WASHINGTON — Whit Ayres, a Republican political consultant here, likes to tell his clients that there are “three keys to credibility.”
“One, never defend the indefensible,” he says. “Two, never deny the undeniable. And number three is: Never lie.”
Fabrications have long been a part of US politics. Politicians lie to puff themselves up, to burnish their résumés and to cover up misdeeds, including sexual affairs. (See: Bill Clinton.) Sometimes they cite false information for what they believe are justifiable policy reasons. (See: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam.)
But President Trump, historians and consultants in both political parties agree, appears to have taken what the writer Hannah Arendt once called “the conflict between truth and politics” to an entirely new level.
Trump is trafficking in hyperbole, distortion, and fabrication on practically a daily basis.
He has peddled the false notion that former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, inflated claims about how many people attended his inaugural, and just last week, he described two phone calls — one from the president of Mexico and another from the head of the Boy Scouts — that never happened.
In part, this represents yet another way that Trump is operating on his own terms, but it also reflects a broader decline in standards of truth for political discourse.
A look at politicians over the past half-century makes it clear that lying in office did not begin with Trump.
Still, the scope of Trump’s falsehoods raises questions about whether the brakes on straying from the truth and the consequences for politicians’ being caught saying things that just are not true have diminished over time.
One of the first modern presidents to wrestle publicly with a lie was Dwight D. Eisenhower in May 1960, when an US U-2 spy plane was shot down while in Soviet airspace.
The Eisenhower administration lied to the public about the plane and its mission, claiming it was a weather aircraft.
But when the Soviets said that the pilot had been captured alive, Eisenhower reluctantly acknowledged that the plane had been on an intelligence mission — an admission that shook him badly, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said. “He just felt that his credibility was such an important part of his person and character, and to have that undermined by having to tell a lie was one of the deepest regrets of his presidency,” Goodwin said.
In the short run, Eisenhower was hurt. But the public eventually forgave him, Goodwin said, because he owned up to his mistake.
In 1972, at the height of the Watergate scandal, President Richard M. Nixon was accused of lying, obstructing justice, and misusing the Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies, and resigned rather than face impeachment.
Over the past two decades, institutional changes in US politics have made it easier for politicians to lie.
The proliferation of television political talk shows and the rise of the Internet have created a fragmented media environment. With no widely acknowledged media gatekeeper, politicians have an easier time distorting the truth.
And in an era of hyperpartisanship, where politicians often are trying to court voters at the extreme ends of the political spectrum, politicians often lie with impunity. Even the use of the word “lie” in politics has changed.
“There was a time not long ago when you could not use the word ‘lie’ in a campaign,” said Anita Dunn, once a communications director to Obama. “It was thought to be too harsh, and it would backfire. So you had to say they hadn’t been honest, or they didn’t tell the truth, or the facts show something else, and even that was seen as hot rhetoric.”