Hillary Clinton lied. It’s one of the reasons she’s not president today. Of course, I lie too. And so did you. Probably yesterday, in fact. And probably again tomorrow. Psychologists know that as humans, we often tell lies, mostly little ones. But as humans, it’s what we do.
Politicians speak a lot, so they lie more than the rest of us, and they speak publicly, so they get caught more. Because politicians lie and routinely get caught doing it, Americans have become accustomed to a certain level of dishonesty in politics. This is regrettable but an unavoidable artifact of the human condition.
Here’s the problem. As fact checker Glenn Kessler noted in August, whereas Clinton lies as much as the average politician, President Donald Trump’s lying is “off the charts.” No prominent politician in memory bests Trump for spouting spectacular, egregious, easily disproved lies. The birther claim. The vote fraud claim. The attendance at the inauguration claim. And on and on and on. Every fact checker — Kessler, Factcheck.org, Snopes.com, PolitiFact — finds a level of mendacity unequaled by any politician ever scrutinized. For instance, 70 percent of his campaign statements checked by PolitiFact were mostly false, totally false, or “pants on fire” false.
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway had to invent the term “alternate facts” to describe his blatantly false assertions. Press secretary Sean Spicer was reduced to saying: “You have your facts. This is what the president believes,” as if objective facts and subjective beliefs were equivalent. Tom Price, nominee to be secretary of health and human services, when asked whether it was true, as President Trump had said, that the two were working together on a replacement plan for Obamacare could only say, “It is true that he said it.”
Studies show that most of us are uncomfortable when we lie. Our brain’s amygdala produces a negative emotional response. But the more we lie, the less the brain responds, and lying doesn’t seem so bad to us anymore. There is substantial evidence that Trump has been a serial liar for decades, even under oath, so it is unrealistic to expect his truthfulness to improve unless handlers can force him to stay on script more often.
Worse yet, just as Trump’s brain is apparently used to lying, over time our brains will become accustomed to it as well. People who work on Wall Street and see insider trading or similar financial wrongdoing every day become inured to it and judge it much less harshly than the rest of us do. Studies show that as we are exposed to lying, it becomes the norm to us as well.
Trump may have already irreparably degraded political campaign norms. His tactics reduced Republican rivals who wished to debate serious issues to discussing hand size. It is unclear whether our electoral norms will ever recover. If the American public becomes accustomed to a president who tells lies on a daily basis, if that becomes the norm, then heaven help us. Finding out what the facts are in a contentious world is difficult enough. It takes good faith and substantial effort that every citizen of a democracy should be willing to muster. But if the free world’s leader continues to demonstrate a casual disregard for reality, fantasy rather than facts will become the norm, and seeking the actual truth will seem pointless to us all.
Democrats should not take too much comfort here. Studies show that liars disproportionately choose careers in politics, and there is no evidence that Republicans are less truthful on average than Democrats. Trump, however, is an utter outlier. Every president has lied, even the most successful ones. Being a liar doesn’t mean you can’t be a great president. But Trump’s ability to believe things unrelated to reality just because he wants to believe them, and then to make policy based on those beliefs, sets him apart from any previous president and is a recipe for disaster. It could be like the Enlightenment never happened.
Robert Prentice is the faculty director of the “Ethics Unwrapped” video series and educational program at the McCombs School of Business’s Center for Leadership & Ethics at The University of Texas at Austin. This op-ed originally appeared in the Corpus Christi Caller Times.