There is at least one truth in politics: Politicians lie. They misrepresent, twist and spin facts. They try to get away with hiding or obfuscating the truth. When they are caught in a real whopper, however, they usually pay a price — not just at the polls but also because their legacy is tarnished.
Just think back to the most famous quotes and moments of some recent presidents.
Richard Nixon proclaimed that he is not a crook before resigning in disgrace. George H.W. Bush asked Americans to read his lips before assuring them that there would be no new taxes. Then he raised taxes and became a one-term president. The soundbite his successor Bill Clinton is best known for is insisting that he did not have sexual relations with an intern before it was revealed that he did. To this day it tarnishes his legacy and everything else he did as president.
Then came George W. Bush, whose administration lied its way to invading Iraq. That left a major stain on the reputation of everybody involved in claiming that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction — even somebody as widely respected as Colin Powell. The most iconic image of Bush himself, apart from his appearance at Ground Zero, is standing atop an aircraft carrier with a “Mission Accomplished” banner flying in the background.
Most recently, Barack Obama and his signature accomplishment — a major expansion of health insurance — continue to be hounded by his claim that Americans could keep the doctors they liked when that wasn’t always the case.
Donald Trump is different.
It’s not that he doesn’t lie. It’s that there are so many falsehoods, incorrect statements, broken promises, “alternative facts,” etc. that it is impossible to pick out one thing in particular that somehow defines him. The Toronto Star is maintaining a running list of the false claims Trump has made since taking office on January 20th and the total now stands at 363.
Add to that how brazenly Trump lies and how little it seems to matter to his supporters — 77% of Republicans say the president is “honest” — and it becomes clear that we might be seeing a dangerous shift in how politicians conduct themselves.
It’s not just Trump. His top spokespeople are following the president’s lead and are frequently making things up as they go along. They are overwhelming the American people, the media and fact checkers with a barrage of falsehoods that is unprecedented. In many cases, these lies are also completely unnecessary.
The only real consequences so far have been that Trump, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders are being ridiculed on Saturday Night Live and on social media. But the only people who are laughing are those who already dislike the president and his team.
That’s part of the problem. Americans are increasingly living in their own bubbles. They get news from outlets that are sympathetic to their own views and surround themselves on social media with like-minded people who also reinforce their beliefs.
Trump, who has proved to be very savvy when it comes to recognizing such trends, has effectively tapped into this divided mindset.
“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he said early last year. While that is (probably) incorrect, it certainly seems to apply to him constantly saying things that are demonstrably false.
So why be honest if honesty doesn’t matter?
First of all because it should matter. When politicians lie, they should pay a price so it doesn’t become a habit. Nixon, Bush 41 & 43, Clinton and Obama got what they deserved. In each case, the soundbite they are most known for is something that wasn’t true.
Honesty also matters because there will likely come a time when it will be important that all Americans — not just core supporters — will need to be able to believe the US president and his team.
If and when that time comes, Trump and his team will wish that they still had the trust that they are now needlessly squandering one tweet, White House briefing or Fox & Friends interview at a time.
The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Sarah Huckabee Sanders caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0), Kellyanne Conway caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0), Sean Spicer caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), Wonder Woman (istolethetv / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), bush (earthisthering / Flickr – CC BY 2.0) and background (The Obama Whitehouse Archives).