No matter where I go, I hear the same refrain: I don’t know how we got into this mess. And by “this mess,” people of course mean the reality that one of two widely despised people will be the next president. This week alone, I’ve heard it from neighbors, friends, relatives, a group of senior citizens to whom I spoke, and my tablemates at a Boy Scout banquet I attended. And it’s only Friday morning — two and a half days to go.
Political scientists will spend decades dissecting this year’s presidential election, from the primaries through November, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start trying now to understand what exactly is hitting us. For example, why are we in a situation where one of two habitual liars will be entrusted with representing our country abroad, with negotiating trade pacts and treaties with allies and enemies alike, with addressing the nation in times of crisis?
One of the most interesting takes on this problem that I’ve seen was published this week by the Washington Post. Barton Swaim, a former speechwriter for disgraced governor and current U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, puts his finger on a difference between Hillary Clinton’s lies and Donald Trump’s:
“(Clinton) is a cagey politician who isn’t above the use of half-truths and weaselly word-level justifications to further her political ends. But for her, the truth is always there, even if it’s something to avoid facing or dance around or ignore altogether.
“Donald Trump is our first full-on ‘postmodern’ presidential candidate. Truth, for him, isn’t some unseen objective entity a responsible politician should refrain from crossing. If there is such a thing, ‘truth’ is only rhetorical or rooted in perspective. The only important ‘truth’ in Trump’s worldview is that the nation’s ruling elite consists largely of incompetents, racketeers and hacks, and they have not yet been moved aside and replaced with Donald J. Trump. Whatever he says in the service of that manifestly noble aim isn’t just excusable but good and right. Negotiating the perils of objective truth has nothing to do with it.”
Don’t get hung up on the terminology of “modern” and “postmodern.” The first point here is this: Clinton lies to avoid the problems the truth presents to her. Trump lies because the truth is not just inconvenient to him, but meaningless and even irrelevant. These are different things, with different consequences.
The consequences of Clinton’s type of lies are well-known: Some politicians will lie to gain power, lie about abuses of power, and lie to cover up their ill-gotten rewards from the power they wield. These are despicable actions, and they have greatly contributed to our deep collective skepticism of our institutions and government. But they are reversible: The solution is to elect people who are honest, who will refrain from corruption, and who will clear out the rot of our institutions. Easier said than done, of course, but not patently impossible.
Trump’s lies, on the other hand, are different. He rejects the idea that honesty as humans have always conceived of it is even possible. He dismisses the potential for corrupt institutions to be cleared of their corruption — except, naturally, with his election. His credentials for doing this, though, are questionable at best, because he doesn’t even accept the truth about his own life. He will tell you whatever he needs to tell you — that he opposed the Iraq war, when he was on the record saying otherwise, to name just one example — to proclaim himself a change agent and, most absurdly, a truth-teller.
All of this has its own, deeply corrupting effect on our institutions, right down to our elections. When Trump suggests the only way he would lose the election is if it is rigged, not because he has no experience and has spent no time thinking about our nation’s problems and has gone out of his way to insult as many segments of the electorate as possible, he is encouraging people to believe election results can never be trusted. Which in the end makes it impossible to fix the kind of problems presented by more typical liars, such as Clinton.
But here’s the kicker: As Swaim correctly notes, the people who first and most effectively laid the groundwork for a politician like Trump are not conservatives sharing bogus “news” articles on Facebook:
“For two generations or more, American liberals have cheered postmodern attitudes in art, literature, music and philosophy. Now it has entered politics, and it’s time to panic.”
Moral relativism didn’t originate on the right. The idea of truth as a malleable product of one’s personal upbringing and perspectives isn’t a conservative one. On the contrary, it is the left that has been pushing us to “progress” in this direction.
It will not be a good thing if liberals’ long-term deconstruction of the notion of objective truth prevails in the political arena. But it will be pretty ironic.