A Post-Truth Presidency?

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The term “post-truth” has entered our national vocabulary recently. The Oxford Dictionaries declared it the 2016 Word of the Year. We hear about “post-truth politics” and “post-truth election.” What’s going on here?

“In war, truth is the first casualty” is a familiar saying attributed to the Greek dramatist Aeschylus. One would expect political polarization to generate many falsehoods, as each side tries to bolster its own position and tear down that of its adversary. The fragmentation of media creates a new kind of provincialism, as people have the option to rely on sources that tell them only what they want to hear, true or not. Some websites have been deliberately putting out fake news stories, sometimes just to profit from the market for partisan messages.

Politifact has been rating the truthfulness of political candidates for several election cycles, and they report an increase in false statements from 2008 to 2016. The statements they fact-checked in 2016 earned the largest proportion of either “False” or “Pants on Fire” ratings. Even more troubling is that the biggest offender was the candidate who won the election! Donald Trump had four times as many negative ratings as Hillary Clinton. Will President Trump be more careful to speak the truth when he is in office? So far, the evidence is not encouraging.

Who won the popular vote?

A case in point is Trump’s claim that Clinton won the popular vote only because of fraudulent voting. According to CNN, the official account shows Clinton with about a 2 million vote lead, with over 134 million votes recorded. The percentage breakdown is 48.1% Clinton, 46.5% Trump, and 5.4% other candidate. (That means, by the way, that the pre-election national polls were not as far off as they first appeared to be.) What would it take for fraudulent voting to produce a 2 million vote margin for the wrong candidate? If the illegal voters split evenly between the two major candidates, they would have zero impact on the outcome. If they split 60/40 in favor of Clinton, Clinton would pick up 20 extra votes for every 100 illegal voters, so it would take 10 million illegals to provide her 2 million vote margin. That’s about one out of every 13 people who voted. When you stood in line to vote, do you really believe that one out of every 13 people around you was voting illegally? We can cut that number down by assuming that the alleged illegals were a very pro-Clinton group, such as the Latinos who split 66/28 between Clinton and Trump in exit polling. Then Clinton would net 38 votes for every 100 illegal votes cast, and it would take only 5.26 million illegal votes or one out of every 25 voters to create the 2 million vote gap. Even that is an astounding amount of fraud by American election standards.

Trump’s story gets even more implausible, however. He has claimed that the voter fraud was concentrated in the states of California, New Hampshire and Virginia. Let’s assume that the vote counts in the other states are roughly correct, with a few too many Clinton votes here and a few too many Trump votes there, but an accurate result overall. Certainly Trump has adamantly defended the counts in the states that he won! Then Clinton’s 2 million vote margin would have to come from three states that recorded only about 17 million votes combined. Using the voting splits in the previous example, with at least 5 to 10 million votes having to be fraudulent to generate a 2 million vote margin, that would require a big chunk of the 17 million voters in those states! It would be election rigging to rival the most corrupt regimes in history. There is absolutely no evidence of illegal voting on such a scale.

[Addendum: The day after I wrote this, the New York Times reported the following: “Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote lead over Mr. Trump reached 2,526,184–five times Al Gore’s lead over George W. Bush in 2000. At 1.9 percentage points, her lead is now larger than those of 10 presidents, and it is approaching Jimmy Carter’s margin over Gerald Ford in 1976.” That news didn’t stop Donald Trump from claiming at his post-campaign campaign rally that he had won in a “landslide”. Eventually Clinton’s lead in the popular vote reached 2.8 million.]

Why leaders lie

In one way, the popular vote does not matter, since it doesn’t change the outcome in the electoral college.  What does matter is having a president who has a reckless disregard for truth, along with ardent followers who are willing to believe just about anything he says. This got me thinking about falsehoods by previous presidents and the reasons for them. I thought of a simple typology of falsehoods, those involving ignorance, preconception, and just plain deceit.

Sometimes, presidents tell falsehoods because they are themselves ignorant of the facts. During the Vietnam War, the Johnson and Nixon administrations suffered from what was called the “credibility gap.” They kept presenting an overly optimistic prognosis for the war, based partly on inflated estimates of enemy casualties produced by the Pentagon. When CBS aired an expose about the deception, General Westmoreland sued the network for libel, although he later dropped the suit. We may never know for sure, but Presidents Johnson and Nixon may well have believed that the war was going better than it was.

A more subtle reason for falsehood is that leaders take the facts they have and make them tell a preconceived story based on their personal prejudices or ideology. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney very much wanted to invade Iraq for various reasons, not the least of which was access to Iraqi oil. But they needed a convincing rationale to muster support from the American people for a largely unprovoked attack, since Iraq had no obvious role in 911. Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction fit the bill, but the evidence for them was shaky. The administration exerted a lot of pressure on the CIA to interpret the evidence as convincingly as possible, even though the agency’s own analysts were skeptical. Bush and Cheney themselves probably believed what they were claiming, but that was largely because they wanted to believe it.

Sometimes leaders lie in order to protect themselves or denigrate their opponents. Richard Nixon obviously knew he was lying when he tried to cover up White House involvement in the Watergate break-in and other illegal activities. That’s just plain deceit.

Is one of these reasons for misleading the American people any better than another? Does it matter whether a leader tells a falsehood out of ignorance, preconception or deceit? Most people probably regard deceit as a the greater vice. If Donald Trump habitually says things that he knows are not true, then he should be ashamed of himself, and voters should be ashamed of themselves for electing him.

But I think we should also hold leaders to a higher standard, an attentiveness to truth that goes beyond just saying whatever one believes to be true at the moment, without investigation or reflection. As Trump himself has come to believe (although he lied when he said he always believed it), the pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a very costly tragedy for this country. How many other tragedies will we endure if the President bases decisions on inadequate information or extreme ideology? The stakes are too high to follow a egotistical leader who constructs his own reality and believes whatever he chooses to believe.


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