There’s no question that Donald Trump is the most flagrantly, compulsively, and voluminously dishonest president in American history — which is saying something, given the competition. He’s probably told 27 more lies during the time it took you to read this one sentence.
But as preposterous as it sounds, there’s a case to be made that he’s simultaneously America’s most honest president. Every now and then, in the midst of his unending eruption of prevarication, Trump will blurt out the truth about the United States in a way that no normal politician ever has.
Most recently, when asked whether he would consider sanctioning Saudi Arabia for its Mafia-like murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump was hesitant. Why? “Because they are ordering military equipment. Everybody in the world wanted that order. Russia wanted it, China wanted it, we wanted it. We got it. … Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon … I don’t wanna lose an order like that.”
Getting the Saudis to gift as much of their oil profits as possible to the U.S., particularly when it boosts large defense contractors, has been a priority of every president since World War II. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the chairs of Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, and Standard of California — that is, the four American corporations engaged with the Saudi state oil company Aramco — wrote to then-President Richard Nixon. If the U.S. was seen to be openly supporting Israel, they warned, “the whole position of the United States in the Middle East is on the way to being seriously impaired, with Japanese, European, and perhaps Russian interests largely supplanting United States presence in the area.” Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger obediently arranged for American arms to be shipped to Israel as inconspicuously as possible.
Indeed, the money that flows to U.S. multinationals due to our relationship with the Saudis may be a key reason that America has been able to run huge trade deficits for decades without damage to our economy.
But that’s not the kind of thing any standard-issue, high-level politician can say. Prior to Trump, Americans could only get this kind of honesty from fiction, as in the famous diatribe by the chair of a huge conglomerate in “Network”:
The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance! … There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon!
And Trump’s Saudi comments are just a sampling of his startling truth-telling. Other examples include:
Furthermore, just before the 2016 election, Trump declared that America had “wasted $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East — we could have rebuilt our country twice — that have produced only more terrorism, more death, and more suffering — imagine if that money had been spent at home. … We’ve spent $6 trillion, lost thousands of lives. You could say hundreds of thousands of lives, because look at the other side also.” All of this was true (with the slight caveat that while the wars will eventually cost at least $6 trillion, we haven’t paid out all of that money yet). Trump’s reference to the huge number of foreigners our wars have killed, and implication that their deaths were a bad thing, was particularly unpresidential.
Yet more strangely for a Republican, Trump also acknowledged that George W. Bush was president in 2001 and might bear responsibility for what happened. “The CIA said there was a lot of information that something like that was going to happen,” Trump said during a CBS interview in February 2016. “Could he have done something about it? Well, his CIA said they knew about things happening.”
I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch Brothers. Puppets?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 2, 2015
I turned down a meeting with Charles and David Koch. Much better for them to meet with the puppets of politics, they will do much better!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 30, 2016
Of course, telling the truth on all these matters has never caused Trump to behave differently from a standard U.S. president. We will still support the Saudis, no matter how gruesome their behavior in 2001 or 2018. We are still in Iraq and Afghanistan for the indeterminate future. We’ll keep on un-innocently killing people around the world. Trump is eagerly turning himself into a puppet for GOP billionaires, big pharma, and defense contractors. He’ll keep on talking about “fake news.” And Ted Cruz has been transformed, in Trump’s estimation, from “Lyin’ Ted” into “Beautiful Ted.”
But there should be a hopeful lesson here for any politicians considering whether they should risk telling the truth. Trump has broken every taboo in U.S. politics, including the bad ones. It turns out you can be honest on the most sensitive topics and the heavens won’t collapse upon you. Regular Americans actually don’t mind and will still vote for and support you. Leaders who want to tell the truth in hopes of changing the world can rationally give it a shot and see what happens. As we say grace this Thanksgiving, we should consider giving thanks for this unexpected but real forward progress.