Lies, Damned Lies, and Politics

Donald Trump  and Hillary Clinton at the second 2016 presidential debate. Screencap from NBC’s debate livestream.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at the second 2016 presidential debate. Screencap from NBC’s debate livestream.

Early into last night’s debate, Donald Trump found himself in an awkward position. No, I am not talking about the question first asked about the Access Hollywood tape on which he boasts of sexual assault. I am talking about a more subtle moment: early on Donald Trump found himself calling himself a “politician,” incredulously admitting, “I can’t believe I am saying that about myself.”

Almost one hundred years ago, the German social theorist Max Weber gave a lecture in Munich called “Politics as Vocation” in which he argued that there was a big difference between the “occasional” politician and the “professional” politician. We are all, he claimed, occasional politicians, in as much as we all may vote, circulate a pamphlet or petition, or give a stump speech. But professional politicians are a different breed: For them politics is a vocation, a calling, and with the vocation comes certain burdens and responsibilities.

The biggest problem with Donald Trump in this election cycle is that he is, in fact, no politician, at least not in a vocational sense. And contrary to popular belief, that is a very bad thing for a person running for president.

Politicians live duplicitous lives, and necessarily so. They often are caught between their private positions and their public positions, what goes on behind-the-scenes and what happens on stage, what they believe and what they say. Trump tried to exploit this last night, attacking Clinton repeatedly as a politician guilty of “just talk” with no action. Clinton, on the other hand, tried—and failed—to explain that some distinction between private positions and public positions is integral to political leadership, referring awkwardly to Abraham Lincoln.

Saying politicians live duplicitous lives is not a way of writing them off, or of writing off that most important political concept, truth. For all the numerous misstatements, untruths, and lies last night from Clinton, Donald Trump’s untruths are of an entirely different, and far more dangerous, kind. The key difference between Clinton and Trump in this regard is place of their respective lives “behind the scenes.”

After the first presidential debate a couple of weeks ago, the “behind-the-scenes” Donald Trump became subject of media intrigue. Days after his disappointing performance, the press reported that behind the scenes Trump’s advisors were instituting a new, disciplined approach to debate preparation for their feckless candidate. But a few days later, we read of Trump insiders saying that there would be after all no new disciplined approach: Trump would “be himself,” as the town-hall style debate, we were told, was tailor made for the unconventional candidate. Trump himself even hinted he’d be vicious. Then, after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, there was talk of a more penitent Trump on stage. Many began watching last night’s debate wondering: Which Trump would it be?

We’ve come to believe that Donald Trump is the most volatile and unpredictable presidential candidate we’ve had in modern US history. Trump’s volatility and unpredictability has been the hallmark of his otherwise void and empty political persona. His volatility has been an index of an unsettled electorate and his unpredictability a mirror of an uncertain national future.

But last night showed that the opposite is true and has been true all along: Trump is a remarkably consistent candidate, as predictable in the performance of his public persona as any presidential candidate we’ve seen since Ronald Reagan. Trump’s pre-debate press conference with Bill Clinton’s accusers; the pointing and wagging finger; the attempts to shame Hillary Clinton; the baseless yet boisterous claims about his knowledge of foreign policy and the tax code; the constant references to utter disaster and catastrophe; the needling of the moderators and complaints about unfairness—all these were straight out of the Trump playbook going back to the primary season.

Nothing has changed. For Trump does not change. Despite expectations last summer of a post-nomination “pivot” to a more presidential demeanor, it has never happened. Presidential candidate Trump this fall has been no different than the primary candidate Trump of last spring. He is a one-note Donny. And—given the horrendous words on the Access Hollywood tape released last Friday—we can now all quite clearly see that the behind-the-scenes Trump looks a lot like the on-the-stage Trump: intimidating, boisterous, and cruel.

Here, unlike Hillary Clinton and most professional politicians, we have a figure that is of a piece. In Donald Trump we have a man in whom there are few, if any, contradictions. We might even use the word “integrity” if by it we mean only that he is “undivided.”

Of course, all narcissists are undivided: They are wholly devoted to the question of their own worth and importance, having no room to contemplate the meaning of a second-self, a public self, that might be in tension with, even a contradiction with, their first or primary self.

And this is why the lies of Donald Trump are of a different kind than the lies of Hillary Clinton.

Clinton’s lies are strategic; they come from a consciousness of the political stakes of speaking the truth. The professional politician lies, sometimes uncomfortably so, because she knows the truth can help or hurt political power depending on the situation. The professional politician may lie repeatedly, even habitually, but under the sign of the truth. Public scandal is always a real political risk, as truth is always a standard against which the professional politician may be exposed.

Trump’s lies, on the other hand, lack guile altogether. He operates with ample consciousness of the stakes of his words, but with little consciousness of their stakes in relationship to the truth. Rather, Donald Trump’s words are measured in relationship to his own sense of himself. The Clintons—so thoroughly conditioned to the tensions and pivots of public life—are a bundle of contradictions and ripe for scandal by virtue of the gap between their public personae and their private ones. But as we saw again last night, as well as in the Access Hollywood tape, the only real scandal of Donald Trump is Donald Trump.

Ned O’Gorman is Associate Professor and Conrad Humanities Scholar in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America from the Kennedy Assassination to September 11.

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