Expecting Lies

Everyone expects politicians to lie. If they like the lies, knowing full well they’re lies, they vote for that candidate. A little exaggeration never hurt anyone. Mexico isn’t really going to pay for that wall. There may be no new wall at all. It’s the thought that counts. If, on the other hand, they hate the lies, they’ll not vote for a blatant liar. The truth matters, and if that candidate actually believes the nonsense they’re offering, that candidate is dangerous. Those we elect to office should live in this world, not in some imaginary paradise, or dystopia.

That’s the Donald Trump problem. There are a few Americans who believe we live in a hell-hole where everything is falling apart and the economy is in ruins, and where there’s someone on every corner – Muslim or black or brown or gay – who wants to kill us all, right now. There is scant evidence for any of that, but scant evidence is enough for these folks – a subset of all Republicans, who are, in turn, a minority subset of all Americans. Everyone else kind of wonders what the hell, or what hell, Donald Trump is talking about.

The first presidential debate, scheduled to begin in a few hours, should settle some of that. Lester Holt, the moderator, will no doubt ask Trump what the hell he’s talking about. He’ll ask Hillary Clinton the same thing. That’s his job, to ask that for the American people. He represents all of us, for better or worse, but the weekend before this Monday night debate there was a bit of prepositioning going on, although some of it was simply trash-talk:

Donald J. Trump’s campaign moved on Sunday to squelch reports – set off by the candidate himself – that Gennifer Flowers, the woman whose claims of an affair with Bill Clinton imperiled his 1992 presidential campaign, would be Mr. Trump’s guest on Monday at his first debate with Hillary Clinton.

In television interviews on Sunday morning, Mr. Trump’s running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, flatly denied that Ms. Flowers would attend the debate, at Hofstra University on Long Island. And Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said that in threatening on Saturday to invite Ms. Flowers, Mr. Trump had merely been making a point.

“He wants to remind people that he’s a great counterpuncher,” Ms. Conway said on ABC’s “This Week.”

This was the “punch” he was countering:

Mark Cuban, the voluble billionaire who owns the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and is supporting Mrs. Clinton, announced on Twitter on Thursday that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign had given him a front-row seat at the debate to watch her “overwhelm” Mr. Trump.

For good measure, Mr. Cuban – who once hosted a short-lived reality television show called “The Benefactor,” and more recently offered $10 million to the charity of Mr. Trump’s choice if the Republican nominee would let Mr. Cuban interview him for four hours about his “policies and their substance” – suggested the debate would become known as the “Humbling at Hofstra.”

Mark Cuban wants to be the one that asks Trump what the hell he’s talking about, unrelentingly, point by point, but if that cannot be, he’ll sit in the front row and stare. Perhaps that will rattle Trump. Oh yeah? Gennifer Flowers will rattle Hillary Clinton, unless Clinton shrugs, or even worse, turns that against Trump:

The thrice-married Mr. Trump, whose second marriage grew out of an affair during his first one, has repeatedly raised Mr. Clinton’s infidelities as a character attack against Mrs. Clinton. Several of Mr. Trump’s advisers have a long history of calling attention to Mr. Clinton’s scandals.

She could call attention to his, and point out that she’s the one running for president this time, not her famously horn-dog husband. Gennifer Flowers will watch the debate from home.

But Mark Cuban was onto something. Slate’s Jim Newell says that one way to beat Trump in this debate is to ask him to explain pretty much anything:

The large Republican primary field didn’t just help Trump by allowing him to cruise to early victories with relatively modest pluralities. It also helped him in the minute-to-minute unfolding of the early debates. He could get in his insults against Jeb Bush or Rand Paul or some other foil, and then, as the conversation – as it occasionally did – ventured into more substantive policy grounds, he could go into hiding for tens of minutes at a time as, say, Paul and Chris Christie argued about surveillance programs or medical marijuana. The stage will be smaller Monday night, as Trump competes in the first one-on-one presidential debate of his life. There will be no hiding.

It’s not necessarily in Clinton’s interest to turn this into a patronizing quiz show. Voters don’t cast their ballots based on which candidates best trill the consonants in foreign leaders’ names. But there are things that people expect their presidents to know, and on this count Trump tripped up a few times during the primary debates.

Newell can count the ways:

In the Dec. 15 debate held in Las Vegas, CNN guest questioner Hugh Hewitt asked Trump which element of the aging nuclear triad he felt was most urgently in need of an upgrade. Trump’s response was a jumble of nonsense about Iraq and Syria that made clear he had never heard the term, which refers to land-, air-, or sea-based systems for delivering nuclear weapons. That’s not great. But it’s deeper than terminology: It was clear that he had never considered the question of nuclear arsenal maintenance. He did, however, say that, “I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation, is very important to me.” Indeed, big bomb go boom.

And there’s this:

Trump is running strongly against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Hillary Clinton claims to be against TPP, too, though no one really believes her.) When asked for even modest details of the trade pact, though, Trump tends to stumble. In the Nov. 10 debate, Trump went on about how “It’s a deal that was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door, and totally take advantage of everyone.” For all of the trade deal’s opacity and complexity, it is indeed not “designed” to allow China to do that. It is designed to corner China into reforming its economy. Rand Paul chimed in after Trump’s spiel to point out that China is not a signatory to the deal, and Trump had little to say in response.

Oops. So there’s a plan here:

Clinton doesn’t need Trump to name the presidents and prime ministers of foreign countries. What she – or the moderators – could do, though, is ask him to explain the details of any of the policy proposals other people have written up on his behalf. How many weeks of paid leave are offered in Trump’s child care plans? Who would and wouldn’t be covered? Trump could be asked the cost of either his tax or education plan. Even better: What are his tax and education plans?

But she doesn’t even have to be that specific:

She could ask him to explain anything. How does Medicaid work and how would he change it? What does he dislike most about the Iranian nuclear deal? What’s the latest from Syria? Don’t wander too far in the weeds, but try to find some way to get him to move past the superficialities he’ll have memorized. Remember: Trump does not know what he’s talking about. Ever. This fact gets obscured from time to time whenever we start talking about Trump pivots and message discipline and the like, as if the problem simply were a lack of grace. And we should be careful to avoid the fallacy so common on the left that politics is about knowing more stuff than the other guy. But the simple truth is that Trump does not understand the basic grammar of the job he’s seeking.

That could hurt, or not. Janet Brown, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates has declared that the debates should be fact-check-free:

I think personally, if you start getting into fact-checking, I’m not sure. What is a big fact? What’s a little fact? And if you and I have different sources of information, does your source about the unemployment rate agree with my source? I don’t think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Trump’s folks breathed a sigh of relief:

Trump’s campaign spokesperson told ABC’s “This Week” that it isn’t the media’s job to fact-check the presidential debate.

“I really don’t appreciate the campaigns thinking it is the job of the media to go and be these virtual fact-checkers,” Kellyanne Conway said, in an apparent attempted jab at the Clinton campaign. She also opposed debate moderators questioning the candidates’ truthfulness in any way.

That might not be helpful to the rest of us, but it has been done before:

Conway went on to praise Matt Lauer’s performance during a candidate forum earlier this month, during which he pressed Clinton on several issues, but accepted Trump’s (false) claim that he opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning.

“We thought he did a great job,” Conway said.

Of course they did, and on the other side:

The Clinton campaign says it’s not her job to play “traffic cop” to Trump’s lies while also trying to present her ideas to the American public.

“All that we’re asking is that if Donald Trump lies, that it’s pointed out,” spokesperson Robby Mook said Sunday, also speaking on “This Week.”

Is that too much to ask? The Trump folks think so, but a curious thing happened on the weekend before the debate. The media suddenly ganged up on Trump. They decided to call him a liar – not someone who exaggerates – not someone who presents an alternative point of view. They finally called him a liar. The Los Angeles Times offered this:

Donald Trump says that taxes in the United States are higher than almost anywhere else on earth. They’re not.

He says he opposed the Iraq war from the start. He didn’t.

Now, after years of spreading the lie that President Obama was born in Africa, Trump says that Hillary Clinton did it first (untrue) and that he’s the one who put the controversy to rest (also untrue).

Never in modern presidential politics has a major candidate made false statements as routinely as Trump has. Over and over, independent researchers have examined what the Republican nominee says and concluded it was not the truth – but “pants on fire” (PolitiFact) or “four Pinocchios” (Washington Post Fact Checker).

But that was the idea all along:

Trump’s candidacy was premised on upending a dishonest establishment that has rigged American political and economic life, so many of his loyalists are willing to overlook his lies, as long as he rankles the powerful, said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman.

“It gives him not only license, but incentive to spin fantasy, because no one expects him to tell the truth,” said Stutzman, who worked against Trump during the primaries. “They believe they’re getting lied to constantly, so if their hero tells lies in order to strike back, they don’t care.”

That, however, also caused chaos:

Trump’s pattern of saying things that are provably false has no doubt contributed to his high unfavorable ratings. It also has forced journalists to grapple with how aggressive they should be in correcting candidates’ inaccurate statements, particularly in the presidential debates that start Monday.

At a time of deep public mistrust of the news media, the arbitration of statements of fact, long seen as one of reporters’ most basic duties, runs the risk of being perceived as partisan bias.

But so does the shirking of that role. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, one of the debate moderators, has faced a storm of criticism for telling CNN: “It’s not my job to be a truth squad.”

After a Sept. 7 town hall on NBC, critics skewered moderator Matt Lauer for failing to correct Trump’s false statement that he opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl drew milder reprimands for letting Trump repeat the same lie twice in a July interview on “60 Minutes,” responding “yeah” both times with no correction.

And this seems to have torn the country apart:

PolitiFact, a Tampa Bay Times site that won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the 2008 election, has rated 70% of the Trump statements it has checked as mostly false, false or “pants on fire,” its lowest score. By contrast, 28% of Clinton’s statements earned those ratings.

“As we noted when we awarded Trump our 2015 Lie of the Year award for his portfolio of misstatements, no other politician has as many statements rated so far down the dial,” PolitiFact writer Lauren Carroll reported in June. “It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

At a recent Trump rally in downtown Miami, supporters vouched for his trustworthiness.

“I think he has been very straightforward, whether people like it or not,” said Rosario Rodriguez-Ruiz, 42, a Republican real estate broker and accountant.

We now have two separate realities, and that’s a worry:

Marty Kaplan, a professor of entertainment, media and society at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, has two theories on Trump’s falsehoods.

Perhaps he’s just putting on an act, like P.T. Barnum – a “marketer, con, snake-oil salesman who knows better, knows how to get the rubes into the tent.” Or maybe, Kaplan suggested, Trump is just “completely unconstrained by logic, rules, tradition, truth, law.”

“I’m confused,” he said, “whether the whole fact-free zone that he’s in is a strategic calculation or a kind of psychosis.”

Psychosis is a worry, and a day earlier it was the New York Times:

All politicians bend the truth to fit their purposes, including Hillary Clinton. But Donald J. Trump has unleashed a blizzard of falsehoods, exaggerations and outright lies in the general election, peppering his speeches, interviews and Twitter posts with untruths so frequent that they can seem flighty or random – even compulsive.

However, a closer examination, over the course of a week, revealed an unmistakable pattern: Virtually all of Mr. Trump’s falsehoods directly bolstered a powerful and self-aggrandizing narrative depicting him as a heroic savior for a nation menaced from every direction. Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist, described the practice as creating “an unreality bubble that he surrounds himself with.”

The New York Times closely tracked Mr. Trump’s public statements from Sept. 15-21, and assembled a list of his 31 biggest whoppers, many of them uttered repeatedly. This total excludes dozens more: Untruths that appeared to be mere hyperbole or humor, or delivered purely for effect, or what could generously be called rounding errors.

The list follows, but Trump’s campaign dismissed their compilation as “silly” – and maybe it was, to them, but the Washington Post did the same thing:

Donald Trump’s week began in the wake of explosions in New Jersey and New York. It ended in the aftermath of shootings and riots. For a candidate whose strategy relies on painting a dystopian view of the nation – often based on inaccurate and questionable claims – the tragedies yielded a trove of political opportunities.

Shortly after the first bomb went off – Trump boasted that he had been ahead of newscasters in calling it a “bomb” – he seized upon the terrorism act as justification for some of the most disputed things he has said since announcing his presidential bid.

Terrorism wouldn’t have happened if others had opposed the Iraq War as he did, Trump said, even though he had said at the time in a radio interview he supported the war. The problem increased because Hillary Clinton has “been silent about Islamic terrorism for many years,” Trump claimed falsely. Trump called for profiling people, but insisted he “never” suggested targeting Muslims, even though he held an event specifically to propose a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and has called for “surveillance of certain mosques.”

They showed him no mercy:

Trump’s campaign is hardly the first to spin things its way, and Clinton has made her share of questionable claims, but Trump has nevertheless revealed himself to be a candidate who at times seems uniquely undeterred by facts.

An examination by The Washington Post of one week of Trump’s speeches, tweets and interviews shows a candidate who not only continues to rely heavily on thinly sourced or entirely unsubstantiated claims but also uses them to paint a strikingly bleak portrait of an impoverished America, overrun by illegal immigrants, criminals and terrorists – all designed to set up his theme that he is especially suited to “make America great again.”

And they know where this is headed:

Trump is expected to employ this approach, in both style and substance, at the first debate between the two major-party candidates on Monday night. Expecting that the moderator, Lester Holt of NBC News, will serve as a real-time fact-checker during the debate, Trump has repeatedly said that Holt should not do so. (Trump initially criticized Holt, saying: “Lester is a Democrat. It’s a phony system.” But after reports surfaced that Holt has registered Republican, Trump said he thought the moderator would be fair.)

Yeah, it’s getting absurd, but Politico piled on too:

As August ended, a new Donald Trump emerged. Coached by his third campaign management team, he stayed on message, read from a teleprompter and focused on policy. It lasted about a month.

After he lied on Sept. 16 that he was not the person responsible for the birtherism campaign to delegitimize Barack Obama’s presidency, POLITICO chose to spend a week fact-checking Trump. We fact-checked Hillary Clinton over the same time.

We subjected every statement made by both the Republican and Democratic candidates – in speeches, in interviews and on Twitter – to our magazine’s rigorous fact-checking process. The conclusion is inescapable: Trump’s mishandling of facts and his propensity for exaggeration so greatly exceed Clinton’s as to make the comparison almost ludicrous.

Though few statements match the audacity of his statement about his role in questioning Obama’s citizenship, Trump has built a cottage industry around stretching the truth. According to Politico’s five-day analysis, Trump averaged about one falsehood every three minutes and 15 seconds over nearly five hours of remarks.

In raw numbers, that’s 87 erroneous statements in five days.

That’s three different extensive lists of lies, all told in just the last week, the week before the first debate. Something is up, but Politico also reports the reaction to their list:

Jason Miller, Trump’s senior communications advisor, responded in an email: “There is a coordinated effort by the media elites and Hillary Clinton to shamelessly push their propaganda and distract from Crooked Hillary’s lies and flailing campaign. All of these ‘fact-check’ questions can be easily verified, but that’s not what blog sites like Politico want people to believe. Mr. Trump is standing with the people of America and against the rigged system insiders, and it’s driving the media crazy. We will continue to speak the truth and communicate directly with the American people on issues they care most about, and we won’t let the dishonest, liberal media intimidate us from speaking candidly and from the heart. A Donald J. Trump presidency will make America great again.”

It seems truth is a slippery thing, or reality is, but Miller is right – there is a coordinated effort by the media. They like reality, and Nicholas Kristof explains why:

If a known con artist peddles a potion that he claims will make people lose 25 pounds and enjoy a better sex life, we don’t just quote the man and a critic; we find ways to signal to readers that he’s a fraud. Why should it be different when the con man runs for president?

Frankly, we should be discomfited that many Americans have absorbed the idea that Hillary Clinton is less honest than Donald Trump, giving Trump an edge in polls of trustworthiness.

Kristof finds this depressing:

I can see how the endless media coverage of Clinton’s email evasiveness might incline some casual voters to perceive Trump as the more honest figure. Of course we should cover Clinton’s sins, but when the public believes that a mythomaniac like Trump is the straight shooter, we owe it to ourselves and the country to wrestle with knotty questions of false equivalence.

In watching the campaign coverage this year, I’ve sometimes had the same distressing feeling I felt in the run-up to the war in Iraq – that we in the media were greasing the skids to a bad outcome for our country. In the debate about invading Iraq, news organizations scrupulously quoted each side but didn’t adequately signal what was obvious to anyone reporting in the region: that we would be welcomed in Iraq not with flowers but with bombs. In our effort to avoid partisanship, we let our country down.

Well, not this time:

Lately, news organizations have displayed greater resolve, including a blunt willingness to refer to egregious Trump falsehoods as “lies.” I hope we’ve reached a turning point that will frame the debates.

Some traditionalists are horrified at the recent journalistic toughening, and it’s true that fact-checking is a high-wire act for moderators. In a 2012 presidential debate, the moderator Candy Crowley backed President Obama when Mitt Romney accused him of not having promptly called the Benghazi attacks terrorism. In fact, the point was ambiguous – Obama had used the phrase “acts of terror” but wasn’t clearly referring to Benghazi.

So, granted, fact-checking on the fly is difficult, Clinton supporters are trying to goad the media to thump Trump, and truth is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Good journalism is challenging.

But do the job anyway:

Our job is to share with our audiences what we know. And we all know that Trump will not build a wall that Mexico will pay for (estimates are that it would cost $25 billion). If we know this, we shouldn’t keep it to ourselves.

Skeptics note that more rigorous coverage might not make a difference. Only six percent of Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in the press. After all, few facts are clearer than that President Obama was born in the United States, yet only 62 percent of American voters say he was born here. Facts may be stubborn things, but so are myths.

Yet even if Trump seems to be a Teflon candidate, to whom almost nothing sticks, we must still do our jobs. We owe it to our audiences to signal that most of us have never met a national candidate as ill-informed, deceptive or evasive as Trump.

And the job has been done before:

In the early 1950s, journalists were also faced with how to cover a manipulative demagogue – Senator Joe McCarthy – and traditional evenhandedness wasn’t serving the public interest. We honor Edward R. Murrow for breaking with journalistic convention and standing up to McCarthy, saying: “This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent.”

Likewise, in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, it was not enough to quote from news conferences by each side. Great journalists like Claude Sitton and Karl Fleming took enormous risks to reveal the brutality of the Jim Crow South.

Our job is not stenography, but truth-telling. As we move to the debates, let’s remember that to expose charlatans is not partisanship, but simply good journalism.

That may be so, but Kathleen Parker says that might not matter:

Is anyone really going to change his or her mind based on what the candidates say Monday as opposed to what they said last week? Trump lovers are set in stone, as are Clinton haters. That’s one voting bloc. Clinton supporters (I don’t think there are many lovers around) are solid and entrenched, as are those who find Trump utterly unfit to be president.

It’s all over but for showing up at the polls.

Everyone expects politicians to lie. Take it from there.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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