Most partisans would probably tell you that while their own party's leaders sometimes get a fact wrong here or there, the other side is a bunch of blatant liars, whose contempt for the truth leaves the public in a perpetual cloud of misinformation. We don't have to settle who's right on this question to acknowledge that in politics, there are ordinary tale-tellers and then there's Donald Trump. As he has in so many ways, Trump has upended the usual operation of politics by refusing to play by its rules, written or not.
The presumption that politicians should at least try to speak the truth as often as they can is something most everyone shares, whether Democrats, Republicans, or the news media that cover them. It's that presumption that establishes a basic set of behaviors for all concerned—for instance, that news media will call out lies from politicians when they notice them, that the politicians will try to avoid getting caught in lies, and that when they do, they'll avoid repeating the lie lest they be tagged forevermore as dishonest.
So what do you do when a candidate makes it clear that not only does he not care about the truth, he doesn't care whether everybody knows it? This is the dilemma of covering Donald Trump.
Trump is distinctive in more than one way. First, there's the sheer breadth and character of his falsehoods. Absurd exaggerations, mischaracterizations of his own past, distortions about his opponents, descriptions of events that never occurred, inventions personal and political, foreign and domestic, Trump does it all (you can peruse Politifact's Trump file if you doubt).
In this, he differs from other candidates, who usually have had one distinctive area of dishonesty that characterized them. Some hid things they were embarrassed about or thought would damage them politically, some deceived about their personal histories in order to paint a flattering picture of themselves, and others spun a web of falsehood to gain the public's assent for policies they suspected might not otherwise gain public support. But there has simply never been a candidate who has lied as frequently, as blatantly, and as blithely as Trump.
Then there's the fact that even when Trump gets caught lying, he keeps on repeating the lie. How often does he say that The Art of the Deal is "the number one best-selling business book of all time"? (It isn't.) How many times did he claim that thousands of Muslim Americans gathered on rooftops in New Jersey to cheer the collapse of the World Trade Center, no matter how often he was told it never happened? He has said over and over that he was a vocal opponent of the Iraq War before it began, despite the fact that it's utterly false. This is one of his most spectacular fabrications, because he even claims that "I was visited by people from the White House asking me to sort of, could I be silenced because I seem to get a disproportionate amount of publicity." Although we know he got no publicity for his fictional opposition to the Iraq War because people have checked and he didn't, I have to admit that I can't prove definitively that the Bush administration never sent a delegation to plead with Trump to stop his nonexistent criticism of the war. But the idea is so preposterous that no sane person could believe it. And that was before he charged that Ted Cruz's father was an associate of Lee Harvey Oswald and may have had something to do with the Kennedy assassination.
Unfortunately, as Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler notes, "Trump makes Four-Pinocchio statements over and over again, even though fact checkers have demonstrated them to be false. ... But, astonishingly, television hosts rarely challenge Trump when he makes a claim that already has been found to be false." Just yesterday on Meet the Press, Trump claimed that he wants to change the voting system so that undocumented immigrants will no longer be allowed to cast ballots; a visibly shocked Chuck Todd said, "Well, of course. That is the law as it stands already." To which Trump replied, "No, it's not. I mean, you have places where people just walk in and vote." Todd moved on. Trump also said "We're the highest-taxed nation in the world," another falsehood he often repeats, and which Todd wasn't quick enough to catch.
So does Trump's antagonistic relationship with the truth matter? It depends what we mean when we ask the question. It certainly didn't hurt him in the primaries. Perhaps that's because of the overwhelming force of his personality, or perhaps it's because Republican voters have been told for years that anything the news media tell them is by definition poisoned by liberal bias, so why bother listening to some fact-checker? Trump's supporters may be particularly unconcerned about what's true and what isn't; they were more likely than supporters of Ted Cruz or John Kasich to believe in a wide range of conspiracy theories, among other things.
But like Trump's support more broadly, what didn't hurt him in the primaries did hurt him with the general electorate. Trump may have triumphed in the GOP contest, but along the way he acquired unfavorable ratings in the 60s, and one poll found only 27 percent of Americans rating him as honest and trustworthy.
But the electoral effects of Trump's blizzard of baloney are only part of the story; we also have to ask what his untruthfulness tells us about the kind of president he'd be. Unfortunately, we in the media don't always go about assessing honesty in ways that help voters understand its implications for the presidency. For instance, in 2000, George W. Bush was portrayed as a man who, though a bit dim, was positively brimming with homespun integrity. Only a few observers noted that Bush regularly dissembled about his record as governor of Texas and the content of his policy proposals, which suggested that even if he might be faithful to his wife, as president he might not be honest about matters of policy. And he wasn't, with some rather serious consequences. His predecessor, on the other hand, saw all kinds of questions of honesty raised about him during the 1992 campaign. And it turned out that like Bush, Bill Clinton's prior behavior provided a good preview of what he'd do in the White House: As a candidate he tried to cover up his extramarital affairs, and as a president he, guess what, tried to cover up an extramarital affair.
In Trump's case, though, his whoppers are so wide-ranging that it's almost impossible to find a topic area about which he wouldn't dissemble. He lies to foment hatred against minority groups. He lies about the condition of the country. He lies about what his opponents have said or done. He lies about his own past. It's hard to foresee that a President Trump would act any differently than candidate Trump does, and what would it mean if no one could trust anything the president tells them?
People who live in dictatorships with a captive press often assume that whatever the government says is bogus by definition. Needless to say, that kind of relationship between the government and the governed is not conducive to popular legitimacy or any kind of problem-solving that requires public involvement. With Donald Trump in the White House offering a daily delivery of fibs and fabrications, it isn't hard to imagine that the public would conclude that the government is nothing more than a second-rate reality show, worthy of little attention or regard. Imagine what he could get away with then.