COMMENTARY: How important is truth in our politics?

In 1967, another turbulent time in American politics, philosopher Hannah Arendt began a now-famous essay with the following assertion: “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.”

In the 50 years since, we’ve witnessed examples of untruthfulness from politicians at all levels, including presidents, e.g., Nixon and Watergate, Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and George W. Bush with WMD’s, but the level of disregard for truth and facts displayed by President Trump is unprecedented. It began with his dishonest challenge to Obama’s citizenship, and has continued with numerous falsehoods — more than 3,000 since taking office, by some counts.

Examples include his fabrications about his inauguration’s crowd size and that U.S. black homeownership is the highest it’s ever been. He maintained falsely that he passed the biggest tax cut in history and that it was going to cost him a fortune, personally. Most recently he duplicitously asserted that he “misspoke” by using the phrase “don’t see how it would have been Russia” instead of “don’t see how it wouldn’t have been Russia” when asked who he believed more — the American intelligence community or Vladimir Putin — about Russia’s 2016 election interference.

You might say, “So, what’s the big deal? His lies aren’t whoppers like those of Nixon or Clinton — he just exaggerates.” Most Americans would certainly agree that he does exaggerate — a lot. And only time will tell whether he’s told any Watergate-size whoppers.

But the big deal is that President Trump’s untruthfulness is much more insidious because it isn’t just political spin, but a chilling embrace of mendacity that has spawned a whole new cynical lexicon with terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news” that eat away at the trust between us which is the very foundation of our democracy. It’s also worse because it pits us against one another more so than a couple of big lies precisely because the untruthfulness is often so clearly disconnected from reality that it’s easier for many to discount as harmless — until it’s too late.

Lamenting the dangerous effects systematic lying can have on society, Arendt noted that the tangled web of untruthfulness woven in this fashion can often only be threatened by those from within “who have managed to escape its spell and insist on talking about facts or events that do not fit the image.” Yet, several high-profile Republican defectors have only experienced ridicule or personal attacks from the president. Their “truth-telling” continues to fall on too many deaf ears, as Trump maintains a nearly 90-percent approval rating within his party.

Arendt certainly was not arguing that truth and politics should be at odds; she was simply observing that they often were. A healthy democracy, however, requires a fervent commitment to truth and transparency from politicians and citizens alike. To paraphrase our president: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is what’s happening.”

Rob Baker, Ph.D., teaches political science at Wittenberg University in Springfield.

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