealing oligarchs. Economic frustration is what allows Trump to convincingly set himself up as a worthy outsider, the champion of the people, the guy who can fix the broken system because he was so skilled at exploiting it for his own benefit. This is an almost messianic image. It has and will continue to survive barrages of fact-checking.
In a Monday editorial, the Times convincingly shot down Trump’s claims to be a financial genius, a “straight talker,” and an “expert negotiator.” But the paper grudgingly admitted that Trump was “a change agent for the nation and the world.” As much as Clinton might wish that the burden is on Trump to back up his outlandish statements, apologize for his slurs, and fill out his hollow, privileged résumé, Trump’s lack of respect for the truth may not matter, not unless Clinton can differentiate herself from the status quo.