It is no surprise that this election (2016) is filled with invective, scurrilous charges, and challenges to personal integrity. Politics in America has never been for the timid, and a quick glance at American electoral history shows that a lot worse came before. In 1828 Andrew Jackson's divorced wife was called all sorts of lewd names by his opponents. In retaliation, Jackson claimed that incumbent John Quincy Adams had once tried to offer his maid as a concubine to Russian Czar Alexander I.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were two of the "pioneers" of political slandering in the United States. Kerwin Stint’s (CNN) (8/22/08) wrote in his article "Founding Fathers' Dirty Campaign":
Jefferson's camp accused President Adams of having a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."
In return, Adams' men called Vice President Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."
As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.
Of course, the peccadilloes and grosser behavior did not stop, but now became fodder for the tabloid press. Sexual Lotharios, deviants, adulterers, and pornography addicts were now fair game. Smarmy politicians were now outed in games lf catch-me-if-you-can. Gary Hart, once a presidential contender, dared the press to catch him in an adulterous like, seriously misread their umbrage and the mood of the people, and was dunned out of public life. The media have had a field day with lying, deceitful, duplicitous politicians, their tearful apologies, and the melodrama of stand-by-me wives.
In this era of mini-surveillance, cameras and IPhones fewer politicians are willing to take the absurd risks they did in the past, and Americans have surprisingly become even more moralistic and morally superior. Although every President in recent memory – with the unsurprising exception of Richard Nixon – has had his paramours, mistresses, and cinq-a-septs we have come to demand and expect sexual probity and good behavior. Both George W Bush were apparently good, loyal devoted husbands.
It is now is harder than ever to uncover sexual dalliances, and as hard as Republicans may try it is very hard to pin financial misfeasance and tricky dealings on any candidate. Accountants are simply too good, paper trails can wind maddeningly around back on themselves, and deniability in a smart politician is easy.
What is left? Lying is now the cause celebre of American politics. Just like sexual straying, lying in America is pervasive and seemingly innate not only in politicians but in all of us. This shared imperfection does nothing to quiet the demand for truth, honesty, and forthrightness. No matter how we may lie, deceive, cheat, and meander in our personal lives, we insist on a higher moral standard.
The issue in this campaign is that the political establishment has never met a man like Donald Trump who distorts, invents, or twists the facts deliberately, knowingly, and convincingly. He knows that his followers could care less about facts, ledgers, balance sheets, and traceable quotes; and care only for what he means. In fact they are better deconstructionists than the best Duke University academics. It’s not what Trump says. It’s what he means.
This obvious fact does not stay the baying hounds of the Left who keep insisting on holding him to the facts. Liberal newspapers and think tanks have mobilized thousands of researchers to track Trump’s every word, to publish inaccuracies, deceptions, and out-and-out lies.
No one pays attention and Trump’s poll numbers keep rising. Despite the increasing frustration and exasperation of the Left, he may well win the election.
The only response liberals can muster is sanctimony – a righteous indignation against what they see is a lying, deceitful, untrustworthy demon. A holy, moral, and very sanctimonious campaign against Donald Trump is being waged in the mainstream media, at Georgetown dinner parties, and on Facebook.
It is as though a little duplicity here and there was never in liberals’ electoral armory. Hillary Clinton should no better than to attack The Donald for his lack of transparency when her own husband drove the country crazy with his “It depends on what is is”, and “I did not have sex with that woman”. Or her own waffling and evasiveness on every scandal from Whitewater to Benghazi to emails and her health.
There is no crime in lying in America, and although some perjury carries penalties, everyone does it. Workers like to their bosses, corporate executives lie to their staffs and their shareholders, husbands and wives lie to each other, children lie to their parents.
Lying as become so common, tolerated, and accepted, that there is only a level playing field in America if everyone lies, and everyone seems to at every opportunity.
Yale Medical School professor Dr. Diane Komp in her book Anatomy of a Lie raises an interesting explanation to the now common phenomenon of lying in America. Perhaps it is not the lying star figures who influence us, but we who influence them:
"I began to wonder about the possibility that my own seemingly harmless white lies had an impact on the world, that maybe, instead of there being a trickle-down effect when people in exalted positions or in public life lie, there is a trickle-up effect," Komp explained in a recent interview. "In other words, maybe the cultural trend in lying begins with those of us who are not in positions of power, rather than the other way around. Maybe the 'trivial' lies that most of us tell without any real pricks on our conscience do matter." (Yale News, 1998)
This makes a lot of sense because all of us know liars. Our parents have lied to us. We have lied to our children, and they to us. We do our best to hide our errors and misdemeanors at work. We lie to our wives and husbands about our indiscretions. We cheat on our income tax, have no qualms about defending our rights dishonestly, bend or even invent the facts when it comes to resumes, job interviews, and performance reviews.
She goes on to suggest why people tell lies:
To protect themselves from punishment or embarrassment, to protect their own fantasies about themselves, and to protect the feelings -- or, in extreme cases, the lives -- of others, she says. Regardless of the purpose, "the desire to assume control over another human heart is the basis of most human lies”.Every thinker from Augustine to Immanuel Kant to Sisela Bok have considered the morality of lying and/or its social dynamics. Lying is nothing new. Which is why sanctimony is so surprising. Why, given the fact that lying is endemic and common to us all, are we so quick to judge others and worse, hold some to a higher standard?
It is quite right to call out Donald Trump on those factual statements which are untrue or misleading – a matter of correcting the record and setting it straight. Pinning truth down, however, is a very tricky business indeed; and it would seem far better to craft one’s own version of the truth than try to call out the lies of an opponent.
Be that as it may, there is no place for sanctimony, a ‘those who live in glass houses’ casuistry. Given our human inclination for deception, wouldn’t it be more seemly to grant politicians a little leeway? Challenge the facts by all means, but call your opponent a liar? Hardly, and certainly not a bald-faced, unrepentant, arrogant, destructive one.
Literature, perceptual psychology, cognitive science all have recorded the inability of people to agree on what they see. Rashomon, The Ring and the Book, and The Alexandria Quartet are but a few books about the impossibility of concluding fact. Everyone’s perception varies, is subjective and untrustworthy. Add that to our all-to-human penchant for lying, then one should quite reasonably give a little slack to others when it comes to the ‘truth’.
Perhaps the political Left is given more to sanctimony because of pride in logical analysis, rationality, and reason. ‘On the one hand, on the other’ is not a sign of muddle for progressives but sound reasonable judgment. The Right understand human nature, what is innate and what is not, how we are hardwired and not, and that we are likely to behave just as we have always done. Ironically a bit more rational and less idealistic than the Left, certainly.
Sanctimony is unseemly, off-putting, distasteful and, given all the above, quite ignorant and unnecessary. It is worse than lying, for it celebrates something which is not innate or hardwired. We don’t have to be so sniffy and angry.