Disregarding the Truth Works for Candidates
Who is this?
“His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one and, if you repeat it frequently enough, people will sooner or later believe it.”
That’s from a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler prepared by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA. At the risk of falling foul of Godwin’s Law – anyone playing the Hitler card automatically loses the argument – I’d suggest it’s a pretty good summary of Donald Trump’s MO, the most recent example of which is his claim, and defence thereof, that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims living in New Jersey took to the streets to celebrate 9/11.
It’s a given that politicians play fast and loose with the truth, especially on the campaign trail, but this isn’t routine political shiftiness. Trump isn’t hyping his policies or exaggerating his opponents’ shortcomings, he’s slandering an entire community.
And he’s not paying a price for being exposed as a liar. In fact the evidence suggests Trump and fellow fork-tongued Republican presidential contender Ben Carson are flourishing because of, rather than despite, their brazen disregard for the truth.
So what’s changed since Richard Nixon was turfed out of the White House for lying about his involvement in the Watergate conspiracy or Bill Clinton’s slipperiness over the Lewinsky affair made him an object of derision?
Disregard for objective truth and empirical evidence are hallmarks of fervent religious belief that makes a virtue of blind faith. A large swathe of American conservatism now bears a closer resemblance to a fundamentalist religious movement than a broad-based, essentially pragmatic political party.
People with closed minds want their convictions reinforced rather than tested, so they restrict their sources of information. That inevitably exposes them to more extreme views and shields them from counter-arguments and facts which don’t square with their beliefs.
In this context, it’s impossible to ignore the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News network whose slogan “Fair and Balanced” could have been devised by the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984.
There’s the fact that the conservative political establishment has, for perceived, narrow, short-term gain, taken partisanship to a new level. Not content simply to oppose Barack Obama, Republicans in Congress and state governments have tried to delegitimise him by portraying him as unAmerican, personally and philosophically.
Hence the Birther movement which maintains, despite documentary evidence to the contrary, that Obama wasn’t born in the USA and therefore isn’t eligible to be president. Trump has been Birtherism’s most prominent and vocal adherent.
There’s distrust of the primary source of objective truth, the mainstream news media, largely as a result of years of accusations of liberal bias. The mainstream media’s commitment to even-handedness compounds the problem: it treats the two major parties the same even though one has largely abandoned traditional, consensus-based politics and no longer plays by the rules.
The media take a “politics as usual” approach to lying, although it’s abundantly clear Trump and co have upped the ante. The Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking organisation PolitiFact has found that 41% of Trump’s statements are false and 21% fall into the most egregious category of falsehood, while Carson comes in at 46% false and 13% egregious. Democrat frontrunner Hillary Clinton, hardly a byword for fastidiousness in this regard, scores 11% and 1%.
The broad left isn’t blameless. Through its kneejerk moral relativism and enthusiasm for intellectual fads such as post-structuralism, the intelligentsia has flirted with the notion that there’s no such thing as objective truth, while that liberal hotbed Hollywood has long pandered to American paranoia.
Interestingly, the most glaring example of US citizens having good cause to distrust a state agency – the black community’s fear and loathing of the police – has precious little support on the populist right.
Are we witnessing the death of objective truth? No. The fact that it survived the propaganda, brain-washing and personality cults of 20th century militarised totalitarianism shows how strong mankind’s yearning for the truth is.
And while Trump may have borrowed from Hitler’s playbook, he’s not a Nazi. As Walter says in The Big Lebowski, “Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, but at least it’s an ethos.”
There’s no Trump ethos; there’s only Trump ego.
This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.