Many Trump Supporters Like That He Has Perfected the Dark Art of Lying With a Straight Face - This Gives Them the Freedom to Do the Same Thing

Election '16

Among the left, debate rages between those who think Trump and Clinton are comparable liars and those who think Trump is incomparably worse.

I side with the latter, but I don’t make my case based on comparative lie tallies, nor because I think they’re false equivalents. I think their strategies for dealing with a new era in politics are fundamentally opposite. Clinton tries to be consistent; Trump doesn’t. He has landed on the oldest, most dangerous trick in the autocrat’s book, the formula for doing whatever he wants and getting away with it, a formula not just admired by his supporters but one they emulate eagerly.

Today, a politician’s hypocrisy can be recorded, tracked and exposed as never before. Clinton’s response is caginess. Like any traditional candidate, she attends to the political cost of inconsistency. Her caginess backfires sometimes, as when she didn't acknowledge having pneumonia immediately. But contrary to popular impression, she is no more slippery than the rest of us would be in her situation. A female hardball politician under high gender-prejudiced scrutiny for more than 35 years can’t afford to appear inconsistent.

You would be cagey too if you lived inside Clinton's political pressure cooker. In contrast, Donald Trump demonstrates how to escape from that pressure cooker.

Trump is not the master communicator some say he is. He’s a psychopath who has perfected the dark art of lying with a straight face. With this one trick he has gained the freedom to be infinitely hypocritical. He is consistent about only one thing: his consistency.

Of all the creepy ways he has garnered support, this is the most important and most overlooked. He is the current and best-ever salesman for the GOP’s core offering, a recipe for personal unaccountability. Trump demonstrates how to achieve total personal emancipation from pressure to be consistent, and his enthusiastic supporters are learning the lying lick as fast as they can. Talk to any Trump supporter and you hear them practicing.

They admire and emulate his "straight talk," which in a perverse way it is. Trump feigns straight-arrow consistency by declaring everyone who gets in his way crooked. His is a self-winding movement. Like a self-winding watch, it winds itself up no matter how you shake it. Agreeing with him confirms them. Disagreeing with them confirms them.

The two candidates appeal to different voters, but also to different impulses in each of us. Like Clinton, most of us try to appear consistent. Consistency makes us reliable, predictable, useful and therefore popular. When people know what to expect from us, they’re freed from the hard work of second-guessing.

But do any of us really like having to be reliable? Of course not. What we’d love is a double standard, holding others accountable but not ourselves.

None of us are consistent by nature. We all have double standards. If anything is hardwired in us, it’s that: a consequence of our nerve endings not extending into each other’s bodies.

My pain hurts me more than it hurts you. Your pain hurts you more than it hurts me. Feeling your pain is optional for me; feeling my own pain is neurologically mandatory. We all attend to the costs to ourselves more than to the costs to others.

If we felt other people’s pain as acutely as we feel our own, we’d all be driven crazy. A side effect of sanity is an innate double standard.

Even setting aside this innate hypocrisy, there are still plenty of reasons we’re all naturally inconsistent. The world flips coins in that chance plays a role in what happens. We flip therefore between two sides of a coin in our dealings with it. We bet on outcomes and pretend that our bets are sure things when we know they aren’t.

We claim to live by one-insight-fits-all principles when actually we’re all stuck dealing with universal dilemmas. We’re torn between wanting immediate and long-term gratification. We want tolerance, which makes us intolerant of intolerance. We want honesty but it better be flattering. We want a fair contest we’re guaranteed to win.

Above all, we want to appear unambivalently consistent even though we’re not. Life is experienced in shades of dubious gray but must often be lived with black-and-white consistency, at least if we want to prove reliable to others.

From this perspective, the election becomes a referendum on two sides of each us—the side that strives to be consistent and the side that would like to escape the pressure to be. Trump demonstrates how to escape scrutiny, even in this era of hyper-vigilant monitoring for hypocrisy. 

Watching him is like watching a fellow inmate who has figured out how to block the surveillance cameras and get away with anything. Of course we would envy him. We would want to learn his trick so we too could express our inconsistencies unchecked. Trump is showing us the evasive way out.

Our appetite for such role models is expressed not just in politics. Anti-heroes in fiction (especially TV mini-series: The Sopranos, House of Cards, Boardwalk Empire, The Americans and Narcos to name just a few) are unflinching Trump-like liars at the top of their game getting away with murder. Sometimes they get their comeuppance, but often they don’t. We love and hate them. Part of us would love to be just like them, just as we would love to be like Trump, a one-trick phony who on the cheap buys the freedom to exercise unconstrained inconsistency.

And part of us is already like them. We the voters get away with inconsistency. Most, if not all of us are hyper-vigilant hypocrites policing others by different standards that we don’t hold for ourselves. We let candidates pander and flatter with the lie that the voters only want the straight obvious path to virtue, as though we the people aren’t ambivalent about anything.

We play Monday morning quarterback, translating, “in retrospect, she should have done this,” into the self-flattering “I would have done this.” We put ourselves in candidate’s shoes, but not their pressure cooker. We imagine what pure things we would do if we were in charge, not taking into account how hard it is to do pure things given our political system. We treat politicians as though they were pathological mutants and revel smugly in their folly.

This is a culture war, but different. It’s not about traditional values vs. progress. It’s basically about three ways to address and present our inconsistencies; a moral question, really.

Ideally we would all be consistent, unambivalent and un-hypocritical. But short of that, which is better: To strive to remain consistent when you aren’t (as Clinton does), to formulaically claim you’re consistent when you aren’t (as Trump does)?

Or a third possibility: Leaders who taught us gradually to embrace our own ambivalences and drop our hypocritical claim that we’re not inconsistent; other people are.

Short-term, I’m for Clinton’s approach, U.S. politics as usual. It’s much better than politics as usual around the world and across history. Long-term, I’m for a third option. We need candidates who bring Trump’s confidence to honest admission to inconsistency. To be able to say with a straight face, “I am torn; we are torn,” is both powerful and honorable. To stand, dignified yet corrected, is a most honorable thing.

It’s also not impossible. To a large extent, President Obama has pulled this off. There are bright new stars of self-effacing humor who have mastered the art of inviting people to laugh at them with them about their own inconsistencies: Louis CK, Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Amy Schumer and Samantha Bee to name a few.

If we’re lucky enough, we may someday get the candidates we deserve, candidates who know how to lead us into recognition of our own double standards and inconsistencies, candidates who make us feel heard but unpampered, experiencing life as murky gray areas while trying to be as black-and-white consistent as possible so we can be reliable, bearable company for each other.

That’s what democracy demands. That’s what it means to live in a country oxymoronically named the United States, a name that describes us collectively and individually. We are each of us united states, a diversity of opinions striving for manageable, reasonable consistency.

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