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Welcome to an age where the facts don’t matter

Hillary Clinton skilfully dances around the facts. Donald Trump shamelessly makes things up. And yet in the U.S., neither liar has found their pants on fire.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump speaks at a campaign event at The Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at The Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana, U.S. May 2, 2016. (Aaron Bernstein/Reuters)

Donald Trump, who’s proud to say (falsely) he opposed the 2003 Iraq war from the start, chose a running mate who voted for the invasion as a congressman, just as Hillary Clinton did when she was a senator. He was reminded of this on 60 Minutes, with his vice-presidential pick, Mike Pence, sitting next to him.

What does Trump do? Apologize? Qualify? Dodge? Certainly not. The response was a familiar tool from Trump’s deflective arsenal.

“He’s entitled to make a mistake every once in a while,” he said, giving Pence a jocular shoulder check, as though Indiana’s governor had just got the phone number of the brunette three barstools over. CBS interviewer Lesley Stahl rolled her eyes and laughed: “But [Hillary]’s not [entitled], OK, got it.”

“She’s not, no, she’s not,” Trump half-smiled.

Any other candidate wouldn’t dare try getting away with it like that, and probably wouldn’t grandstand routinely for opposing the Iraq war in advance when fact-checkers have turned up zero proof supporting his claim, and the lone case of him opining before George W. Bush called in the shock-and-awe might was Trump’s shrugging support of war to Howard Stern. But, as has been documented endlessly, Trump isn’t any other candidate.

Any rival would also be doing phenomenally in the polls against a clownish xenophobe. But as has been documented almost as well, Hillary Clinton isn’t your average rival, but one who has spent a quarter-century in Washington’s most piquant political hot seats, engaged in a stutter-step dance with the truth herself for much of that time.

But Clinton and Trump aren’t two sides of the same wooden nickel. The former Secretary of State has honed the classic art of stretching the facts; Trump prefers to invent them. There’s been political shamelessness before—it helped yank Britain from the European Union, for instance—but reality TV’s first official White House contender has elevated it to a new, dangerous level. If we’re not yet in the age where facts don’t matter, Trump seems eager to usher it in.

Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on July 22, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on July 22, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Alarmingly, the more dishonest broker is faring well with the U.S. public. When Americans are asked about their presidential choices’ relationship with the truth, Trump comes out on top. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll taken between the Republican and Democratic conventions showed 43 per cent of Americans believe Trump is honest and trustworthy; 30 per cent would apply those words to the Clinton. Trump’s lead in recent survey questions on honesty has widened since the FBI investigation rebuked Clinton for funnelling State Department emails to a personal server, after months of downplaying and carefully slippery explanations. Perhaps it’s because registered voters are more preoccupied with the Republican nominee’s qualities as not well-informed and extreme (his score is more than double Clinton’s on each, Pew Research reported in mid-July) that they are more likely to give a pass on truth-telling to the man who constantly punctuates sentences with: “believe me.” It’s like America giving a hey-it’s-all-good shoulder bump to the real estate mogul.

Factcheck.org was launched in 2003 to give a non-partisan nudge to deceptive politicians: you’re being watched, you’ve been caught, stop it. Co-founder Kathleen Hall Jamieson says checkers have had clearer success getting journalists to flag untruths—several peers like Politifact and Washington Post’s Fact Checker have sprung up since, and many outlets now actively bid to correct the political record. In one shining strike at cable news’s reputation for spin-parroting, CNN accompanied a Trump speech clip with the caption: “Trump: I never said Japan should have nukes (he did).”

Fact-checkers have had apparent impact on politics. Four years ago, the Mitt Romney and Barack Obama campaigns both modified ad messages when checkers put the lie to their fibbing on job figures, says Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Centre, which runs Factcheck.org. But 2016’s golden age of full-time and real-time BS monitoring has met a candidate living in what Jamieson calls a “fact-free world.”

Organizations like hers have strongly and often called out Trump for easily debunked remarks: that Clinton slept while the ambassador to Libya was killed in Benghazi; that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims were on TV cheering the 9/11 attacks in New Jersey; that the father of primary opponent Ted Cruz possibly cavorted with Lee Harvey Oswald, the Kennedy assassin.

Trump sources these non-facts from sources long deemed inadmissible in court or most other spheres: “Many people are saying,” “It was on the Internet,” and, for the Cruz-Oswald conspiracy, the National Enquirer.

“Some of the traditional anchors of discourse in politics are now unmoored,” Jamieson tells Maclean’s. “We used to assume there were legitimate sources of evidence and the National Enquirer was not one of them.”

When an exasperated Jake Tapper hashed out the Rafael Cruz fallacy on his weekday CNN show, he exclaimed: “Now, that’s not an anti-Trump position or a pro-Cruz position. It’s a pro-truth position.”

Bernie Sanders supporters gather at City Hall on the second day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) on July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The convention is expected to attract thousands of protesters, members of the media and Democratic delegates to the City of Brotherly Love. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders supporters gather at City Hall on the second day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) on July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The convention is expected to attract thousands of protesters, members of the media and Democratic delegates to the City of Brotherly Love. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Trump cares little for such positions. He spent days doubling down about non-existent TV footage of Jersey’s cheerleading throngs for terrorism, clinging to a few loose media lines about some revellers but nothing that implied “thousands.” Contrast this with one of Clinton’s most prominently debunked claims from her 2008 presidential bid, that as first lady her plane once landed “under sniper fire” in wartorn Bosnia. The day after old news footage disproved her story, she confessed she “misspoke.”

Factcheck.org has reported Clinton’s share of 2016 whoppers: that Trump wants to abolish the Veterans Affairs department (based on campaign musings about privatizing part of its health service) and that other secretaries of state had the same private email system (it was just Colin Powell; it was an email account, not a home-based private server; it was before new Obama-era rules were in place). The latter prevarication she repeated in her turn on 60 Minutes with her running mate. Trump’s untruths are more frequent in part because he talks off-the-cuff more often, while Clinton gives fewer interviews and sticks to scripts, Jamieson notes. But at least her fibs are mainly spin—as are the ones from Trump’s teleprompter convention address—versus Trump’s creations of entirely new orbits.

MORE: The rise of anti-science, anti-intellectual thinking in America

While the two spout hard-to-compare types of untruths, there are similarly asymmetrical expectations the public places on Trump and Clinton. She’s been immersed in politics at ever-higher levels since her husband, Bill, entered Arkansas politics in the 1970s. Trump is a neophyte who simply may not know what he’s being asked about, Jamieson says. “Sometimes you say he’s deliberately misleading: he may not. He may just be ignorant,” she says. “It was Hillary Clinton who has been in this domain for a very long time. We assume a competence. So we assume when something’s misstated, she should have known better.”

Yet both of them get caught in misdeeds by the same fact-checkers, in the same dispassionate tut-tutting tones, but react differently. When government truth-seekers like the inspector general and the FBI debunked her email server spin, Clinton said repeatedly she made a mistake. She downplayed it, but at least showed contrition. Contrition and apology elude Trump, along with something else underpinning that tendency.

“I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed,” Jonathan Swift wrote, 310 years before fireworks, confetti and balloons heralded the end of Trump’s 75-minute Republican convention speech.

Confronted repeatedly with facts disproving his comments, confronted on 60 Minutes that his opponent and running mate voted the same way on war, normally the politician would be prompted to recant, or at least weasel or wriggle or dodge (see Clinton, H). Shame is the gag reflex that tells the politician to do so after being proven false, just as it’s what prompts the nose-picker to not do that in public—it’s embarrassing and costs you respect. Trump appears to lack that reflex. He conveys no such shame, and lacks appreciation for the reasons that compel politicians away from hearsay-driven “facts” and xenophobia.

Christina Tarnopolsky, a Canadian-born political theorist at Yale University’s college in Singapore, wrote a 2010 book on Plato and the politics of shame. While many thinkers deem shame a negative trait that makes one suffer and hide, Tarnopolsky argues shame is an important self-regulator in democratic politics. It’s a necessary trait for rulers and decision-makers: if told they fell below norms and expectations, they feel shame, and adjust accordingly. “What keeps them in line is not laws but norms: decency, fairness and justice,” the associate professor says. “If they’re not attuned to them, then you’ve got a tyrant.” Narcissism helps numb a shameless person from criticism. Along with guilt, shame is also a trait lacking in sociopaths, she notes. Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief of Vox, wrote that Trump’s lack of shame is “the single scariest facet of his personality. It is the one that allows him to go where others won’t, to say what others can’t, to do what others wouldn’t.” Others wouldn’t deign to declare in a convention address: “At our convention, there will be no lies. We will honour the American people with the truth, and nothing else.”

Trump went on to tell of an ashamed nation, constantly losing jobs and being sneered at by foreign leaders. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton speak of a longer road to a better America, potted with compromise and shared sacrifice. The shame-free candidate flatters his followers by promising them a shame-free future where manufacturing jobs return quickly and “fairly easily,” and a national wall that ends crime and is built so fast heads will spin. “The people who are on his side will never be laughed at, feel like losers. They’ll never feel shame again and we’re going to do that by really making others feel shame,” Tarnopolsky says. Impossible promises can wind up among the biggest lies of all in campaigns, and a veteran politician would know better by experience; a newcomer would avoid them for fear of being ashamed.

(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

In Britain, such shame was absent from pro-Brexit politicians who promised hundreds of millions of European Union dollars would get shovelled into health care—the numbers were grossly exaggerated, and top Leave advocate Nigel Farage admitted the wrongness of his fellow campaigners’ claim the day after they won. Farage was unapologetic for both that and for a nakedly anti-migrant poster titled “Breaking Point” that even appalled co-campaigner Boris Johnson, and then no apologies again for leaving the UK Independence Party helm to let somebody else help guide the messy work of actually exiting the European pact.

For Canadian shamelessness, the standard-bearer was Rob Ford, who, like Trump, was unshaken by endless accusations of falsehoods and stupefying acts or deeds that are supposed to be politically fatal by most norms of the trade. Unlike his fellow wealthy business scion south of the border, the late Toronto mayor was more comfortable saying he was sorry. “Which one do you want, Madam Speaker—like, ‘Super, super, super, super, super, super, super sorry? So sorry?’ ” he asked at one council meeting after being ordered to apologize for calling colleagues corrupt. It was less apparent he meant it; with Trump, we know his unwillingness to apologize means he’s not apologetic.

If Trump’s brand of untruths are rare in the political sphere, it might be because he’s entered it from the worlds of reality-show TV and real estate development. Success in those fields relies on self-promotion, and the adjective invariably attached to that term is “shameless.” It’s small wonder Trump’s dabbled in professional wrestling, the land of make-believe and brash good-guy/bad-guy warfare, says Bruce Miroff, a presidential historian at the University of Albany. “He’s all about a spectacle, and in spectacle the truth is hardly the coin of the realm,” he says. Trump’s grandiose backlit entrance at the RNC to Queen’s We are the Champions earned praise from WWE honcho Vince McMahon, Trump boasted to NBC.

Of course, Miroff adds: “There’s always been a lot of showmanship and deception in politics.” Trump may be disconnected from the traditions, though he has shown glimpses of reverting to the norms of truth, spin and rhetoric—the “pivot” many pundits have awaited but have ceased expecting. Factcheck.org noted his convention speech softened a previously debunked claim about Iran’s nuclear deal, and he’s firmly shifted away from pronouncing an immigration ban on Muslims, preferring territorial bans. Then the next day, Trump rehashed the crackpot tabloid claim about Rafael Cruz, and even suggested the National Enquirer’s work deserved a Pulitzer.

In November, Americans will either elect a veteran political equivocator or a celebrity real estate equivocator. At least with the former, we know roughly what to expect.