All politicians engage in degrees of hyperbole. Even so, we expect that political candidates will not become completely untethered from the facts as we know them: that they will not seek the favor of the least-informed by making statements that ignore the truth.
Those of us who follow such things thought years ago that we could put to rest the once-popular communications idea of the demagogue. The term was widely used when I was an undergraduate way back in the days before indoor plumbing. The idea is that a person could rise to power in civil society by pushing lies and falsehoods on a susceptible public.
I remember putting a dusty 1954 volume of Reinhard Luthin’s red-covered American Demagogues back on a library shelf in the early 1970s with the firm belief that our democracy had moved on. I assumed that Luthin’s work was not where the future of American political communication would go. There would be no more jingoistic fabulists in American politics to match the discredited figures of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, Louisiana’s Huey Long, Boston Mayor James Curley, and others. Surely our era of detailed backstories and proliferating media would prevent chronic liars and nativists from rising to become political heavyweights. As a nation we had become wiser if not happier.
But here we are well into the 21st Century, encountering the same kinds of willful prejudice-baiting, scapegoating and misstatements that made the rhetoric of figures like McCarthy so damaging. The Senator was not beyond holding up an empty sheet of paper and declaring that it contained the names of “known communists” who were presumably prepared to sell America out to the Soviets. Never mind that these alleged traitors were often artists, writers and even musicians. Who knew that the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein was a threat to the “the American way of life?”
To be sure, all politicians engage in degrees of hyperbole. Overstatement is part of the campaign process. And some claims are not readily testable on empirical grounds. Even so, we expect that political candidates will not become completely untethered from the facts as we know them: that they will not seek the favor of a mob by making indictments they know to be false.
Trump’s strategic use of false assertions uttered to please a crowd has begun to fill a catalogue of certifiably incorrect claims.
If Luthin were alive today to revise his study, Donald Trump would have to be added to his examples. Trump’s strategic use of false assertions uttered to please a crowd has begun to fill a catalogue of certifiably incorrect claims. Many of his statements are breathtakingly dishonest. Most of us have heard them in familiar iterations:
-That President Obama is not an American citizen,
-That Obama is a “founder” of ISIS,
-That the President “invaded” Afghanistan,
-That Hillary Clinton was plausibly behind the death of family friend Vince Foster,
-That Ted Cruz’s father played an active role in the assassination of President Kennedy
-That voter fraud is a significant problem in American elections.
The list goes on to many more bogus claims. As of last week, the Pulitzer Prize winning organization Politifact found that 70 percent of the claims made by Trump in this campaign were mostly to completely false. In the same categories the percentage for Hillary Clinton was 28 percent.
The irony here is, of course, that in an age of proliferating information and easy access to it, there could still be so many of us who are not put off by Trump’s false claims. The conventional explanation is that we all exercise a “confirmation bias,” sometimes also known at the “theory of motivated reasoning.” The theory is simply the conventional idea that we look for evidence to confirm what we already believe, ignoring the rest. But at some point even a diehard believer probably can’t prevent the cognitive dissonance created by finally confronting the disconnect between support for a favored figure and the ransacking of settled truths. It’s one thing to find this pattern in a friend or relative with mental illness or clear cognitive deficits. It’s another to accept it from a person who wants to represent the United States to the rest of the world.