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Will lies win?

Nov 03,2020 - Last updated at Nov 03,2020

PRINCETON — The strange and dispiriting US presidential election campaign has been marked by an absence of substantive debate and a deluge of lies. As Joe Biden said of Donald Trump in the first televised debate, “The fact is that everything he’s saying so far is simply a lie. I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he is a liar.”

In politics, the more that lies are employed, the more grounds there are for each side to accuse the other of lying. A spiral of dishonesty ensues, making rational debate impossible. With each lie begetting more lies, normal politics comes to be replaced by a politics of exception. We know this because the phenomenon is not new or exclusive to the twenty-first century.

History is full of warnings for a society swamped by lies. Shakespeare described the problem brilliantly in his plays. In "As You Like It", the court jester Touchstone describes a seven-stage increase in the vehemence of retorts: the fourth is the “Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheque Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct”.

Like any infernal mechanism, the first direct lie sets in motion an endless cycle. Lies create the need for more lies; and as they become bigger, their promoters often think their claims have become better. But to others, the tightening ratchet is clear to see with the simplest kind of lie: the factual distortion.

Manipulation of facts should be easy to call out. Trump started his presidency with the lie that his inauguration crowd had been larger than president Barack Obama’s four years earlier. Photographic evidence showed this claim to be breathtakingly false. But perhaps that was the point: Trump was using the lie to assert his power.

Twentieth-century dictators found the tactic of the “Big Lie” quite attractive, and made it central to their exercise of power. Adolf Hitler describes the process programmatically in Mein Kampf: “In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily.” Though Hitler was accusing his opponents of practicing the Big Lie, he was also offering a preview of how he would seize power.

Another form of lying involves inappropriate simplifications that are not easily called out. Here, the politician’s claim serves to block or pre-empt a more complex discussion of the underlying issue. For example, in the second Biden-Trump debate, the New York Times’s real-time fact checkers highlighted two economic claims that they categorised as false. The first was Biden’s statement that Trump “has caused the [trade] deficit with China to go up, not down”.

Here, the truth is more complicated. America’s bilateral deficit with China under Trump initially rose between 2016 and 2018, but then fell, owing partly to Trump’s tariffs. But the US’ overall seasonally adjusted trade deficit has continued to grow since 2016, hitting levels this summer that were higher than the equivalent months in 2019. Complicating matters further, some part of the US deficit is with other countries that buy intermediate products from China, as in the case of generic pharmaceuticals imported from India.

The second falsehood that the fact-checkers pointed out concerned the question of whether China should pay reparations for causing the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump insisted that “China is paying. They are paying billions and billions of dollars”, implying that his administration’s tariffs constitute a form of reparation.

The US did indeed levy more than $60 billion in tariffs on $360 billion worth of Chinese goods before the pandemic. Yet, it is not easy to work out precisely who paid these “reparations”. In some cases, Chinese producers did need to reduce their prices to remain competitive in the American market. But in many other cases, the tariffs led to higher prices for American consumers. All told, these distortions seem to have served little purpose other than to support the Trump administration’s claim that it was holding another government accountable.

In any case, the economics behind apparently simple statements in presidential debates is rarely clear-cut. Even less clear is what the underlying politics is about. Is economic policy supposed to secure the best deal for American consumers? If so, the tariffs are a mistake. Is the goal to preserve American jobs? If so, Trump might be able to say he has protected some sectors, but only at the expense of others. Making intermediate imported products more expensive has far-reaching knock-on effects: higher tariffs on imported steel leads to higher prices and reduced demand from the automobile sector, thus destroying jobs there.

Finally, there is the ideological lie, whose primary purpose is to derail the process of normal politics. This kind of lie cannot be picked up so easily by fact checkers. In a striking essay, “Live Not by Lies”, composed in 1974 shortly before he was arrested, Alexander Solzhenitsyn pointed out that it is the ideas, not simple factual statements, that make lies compelling. “If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and would subside. That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.” Similarly, the great Czech truthteller Vaclav Havel saw that the “power of the powerless” consists in the refusal of small people to accept the Big Lie.

Part of Trump’s overall approach has been to suggest that politics is always about lies, and that politicians are all liars. Hence, in the second debate, he tried to depict Biden as a long-time Washington, DC, politician, and himself as an outsider. On other occasions, he boasts of having invented a new vocabulary that would make permanent a new style of politics. “I think one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with is ‘fake,’” he said in 2017.

Solzhenitsyn and Havel called for resistance against the march of lies. They demanded a return to the politics of honesty, a reversal of the ubiquity of the fake. Americans have that opportunity now, but not for much longer.


Harold James is professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He is the author of the forthcoming "The War of Words" (Yale University Press). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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