Donald Trump is a liar.
For anyone who has been following the Republican presidential campaign for the past few months, this statement will not elicit much surprise. But then again, that’s also true if you’ve been following the direction of Republican presidential campaign rhetoric over the past several years.
When Trump claimed that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheer when the Twin Towers were felled, he was lying, because thousands of Muslims in New Jersey didn’t cheer when the Twin Towers fell.
He is not stretching the truth when he says the Obama administration wants to take in 250,000 Syrian refugees. He is lying.
He was not, as ABC News put it, making “questionable comments” when he retweeted the racist claims of a neo-Nazi that black Americans are overwhelmingly responsible for homicides in America. He is peddling made-up racist claims about black Americans.
When he said that there should be a database of American Muslims and that US mosques should possibly be shut down, he wasn’t misquoted. He was quite clearly playing on xenophobic fears.
Some have argued that Trump’s intentions are unclear. Maybe he truly believes he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating on 9/11.
And maybe some of Trump’s best friends are black or Mexican. Instead he’s just playing on fears about immigrants, Muslim terrorists, and black criminals, like countless politicians before him.
But this is a dodge. It’s been consistently pointed out, by reporters and fact checkers alike, and often directly to Trump, that he is saying things that are verifiably untrue. That Trump keeps repeating them is all we need to know about his intentions.
What’s also undeniable is that when it comes to presidential campaign lying, Trump is simply following a path laid by other Republicans. Back in 2008, John McCain regularly made verifiably false claims about Barack Obama’s record, his statements, and his policy proposals, like the time he falsely claimed Obama supported “comprehensive sex education” for children in kindergarten. His runningmate, Sarah Palin, pushed the envelope even further, like when she said she’d told Congress “thanks, but no thanks” on Alaska’s so-called “Bridge to Nowhere,” even though she’d lobbied for the infrastructure project. In 2012, Mitt Romney, embraced this strategy. He claimed that Obama’s stimulus created no private sector jobs; he accused Obama of raising taxes; of blowing up the deficit; of having gone before foreign audiences to “apologize” for “American misdeeds”; and of having passed Obamacare with the knowledge that it would slow down the country’s economic recovery. None of this was true.
This campaign cycle, it’s been more of the same. Perhaps the most pernicious lie told this time around is the one from Carly Fiorina, who invented out of whole cloth details from those Planned Parenthood tapes — and, when confronted with her lie, refused to back down. According to Politifact, 84 percent of Ben Carson’s statements that they’ve fact-checked are “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire” untrue. But you get the sense with Carson that he truly doesn’t know what he’s talking about. With Fiorina, it’s seems more apparent that she knows she’s lying and doesn’t care.
But then again, why pick on her? Virtually every Republican candidate has accused the organization of selling or harvesting “baby parts” — a term allegedly uttered by the man accused of shooting up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado last week.
Practically every GOP candidate has said something about Obamacare, climate change, the president’s foreign policy, Benghazi, or the federal government that is untrue. In some cases, politicians have misspoken when making these statements, but even when errors are pointed out, they are rarely corrected.
Of course, all politicians exaggerate, all politicians simplify and stereotype, all politicians mislead, and all politicians present arguments and images of themselves (and their opponents) in ways that are often parallel to the truth. Consciously lying is something else altogether — and for those who claim that everyone does, in order to be bipartisan, that too is dishonest. To go back to those Politifact rankings, 75 percent of what they’ve checked on Trump has been mostly false or worse. For Hillary Clinton, it’s 28 percent.
The fact is, one political party (Republicans) lies a lot more than the other major political party (Democrats).
Republicans have figured out that nonpartisan political journalists who adhere religiously to the notion of objectivity — in which all viewpoints, even made-up ones, are valid — are limited in their ability to point out when politicians peddle inconsistencies or shade the truth. They are less equipped to call lying politicians liars.
The more they lie and don’t get called out for it, the more every political incentive pushes them in one direction — to tell even bigger lies. In a polarized political era, in which Americans increasingly get their news and information from right-wing or left-wing echo chambers that merely reinforce preexisting beliefs, fact-checking this stuff goes in the ears of many Americans — and out the other.
So Trump’s behavior is just a logical continuation of these now well-worn Republican strategies. Where he’s different is that he has just taken things to a whole other level.
Objectivity in journalism was never intended to give these sorts of statements a pass. When someone says the sky is green — or Muslims in New Jersey were celebrating on 9/11 — you don’t “teach the controversy.” There’s a right answer and a wrong one; and there’s a motive for these lies that can’t and should not be ignored.
Trump doesn’t “transcend the truth,” as CNN suggested. He isn’t “indifferent . . . to facts” as The New York Times wrote recently. He is not continuing a “campaign of controversy,” as NBC described it.
He’s lying, and he’s spreading fear. Period. And he’s got lots of company.
None of us who work in journalism — whether opinion writers or reporters — do Americans any favor by failing to make this clear.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.