In a democracy you will struggle to find a ‘white knight’ candidate who never lies. They are unicorns; as pure as they are mythical.
Politicians lie partly because they serve a range of different people: they were not elected by any one person, and must cater for a range of interests. There is also the grubby reality that in democracies it often does not pay to tell the truth: though voters demand authenticity and honesty, when politicians on campaign frankly admit the limitations of what is achievable, they are usually overshadowed by another who promises, however implausibly, to have a silver bullet for this or that problem.
Great leaders can lie, too. Franklin Delano Roosevelt claimed American soldiers would not be sent to foreign wars, but American troops fought battles across Europe and the Pacific under his administration, helping to save the world from fascism. Ronald Reagan lied about the Iran-Contra deal, yet remains good as gold in Republican eyes. Even Honest Abe Lincoln, perhaps the greatest American president, misled his supporters in secretly pursuing peace with the Confederate south, as well as his misdirection on what he proposed to do about slavery once the war was over.
Yet the legacies of virtually all presidents are affected by how voters’ have reacted to their lies in office. Nixon, LBJ, and George W. Bush have not fared well over Watergate, Vietnam and Iraqi WMDs since they left office. Meanwhile the reputations of JFK, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton have not suffered greatly from Cuban intervention, Iran-Contra and the extra-marital affairs.
This election cycle has inundated fact checkers like Politifact with work, and it’s worth taking a moment to evaluate what lies are being spread, and how important they are in choosing a leader.
In May Donald Trump stated that his call for a complete ban on Muslim immigration was just “a suggestion.” Questioned on Fox & Friends, days later, he reaffirmed his statement:
“Yeah. It was a suggestion. Look, anything I say right now, I’m not the president… Everything is a suggestion, no matter what you say, it’s a suggestion.”
This degree of flakiness is unprecedented in a national political election: potential leaders of America are expected to make promises and pledges to the electorate, not suggestions.
Trump has undeniably tapped into a genuine core of discontent with ‘ordinary’, if predominantly white and male, Americans throughout the country. Yet stating that everything he has said in the process of winning over those voters is ‘just a suggestion’, fundamentally reduces his accountability to anything he has said.
The old adage tells us that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose; that the campaign trail encourages more radical, idealistic promises to be made, but the reality of governance in a democracy demands compromise and hardheaded practicality. In Trump’s case, we might change this to campaigning in fiction, and governing in mystery.
Trump’s supporters have no way of trusting that the billionaire will do anything he claims if they allow him to use this evasive language when it comes to his policy proposals.
Beyond this blanket back-track he has executed, the scale of Donald Trump’s lying and misrepresentation of facts is industrial. Here is a brief selection of some of his false claims:
He says didn’t support the Iraq War.
He inflates unemployment figures to around 40% nationally.
He claims crime is rising.
He suggested that Barack Obama is not an American citizen.
He said he saw Muslims in New Jersey cheering the collapse of the Twin Towers.
He suggested Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the murder of President John Kennedy.
He vastly inflates the number of Syrian refugees President Obama suggested the United States should accept.
He claims the Mexican government are sending rapists and criminals to the U.S., and erroneously argues that immigrant crime rates are higher than American-born citizens. He constantly exaggerates his own polling numbers.
He claimed that the U.S. was the ‘highest taxed nation’ in the world.
More broadly, there are his ridiculous promises (or, suggestions) that he can rebuild American manufacturing, save social security while cutting taxes, and force Mexico to pay for a border wall through vague references to ‘deal making’. None of these proposals are supported by realistic plans or road maps; for the Trump-in-Chief everything would boil down to personality, and his personal wizardry when it comes to negotiation.
On a personal standpoint, Trump has also refused to release his tax returns, a decision that has two main significant outcomes. Firstly, there is no clear indication of how much tax Donald Trump pays, and whether he is implicated in any tax-avoidance schemes. Second, it is impossible therefore to truly know the wealth of Mr Trump. Estimates of his wealth vary considerably, yet Donald himself selects the highest numbers; should his real wealth be significantly lower than he claims, his reputation as a successful businessman will be damaged.
The tax return issue is particularly astounding when one considers that every major party nominee since 1976 has released their tax returns to the public.
Yet Trump’s strategy has worked so far: make outrageous statement, dominate the media cycle, blame the media, then shift on with renewed coverage. The media are complicit, because through this formula they are financially rewarded through high viewership as this tawdry faux reality show rumbles on.
So why are Trump’s dedicated supporters so willing to ignore Trump’s slipperiness on his own pledges, misrepresentation of facts, and personal evasiveness on his wealth?
Probably because they consider Trump himself is manifestation of a wider truth that government and the political system needs to change. It remains to be seen whether, on the national stage after the primaries are concluded, the combined gravity of Trump’s lies or slipperiness on the issues will sink him.
It’s not news: Hillary Clinton has an image problem when it comes to perceptions of trustworthiness. Her career and that of her husband have been plagued by controversies, most recently over her used of a private email server while Secretary of State.
But to what extent is she lying in this electoral cycle?
Early on in the primaries she distanced herself from free trade deals, most notably the Trans Pacific Partnership deal. Clinton had previously been a strong supporter of the trade package, but under pressure from voters angry at these international treaties, she has since suggested the deal requires review.
She has flip flopped on the trade issue because she knows it is politically damaging to acknowledge that there is no simple answer to revitalising American manufacturing, and the benefits to middle class Americans and world peace are a difficult sell when Bernie Sanders continued attack her from the populist left.
Another area of focus has been on her use of a private email server as Secretary of State. The story continues to cling onto the Clinton campaign, and the candidate has thus far failed to articulate a compelling reason to explain her actions. Whether it is an example of an error of judgement or a more fundamental personality trait is up for the voters to decide.
Besides the two notable cases, Hillary Clinton has been perhaps the most clear and candid about what she intends to do in office.
Consider Wall Street reform. A key component of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the Vermont Senator’s website lists actions the Vermont Senator has undertaken in this field:
What is missing from Sanders’ website, speeches and public statements is an explanation of how he proposes to break up the big banks, and what would come in their place. Bernie Sanders proposed sweeping, momentous change in America, but said virtually nothing of its implementation. The Vermont Senator oversimplified Wall Street Reform, and he probably knew it at the time.
Compare this to Clinton’s position on the subject, as stated on her website:
It is one of the core ironies of this electoral cycle that Hillary Clinton is so maligned for her untrustworthiness, yet the former Secretary of State has been the most clear and transparent about what her proposals involve.
Of course, detailed policy proposals and plans will not convince those opposed to her candidacy that she is trustworthy as President: her obvious ambition and connection to political and financial elites are enough to preclude her from consideration from many Americans. Yet when it comes to laying out her plans in the Oval Office, on the majority of issues she has been far more candid about her position and the limitations of what would be possible.
For Hillary, the saying should be ‘campaign in prose, govern in prose’.