Is There a Market for Truth in This Election?

The way Donald Trump handled the whole birther nonsense last week seems to have created a bit of a turning point in how some of the major media outlets are covering his campaign. In short…they’ve become more comfortable with the “L” word.

It’s a marked change in language, even for outlets that have aggressively reported on Trump’s appeals to violence and bigotry. And it’s especially startling coming from the ultra-traditional Times, which even in the new digital age remains a north star for much mainstream media coverage.

“I think our investigative work—see [the Sept. 17] story on Trump’s tax breaks—has always been hard hitting,” says Dean Baquet, the New York Times’ executive editor. “But we have decided to be more direct in calling things out when a candidate actually lies.”

The reason it took so long is, as Katherine Krueger noted, because they have been “wedded to balance and objectivity.” As Chris Matthews recently said, calling out lies “sounds like an opinion.”

But if media outlets are now prepared to call out the lies, that presents a challenge when it comes to Trump. As many of you know, back in 2012, Steve Benen did us all a favor when he published a weekly column on “Mitt’s Mendacity.” Recently he addressed a question many of us have had about why he hasn’t done the same thing this election cycle.

Four years later, a variety of readers have asked me why I haven’t rolled out a similar effort for Trump. My answer is always the same: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Donald Trump makes Mitt Romney look like the Patron Saint of Honesty. If lying were an Olympic sport, every other contender would have to quit, knowing in advance that Trump would win the gold no matter how hard they tried.

Trump lies with such reckless abandon – about himself, about his opponent, about policy, about current events, about details large and small – it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether he has some kind of allergy to the truth.

As he points out, Trump’s lies are so ubiquitous that those who have taken on the task of calling them out have been doing so based on one speech or “what he said this morning.” This candidate’s affinity for lies led Michael Barbaro to do a whole podcast dedicated to answering the question of whether lying is actually a strategy for Trump. One of the people he talked to is Pamela Meyer, author of “Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception.” Here is what she said about liars like Donald Trump:

A good liar intuitively knows what it is you want to hear, dangles it out in front of you just when you need it, expresses confidence enough so that you allow them a path if you think they’re lying or might trust them a little bit more than you normally would.

Obviously there is a market among voters for the lies Donald Trump tells. When it comes to the most egregious, there are people who want to hear that brown and black people are a threat to their way of life and that the reality of globalization means that America doesn’t win anymore. Anyone who has tried sharing actual facts with these people knows that they don’t matter. Truthiness has gone to a whole new level and gut instincts rule. The institutions these folks hate the most – the media and establishment politicians – are often the ones debunking Trump’s lies. So in their epistemically closed bubbles, they simply ignore and/or discount the facts. These are the voters who make up Donald Trump’s 42% that seem unmoveable in the polls.

As Paul Begala pointed out in Barbaro’s podcast, the swing voters in this election aren’t soccer moms or security moms or even – as some would mistakenly suggest – millennials. Instead, they are a group that values facts and have traditionally voted Republican – white college-educated voters. They are the ones Kellyanne Conway has been trying to reach out to – with mixed results.

As we approach debate season, the thing to keep an eye on is how/when/by whom Trump is fact-checked. The Republican nominee is already signaling that he’s worried about that when he provides this warning to Lester Holt (who will moderate the first debate):

“Well, I think he has to be a moderator,” Trump told “Fox and Friends” of Holt during a phone interview Thursday morning. “I mean, you’re debating somebody and if she makes a mistake or I make a mistake, I’ll, you know, we’ll take each other on. But I certainly don’t think you want Candy Crowley again.”

He is, of course, referring to the time that Crowley fact checked Mitt Romney in a 2012 debate. Trump says…”we want none of that!” He’s certainly not worried about any “mistakes” from Clinton. Instead he’s playing the refs to keep them from calling out his lies.

Recently President Obama said that tolerance, democracy and justice are on the ballot this November. I’d add that truth is also on the ballot. Is there a market for that? If so, it is probably up to those swing voters Begala identified.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.