What does President-elect Donald Trump really mean when he praises Russian President Vladimir Putin? No one knows yet; perhaps Trump doesn’t even know. But it’s curious, isn’t it, that so many of his critics take his flattery to be genuine expressions of his attitude, when everything else about his speech and conduct suggests that he often does not mean what he says.
That’s not quite the same thing as saying he’s a liar. If Trump is a liar, he is an unconventional one. His inventions and madcap exaggerations seem intended less to deceive than to scandalize and provoke. When he claimed in 2015, for example, that he had watched as “thousands and thousands” of Muslims cheered the news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he must have known that this was an easily refutable claim. He didn’t care. Asked to support his statement on ABC’s “This Week,” he didn’t cavil or lapse into an obfuscatory defense. He didn’t insist, as an ordinary politician would have, that his words were taken out of context or that he meant something different from what was attributed to him. He simply reasserted the claim. “It did happen. I saw it. It was on television. I saw it.”
There was a lot of talk last year about the term “post-truth,” Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 “international word of the year,” made popular across the Anglophone world by the Brexit referendum in Britain and the U.S. presidential election. The latter event, particularly as embodied by Trump’s campaign, was said to be uniquely bereft of respect for factual truth. Well, maybe; but surely we aren’t prepared to say that American political culture pre-Trump was characterized by reverence for truth. Long before Trump got here, our political debates teemed with disinformation of every variety: gross hyperbole, calculated non sequiturs, culpable omissions, unfalsifiable accusations, deliberate vagueness, outright lies. It seems wrong to associate only Trump with this allegedly new era of untruth; thousands before him did their part.
What makes Trump different is not that he treats the truth with contempt. What makes him different is that he does so openly, almost gleefully, as if he has discovered the phoniness of a myth that holds everyone else in check.
That “myth” was a Protestant-evangelical ethic of honesty that defined American political culture from the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century to the Social Gospel of the early 20th century to the Billy Graham crusades of the 1960s and ’70s. It was an effort, in one way or another, to make America a Protestant Christian society. Even in our permissive and morally pluralistic culture, the words “honesty” and “integrity” are still the most important terms in our political discourse. Almost every campaign speech and political ad will appeal somehow to the ideal of honesty; the candidate’s words must match his or her actions; rhetoric must match conduct.
We rarely appreciate how American this fixation on honesty is. Other political cultures are not similarly disposed. One example: No high-level married politician in the United States could get away with having an openly discussed relationship with a mistress while still living with his wife, as is frequently done in France. Such a relationship, in American terms, is living evidence that the politician’s words are not always the same as his deeds. French voters accept this disjunction in their leaders; most American voters do not. Of course, plenty of American politicians have affairs, but our political culture demands that they pretend they do not and never have.
That Protestant-evangelical ethic has become brittle in recent decades. Trump is the first, or the most important among the first, to snap it. He isn’t preoccupied with maintaining a reputation for integrity. He likes to be thought of as honest, but only in the sense that he will say things others won’t; he isn’t afraid to misstate facts or manufacture his own facts or exaggerate them a hundredfold. He will call others liars and do so with abandon, but he doesn’t get too exercised about others calling him a liar. He will say one thing today and another next week, and make only the meagerest effort to pretend he didn’t contradict himself. If he wants to do an about-face, he just does one.
Trump perceived, correctly in my view, that political rhetoric in the United States had become empty, a vast collection of platitudes and bogus phrases that no longer bore any real connection to the truth. Everyone else pretended to mean what they said when they didn’t; Trump simply dropped the pretense. The result is a post-Christian political discourse of a distinctively American sort: blunt and self-assured and largely free of the obligation to express yourself with sincerity. The new post-Christian discourse uses words, not as vehicles to express thoughts and arguments, but as weapons — as instruments to wrong-foot adversaries and keep them guessing while you seize the advantage.
I find it hard to lament the quickening demise of the old honesty-based political culture. It had become cheap and false. If Trump hadn’t snapped it, somebody else would have.