Of what use are all of journalism’s fact-checking operations? Don’t get me wrong. I’m a devoted fan of the truth, love reading corrections columns in the press and do not shy from revisionist history. So I endorse the good work done by all of the fact-checkers—the pioneers at Annenberg’s FactCheck.org (who invented the racket in 2003), the Tampa Bay Times’ Politifact, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker as well as the less frequent truth-squading efforts conducted by CBS News, Politico, the New York Times, The Associated Press, NPR and others, many of which fact check in real time during debates.
Without the fact-checkers, the lying lies of politicians and others would go uncorrected and then where would we be? Well, we’d probably be right where we are, with one of the biggest documented liars in modern political times—Donald J. Trump—leading the Republican polls for the presidential nomination by a large margin.
That Trump fills the sky with lies cannot be denied. Last week, Politifact crowned him the winner of its 2015 Lie of the Year award, noting that the competition wasn’t even close. Of the 77 Trump statements Politifact checked, 76 percent were determined to fall in the lie category. Sixteen were deemed Pants on Fire!—the highest rating on Politifact’s sliding scale of fibs, far more than for any other candidate.
The Post’s Fact Checker, which rates lies on a sliding scale of one to four Pinocchios, gave Trump 11 four-Pinocchio scores, many more than any other candidate. Meanwhile, Factcheck.org calls Trump the King of the Whoppers in its year-end tally. “In the 12 years of FactCheck.org’s existence, we’ve never seen his match,” the site proclaimed.
It would stand to reason that the documentation of Trump’s lies—not to mention his rudeness and crudeness—would hobble his candidacy. Yet it appears to have had little to no effect.
What to conclude from this? Perhaps that the fact-checkers don’t know what they’re writing about—which I reject—or that Trump supporters don’t know about the fact-checker’s findings, which seems wildly unlikely given the saturation coverage his lies have enjoyed. My guess is that Trump supporters don’t believe and just don’t care what the fact checkers say.
How could Trump supporters not care!? Michael Kinsley got to this topic in a 2002 column about presidential deception. Lying rarely troubles a candidate’s conscience because he considers politics a game, not real life, Kinsley wrote. The distortions, misrepresentations and deceit a candidate sprays on his supporters are the political version of pillow talk, designed to seduce them into voting for him, not prepare them for a final exam on current events. Trump walks headlong into the fact-checkers’ band-saw knowing full well that they’ll use Nexis, digitized/searchable books, indexed news-video archives, social media and other resources to correct his false record. He doesn’t care because he knows his supporters understand the ritual and symbolic thrust of what he says. They don’t expect Trump to demonstrate any fealty to truth. (That’s Bernie Sanders’ role. His Politifact rating: zero “Pants on Fire!” and a mere 12 mostly false or false statements.) Trump’s message is more about a shared culture that, reduced to its essence, expresses a “throw the bums out” sentiment. He is their champion, even if he is a bit scrambled.
Trump is not the first or only politician to exploit his supporters’ prejudices, only the most blatant. Not to place Trump in some false-equivalence duplex with Hillary Clinton, but his supporters aren’t the only ones to thrive in defiance of the truth. In the last Democratic Party debate, Clinton asserted without qualification that ISIL uses a video of Donald Trump as a recruiting tool. All the professional fact-checkers agree that there’s no evidence that any such videos exist. None. Trump responded by demanding an apology from Clinton, which is rich. “Hell no,” said Clinton’s spokesman. As if lifting a page from Trump’s “double-down on a lie” playbook, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta defended the thrust of Clinton’s smear with multiple tweets.
This leaves us in several awkward positions. Known liar Trump won’t correct his lies, no matter how big or how small, but he expects a wild lie about him uttered by Clinton to be righted immediately! Even Clinton’s most ardent supporters must understand that their candidate shot her mouth off big and owes the record a correction, if not Trump an apology. If these supporters were disciples of the truth, they’d ask Clinton to climb down from her high horse and retract the ISIL lie. And yet, I hear silence from her camp, proving that the some political laws that power Trump’s supporters to discount absolute truth and honesty also move Clinton’s.
Another way to look at the failure of the fact-checkers to move the public’s views can be found in Harry G. Frankfurt’s famous essay “On Bullshit.” When Frankfurt looks at the political meat that makes up the fact-checker’s diet, he doesn’t see lies; he sees bullshit, a hazy effort to communicate a stand or position that doesn’t have the stamina of the truth. Bullshitters like Trump (and Clinton) ignore the demands placed by convention on speakers. They don’t “reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does,” Frankfurt writes. They merely pay no attention to it. “By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are,” he observes. Perhaps more shame could be attached to politicians if the fact-checkers stopped calling their findings lies and started calling them bullshit.
Frankfurt demonstrates some sympathy for bullshitters, regarding them as victims of public life. Too often, politicians (and others) are “impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.” It takes discipline to shut your mouth when asked a question. Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are probably more prone to bullshit than professional politicians because they have relatively less experience speaking at length on economics, foreign policy and other points on the political compass. Or as Frankfurt puts it, “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”
The frailty of their art hasn’t been overlooked by the fact-checkers. As Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler explained to my colleague Hadas Gold recently, correcting the politicians’ records again and again rarely results in deeper discussions of the most vital policy issues. In other words, putting out dumpster fires can’t save the forest. There’s a movement afoot that preaches that the abundance of liars and bullshitters have driven us to a “post-truth era” in politics, to pinch the title of a 2004 book by Ralph Keyes. The post-truth era has spouted tendrils in recent years, inspiring talk about “post-truth politics“ and “post-truth candidates,” of which Trump is the exemplar.
All the lies and bullshit—and the public’s lack of interest in the fact-checker’s exposés—are enough to make a small-D democrat despair. But are today’s politics more heavily populated with liars and bullshit artists than earlier eras? Or has modern technology simply made possible the detection of lies down to the parts per billion, revealing lies today that went unnoticed or unmarked upon in other times?
That’s my sense. President Lyndon Johnson promised that he wouldn’t send ground troops to Vietnam. Prior to invading Cuba, President John F. Kennedy said he had no plans to invade Cuba. President Barack Obama earned Politifact’s Lie of the Year in 2013 for his bogus claim that if you like your health care plan, you can keep it. According to a 1952 news clip from the New York Times, Republican senators trailed President Harry Truman with a “truth squad” so they could provide rapid response to his anticipated embellishments and fabrications. (Fun fact: That was the first mention of “truth squads” in the Times.)
The point isn’t that we should absolve Trump of his transgressions with the truth because “everybody does it,” but that his highly unreliable narrations from the campaign trail alert us to how the political mind behaves when it abandons all attempts at self-discipline. What other candidates have made covert, Trump has made overt.
Pick a year, pick a politician, pick a candidate, and I’ll bet that I can locate lies in profusion without much effort. We can’t return to the “truth era” because no such harbor has ever existed. Lying has long been normalized—it’s a good bet that the first oration contained a pack of lies. To ask fact-checkers to usher in a truth era with their columns, ratings, lists and rewards when lies and bullshit remain so entrenched in our politics is to ask too much. Ask any exterminator: It’s one thing to spot the vermin, it’s a whole ’nother thing to eliminate it.
So should the fact checkers abandon their Pinocchios and trash their Pants on Fire meters and let the lying liars lie? Of course not! The truth matters! But campaign 2016 teaches us that the truth matters in politics less than any of us ever believed. Just ask the fact-checkers. And Donald Trump.
Research assistance by Jesse Rifkin. Send bullshit to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. Receive bullshit via my email alerts. Critique my bullshit on my Twitter feed. All bullshit aside, my RSS feed, which has been in a coma for six months, has been revived. Please subscribe!
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