Why It's Pointless to Fact Check Donald Trump
Ann Romney gave the game away four years ago. Not that it was any secret, but the wife of the Republican presidential contender in 2012 spelled it all out in a way that should have been embarrassing to everyone involved in politics.
A Democratic political operative named Hilary Rosen had commented publicly in a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life.” This overlooked the fact that, as a homemaker, Romney had successfully raised five nearly identical, Wasp-perfect sons. Five out of five—it almost defies the laws of physics. Republicans leapt on Rosen’s remark as an insult to women who had chosen to stay home and raise a family rather than pursue a career in the workforce. This is a substantial bloc of voters, especially in the Republican Party. It was Ann Romney’s role in this staged melodrama to be deeply offended and hurt by Rosen’s remark. But she missed her cue and instead she called Rosen’s comment an “early birthday present.”
This was a “gaffe”—a word that barely exists outside the world of politics but has come to be the principal mechanism by which politicians and the press keep things moving along. Hilary Rosen’s comment, which led to Ann Romney’s comment, was also a gaffe. As we all know, a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth. (“If I hear that line one more time, I’ll scream,” says Arianna. A pause. “Darling,” she adds.) Or, more subtly, a gaffe occurs when a politician or someone in the political world departs from the script and accidentally says what’s really on his or her mind. Ann Romney revealed that she was not hurt or distressed but delighted that a prominent Democrat had committed a gaffe. A feigned dynamic is central to the gaffe-o-rama that American politics has become—which in turn plays to the growing role of umbrage in many corners of American culture.
A variant on outright umbrage is the “sorrow, not anger” ploy—the pretense that the supposed victim of a gaffe is not enraged but deeply saddened. “Saddened” suggests a certain dignity and seriousness: You are far too big a person to take offense at your opponent’s offensive remark. You are just saddened that his or her pathetic insensitivity should drive him or her to such depths of depravity and gaffery.
This election season, a rival has arisen to challenge the gaffe as the essential fuel that keeps politics chugging along. It’s known as the lie. A “lie” is a much more straightforward matter than a gaffe. In recent elections, gaffes have been given far more attention than lies: John Kerry saying he was for the Iraq war before he was against it; Mitt Romney effectively defining 47 percent of the electorate as freeloaders. But in the past year, “fact-checking,” which had begun to get real traction in 2008, has become all the rage among the media. This is an excellent development, which I am not here to mock. But if I were here to mock it, I might point out the triviality or irrelevance of many lies that become issues in the campaign. Does it really matter whether Marco Rubio’s parents came to America in 1959 (fleeing Castro’s revolution in Cuba, as he claimed for years) or in 1956 (well before the revolution, as he eventually admitted)? Well, yes, it does matter, though only because if he lied about this, then it says something about his character. But does it say enough to justify the time taken away from discussion of what to do about Iranian nukes or income inequality? As coverage of campaign mechanics and trifling details becomes more pervasive, coverage of issues a president will actually have to deal with is crowded out. Publications such as Politico (confession: I used to work there; it’s a swell place) and an infinity of Web sites and cable-TV shows have all raised the importance of trivia.
As gaffes recede in importance, the old-fashioned untruth is making a comeback. Something to celebrate?
So, the role of the gaffe is receding. The old-fashioned lie is making a comeback. Question for today: Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It’s actually a puzzle to me why anyone takes gaffes seriously at all. Why shouldn’t the words that a candidate has carefully crafted be considered a more accurate reflection of actual opinion and character than the words uttered by accident? This must arise from a belief that, while a lie is by definition purposeful, a gaffe has accidentally bubbled up from some unattractive (or incompetent) part of the speaker’s brain over which his campaign manager has no control.
A deliberate lie is worse than an accidental gaffe. Lies by politicians are inevitable, and it has taken Donald Trump—with his claim that thousands of people in New Jersey (with its “heavy Arab population”) cheered the destruction of the Twin Towers; with his claim that 81 percent of white murder victims are killed by blacks; and with a lot more—to push the American media to call a lie a lie when first reported, rather than let it sit there uncontested until the second wave, that of “analysis,” comes along. (“Analysis” is newspaper code for “this is the real skinny—just ignore all of our earlier stuff.”) But there are lies and then there are lies. Magazines have always had fact-checkers—overworked, underpaid, and often amazingly attractive (it’s best to stay on their good side)—who excel at finding mistakes by a writer before an article appears. But it isn’t even their job to correct deliberate lies by the subject of a piece.
Any analysis of lying and its role in democracy must pause to consider what is probably the greatest lie ever to grace our politics: Bill Clinton’s magnificent “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” of 1998. It’s worthy of study by anyone with political ambitions (though not just anyone could pull it off). This lie had everything. Above all, it was an actual attempt to mislead people on a concrete question of fact—and, for a time, it even worked. Most political lies are not intended to actually change anyone’s mind. It’s usually too late for that. Ordinary political lies are merely intended to sow confusion and sprinkle a bit of doubt. If lying politicians can supply a reed to their own supporters who are grasping for one, the job will have been done.
A great political lie should not be complicated. Subject matter is important. A run-of-the-mill lie may concern itself with some minor or ancient indiscretion. A somewhat grander lie will be about a matter of policy, such as saying you have always supported Medicare when as a governor you opposed it. Taking the hard way—the eastern ascent of Everest—is what turns a good lie into a masterpiece. The subject will return from policy to the personal. At its best, it will involve sex—or, rather, as Clinton would have it, it will not involve sex. Or—and this is the truly glorious part of his lie—whether or not it involves sex will become the very issue. A great political lie, when it works, performs triple duty. It deceives people about the subject at hand. It deceives people about the character of the politician in question. And it provides a distraction.
It is good to be focusing on lies again, because our next president will be a liar. How do I know? Every candidate who survives into election year is a proven liar. Maybe Lincoln Chafee or (is it possible?) Rick Perry has never told a conscious, knowing lie. Where are they now? But Hillary Clinton has, and so have all those Republicans, including, of course, Donald Trump. Still, I would rather have a congenital gaffer as president than a congenital liar. It would be nice not to have to make the choice.