The latest polls from CBS/New York Times and ABC/Washington Post show Hillary Clinton with a secure lead, but they also show that voters believe her to be roughly as honest as reality-show veteran Donald Trump. This has clearly nettled close observers of this presidential race. Over the weekend two prominent columnists have attempted to outline the relationship between the major party nominees and the truth.
On Sunday, the New York Times’ Nick Kristof argued that when comparing Trump and Clinton as liars, Trump wins and it’s not close:
The idea that they are even in the same league is preposterous. If deception were a sport, Trump would be the Olympic gold medalist; Clinton would be an honorable mention at her local Y. …
One metric comes from independent fact-checking websites. As of Friday, PolitiFact had found 27 percent of Clinton’s statements that it had looked into were mostly false or worse, compared with 70 percent of Trump’s. It said 2 percent of Clinton’s statements it had reviewed were egregious “pants on fire” lies, compared with 19 percent of Trump’s. So Trump has nine times the share of flat-out lies as Clinton. …
If Clinton declares that she didn’t chop down a cherry tree, that might mean that she actually used a chain saw to cut it down. Or that she ordered an aide to chop it down. As for Trump, he will insist, “I absolutely did not chop down that cherry tree,” even as he clutches the ax with which he chopped it down moments earlier on Facebook Live.
On Friday, however, my Post colleague Fareed Zakaria offered up a different interpretation of Trump’s relationship with the truth:
Harry Frankfurt, an eminent moral philosopher and former professor at Princeton, wrote a brilliant essay in 1986 called “On Bullshit.” (Frankfurt himself wrote about Trump in this vein, as have Jeet Heer and Eldar Sarajlic.) In the essay, Frankfurt distinguishes crucially between lies and B.S.: “Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point. . . . In order to invent a lie at all, [the teller of a lie] must think he knows what is true.”
But someone engaging in B.S., Frankfurt says, “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all . . . except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.” Frankfurt writes that the B.S.-er’s “focus is panoramic rather than particular” and that he has “more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the ‘bullshit artist.’ ”
This has been Trump’s mode all his life. He boasts — and boasts and boasts — about his business, his buildings, his books, his wives. Much of it is a concoction of hyperbole and falsehoods. And when he’s found out, he’s like that guy we have all met at a bar who makes wild claims but when confronted with the truth, quickly responds, “I knew that!”
As a huge fan of Harry Frankfurt’s brilliant opus, I have to side with Zakaria here. Indeed, Trump, his ghostwriters and his supporters would agree. Consider that even Trump’s own acolytes have to hem and haw when it comes to the campaign’s policy proposals. Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter for Trump’s “The Art of the Deal,” told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer that Trump’s carelessness with the truth caused him to write about Trump’s penchant for exaggeration in the book:
Schwartz says of Trump, “He lied strategically. He had a complete lack of conscience about it.” Since most people are “constrained by the truth,” Trump’s indifference to it “gave him a strange advantage.”….
When Schwartz began writing “The Art of the Deal,” he realized that he needed to put an acceptable face on Trump’s loose relationship with the truth. So he concocted an artful euphemism. Writing in Trump’s voice, he explained to the reader, “I play to people’s fantasies. . . . People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and it’s a very effective form of promotion.” Schwartz now disavows the passage. “Deceit,” he told me, is never “innocent.” He added, “ ‘Truthful hyperbole’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s a way of saying, ‘It’s a lie, but who cares?’ ” Trump, he said, loved the phrase.
Donald Trump does not intend to evade the truth — he simply does not care whether what he says is the truth or not. When Trump met with myriad editorial boards during the primaries, he intimated that he focuses on his anti-immigration position in speeches because that’s what drives his crowds crazy. As Gail Collins wrote after Trump met with the New York Times editorial board in January:
The most optimistic analysis of Trump as a presidential candidate is that he just doesn’t believe in positions, except the ones you adopt for strategic purposes when you’re making a deal. So you obviously can’t explain how you’re going to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, because it’s going to be the first bid in some future monster negotiation session.
Trump fits Frankfurt’s definition of a B.S. artist to a T. And, it should be noted, this also means that he occasionally tells the truth by accident. But the notion put forward by his supporters that Trump is daring to speak hard truths is laughable, since Trump has no clue what is true and what isn’t.
Frankfurt’s distinction between B.S. and lying also helps get at how we should think of Clinton and her seeming inability to completely put her email scandal to rest. The fact-checking sites show that compared to all of the other candidates this cycle, Clinton has been the most truthful. But, like any politician, Clinton hasn’t been completely honest — indeed, PolitiFact gave Clinton a “pants on fire” rating in her Fox News Sunday interview with Chris Wallace that, in an ordinary campaign week, would have caused her all sorts of agita.
All politicians offer up certain amounts of B.S. and lies at various points. Fundamentally truthful politicians will try to avoid outright lies by parsing their words as carefully as possible. Bill Clinton was a fundamentally truthful politician who nonetheless lied at times. He was such a good politician, however, that he could sell his lies with conviction.
Hillary Clinton might be a good leader, but she is not a conventionally great politician. When she has to lie — which, again, is not all that often — she doesn’t look good doing it. In contrast to Trump, she’s painfully aware of her relationship with the truth.
Zakaria is right and Kristof is wrong about Trump. Between Clinton and Trump, Clinton is the bigger and badder liar — but that’s because Clinton cares enough about the truth to know a lie when she tells one.
Trump is a mediocre B.S. artist on a stage that is way too big for his meager abilities.