Eons ago, I spent some time writing copy for those fliers that show up in your mailbox around Election Day. My fellow consultants and I would often debate how far we could go in making negative claims about opponents. The standard was usually that if something was literally true, you could probably get away with it, even if it was misleading. You could get away with saying “Congressman Smith voted to let cannibals out on parole!” even if the cannibal parole provision was buried in a thousand-page appropriation bill. As long as he voted for it, you were safe.
As you might imagine, the distastefulness of all that played no small part in my leaving the political consulting business. In any case, behind those considerations was this question: If our guy gets called out on this, will he be able to offer a plausible defense for why the charge he made was accurate? It didn’t have to be the most plausible defense, just one that was good enough. And for it to be plausible, there had to be a tether connecting the claim to the truth.
As much as people believe that all politicians are liars, the truth is that most of them don’t lie all that often, and except for the occasional high-profile “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” they’re much more likely to mislead voters with claims that are intended to deceive but are still technically accurate in some sense.
Most politicians, that is, other than Donald Trump.
From the moment he became a candidate, it was apparent that he put no effort into finding that tether to the truth — he’d just lie outright, and not care whether he was called on it. I suspect that for most Republicans, the undeniable fact that Trump is by far the most dishonest politician in American history is a source of some discomfort, though they manage to explain it away by telling themselves that he’s a showman, or that even when he’s lying he reveals some deeper and more significant truth.
But as we approach the election that is less than a month away, significant portions of the Republican Party have taken their own dishonesty to a new level.
I don’t mean that candidates and parties haven’t lied about their opponents before, because they have. What’s different now is a level of brazenness, of shamelessness in lying that is absolutely, well, Trumpian.
Consider the case of a Florida Republican Party ad that says about the Democratic nominee, “Andrew Gillum is running for Governor and also from the FBI” (among other false claims). The truth is that there’s an FBI investigation of a friend of Gillum’s, but he is not a subject of the investigation. But who cares?
Or consider this particular lie that is being repeated in races all across the country:
The GOP is hammering Democratic challengers in swing districts over a plan putting the government in full control of the health care system, betting that voter backlash over the multi-trillion dollar proposal will tip crucial House races to Republicans.
There’s just one problem: Few of the targeted Democrats actually support such a plan. […]
As for whether the ads are actually true? That’s beside the point, Republicans say. They argue there’s little difference between Medicare for All and other Democratic ideas for expanding coverage, because they all increase the government’s role in health care.
Oh. So if I said, “Ted Cruz is a kidnapper,” and then he complained that he isn’t, I could say, “The fact that he didn’t actually kidnap anyone is beside the point, because there’s another Republican who did.” Obviously, kidnapping is a bad thing and single-payer health care would be a good thing, but the logic — that it’s okay to falsely ascribe a position to one member of a party simply because it’s held by other members of the party — is ludicrous either way.
Of course, Republicans lying outright about health care in particular is not new. Remember “death panels”? When Republicans made that claim about the Affordable Care Act, Democrats were at first dumbfounded both that Republicans would be so brazen as to make such a fantastical claim and that anyone would be so stupid as to believe it. It turned out, however, that with sufficient repetition, millions of people did indeed believe it.
Even then, you’d see most Republicans trying to finesse things a little bit. Okay, so maybe the death panels weren’t literal, they would say, they’re more of a symbolic representation of the rationing of care that the ACA will inevitably bring about, so in that case it’s kind of true, right? No, it wasn’t, but there was still an attempt to find that tether to the truth.
But Trump has shown them that you don’t need that tether. When you look for it, you’re accepting some outdated notions: that lying is bad, that if someone catches you in a lie you should feel bad about it and stop repeating the lie, and that you don’t want to acquire a reputation as a liar.
Yet if you just leave shame behind, you can cast off the bonds those notions impose. Shamelessness is liberation. You want to fact-check us, they say? Go right ahead. We just don’t care.
If you have no shame, no one can shame you into telling the truth if you don’t want to. That is where the Republican Party’s embrace of Trump has taken the party. And it’s only going to get worse.