Political Trash Talk

Tyler Cowen has some mostly excellent commentary on Spicer’s recent “lies” regarding the size of Trump’s inauguration crowds:

Trump’s supporters are indeed correct to point out that previous administrations also told many lies, albeit of a different sort. Imagine, for instance, that mistruths come in different forms: higher-status mistruths and lower-status mistruths. The high-status mistruths are like those we associate with ambassadors and diplomats . . . if all you ever heard were the proclamations of the ambassador, you wouldn’t have a good grasp of the realities of the situation. Ambassadors typically are speaking to more than one audience at once, a lot of context is required to glean the actual meaning, and if they are interpreted in a strictly literal manner (a mistake) it is easy enough to find lots of misdirection in their words. Most of all, ambassadors just won’t voice a lot of sensitive truths.

Arguably those diplomatic proclamations are not lies, but they do bear quite an indirect relationship to the blunt, bare truth . . . And indeed it is correct to think of every incoming (and ongoing) administration of doing lots of “lying” — if that is the right word — of this sort.

Cowen, as per usual, is taking a more nuanced approach to the “everyone does it” argument, although he solves the “false equivalency” rejoinder by explaining why Trump’s “lying” is the same, but isn’t exactly the same. Cowen is being charitable, as well (also as per usual). Another way of saying “higher-status mistruths” is fancy lying, or lying with long words, endless prevarication and nimble obfuscation. Cowen dignifies “higher-status mistruths” by associating them with “ambassadors and diplomats,” but again, that’s just another version of “lying for thee, but not for me” except this time with a PhD in European History and the finest prep school education.

Cowen knows this, but he doesn’t want to lose his audience, so he approaches with caution. To whit:

These higher-status lies are not Trump’s style, and thus many of his supporters, with some justification, see him as a man willing to voice important truths. If Trump’s opponents don’t understand that reality, and the sociological differences between various kinds of misdirection, they are going to underestimate his appeal and self-righteously underestimate how much they are themselves mistrusted by the public.

Truer words have never been spoken. This is another version of “Trump is real.” When Trump exaggerates, obfuscates or “lies” (and like Cowen, I’m uncomfortable with that term), people can tell. Whether and to what extent they hold it against him depends on the context, but they understand that Trump is a politician and a salesman and that being bombastic is part of his shtick.

But the important thing is that his supporters prefer that unbridled style to the carefully curated, crowd tested and coalition approved double-speak that a team of Ben Rhodeses puts together for every other politician. Trump may fudge the details, but his import is clear. Obama will elegantly frame the details, but will say everything and nothing at once. The establishment conceit is that somehow the latter is more trustworthy, but these are politicians were talking about–neither of them are trustworthy. In fact, the only “trust” communicated by Obama et al. is that he lies the right way, i.e. he’s one of us (which for everyone else makes him relatively less trustworthy).

More importantly, Trump “is willing to voice important truths” rather than dance around the complex set of rules and mores devised by the beltway elite (which matter to them and them alone). For example, Trump says plainly and repeatedly what everyone knows to be true that radical Islamic terrorists are out there and they’re trying to kill you. Compare that with the absurd theater of Obama’s prevarication over the identity and motives of the San Bernardino and/or Orlando terrorists. Trump’s willingness to speak without regard to the internal politics of K Street, or the prior approval of the chattering class (whose deference to the squeakiest self-righteous wheel distorts the truth in its own way) is a large part of his charm–and Trump grows more charming every time the chattering class screams “FOUL!”

As Cowen explains:

Trump specializes in lower-status lies, typically more of the bald-faced sort, namely stating “x” when obviously “not x” is the case. They are proclamations of power, and signals that the opinions of mainstream media and political opponents will be disregarded. The lie needs to be understood as more than just the lie. For one thing, a lot of Americans, especially many Trump supporters, are more comfortable with that style than with the “fancier” lies they believe they are hearing from the establishment.

I would frame this slightly differently. Everyone knows that politicians are acting, but if they’re caught in a moment of humanity, the cultural elite freak out:”We caught you in the lie we all knew you were telling because we’re the ones who told you to lie in the first place, so it’s not really lying, but now that you failed to maintain the facade we will bury you until you beg for mercy!” Trump tweets that elegant choreography into oblivion and people fucking love it.

Trump is a showman (like every other politician), but rather than hide it, he revels in it. He talks trash, he boasts, he preens–he’d do a shoulder shimmy and an end zone dance if he could. It may not be their style (but sometimes it is) and like all trash-talking, it can be annoying, but it’s no worse or better than that. Ordinary people don’t mind because they’re not nearly as stupid as their self-anointed betters think: “of course he’s a showman, you idiot. He runs hotels and TV shows and now he’s running for president–what do you expect?” Even if I personally prefer the staid confidence of Jerry Rice to the antics of Odell Beckham Jr., at least OBJ is being honest.

As with most things Trump, his great offense is a breach of decorum. Cowen calls it “sociological differences,” but he’s being polite. It’s simple classism. Trump broke the club rules about drinking sherry before dinner, when everyone knows that sherry is strictly a dessert wine.

Politicians are supposed to lie in certain ways, if they don’t want to be accused of lying by polite company. It’s a style that polite company use to identify themselves to one another (and how they identify the impolite folks they would never let into their club). Trump’s sin is that instead of begging for membership, he started his own wildly successful club.


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