A cynical old joke goes like this. Question: How can you tell when politicians are lying? Answer: Their lips move.
Another version, sometimes told about politics, sometimes about acting, sales work or life in general, goes like this: The secret to success in politics is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
Notwithstanding the need to fight against excessive cynicism, and acknowledging the widespread perception among her detractors that Hillary Clinton is a liar of epic proportions, Donald Trump’s success at faking sincerity is a staggering achievement.
To my eyes, Trump has elevated lying and doubletalk to new heights. He lies, then he doubles down on the lie, then he changes it to a slightly more convenient lie.
The journalistic sites that check the accuracy of politicians’ statements are full of examples. Yet Trump dispatched his last Republican rival by labeling him “Lyin’ Ted,” and moved on to attacking “Crooked Hillary” as a “world-class liar.”
And it works for him. There is little doubt in my mind that, to those who admire and support him, part of Trump’s appeal is that in an age so-called “political correctness,” when certain truths are censored, Trump tells it like it is.
To me, this isn’t right at all. Telling it like it is means, for starters, getting your facts right. Trump’s relationship to factuality is casual at best, contemptuous at worst. Telling it like it is also means that when you get your facts wrong, and this is called to your attention, you retract, apologize if necessary, and try harder to get your facts right in the future. Trump has made a virtue of never retracting or apologizing. I gather that, among some of his supporters, this passes for some kind of strength. To me, it’s the opposite.
Anyway, not to dance around the point too long, many Trump critics believe that Trump’s whole shtick relies heavily on thinly coded appeals to various forms of racial, gender and religious prejudice, the kind of not-quite-explicit but easily decoded messages that in past cycles have been called racist “dog whistles,” referring to the kind of whistle that dogs can hear but humans cannot. To me, communicating in dog whistles is also the opposite of telling it like it is.
So I just wanted to call attention to a smart piece in Wednesday’s New York Times that explores this. Times reporter Nicholas Confessore makes the rude connection between support for Trump and racism, sexism, Islamophobia. Trump, who has publicly claimed to “the least racist person,” courageously declined to be interviewed for the story, so the piece lacks his input, which would surely have clarified everything.
But the cool thing Confessore did was talk to people in the alleged target audience, white males who not only harbor resentments over the perceived decline in white male dominance of America, but who were willing to make explicit what Trump tries to keep ever-so-slightly unstated, including some who appreciate his knack for sending out a message that they take as sympathy for their grievances but for maintaining a level of deniability necessary to remain politically viable.
For example, from the Confessore piece:
This year, for the first time in decades, overt white nationalism re-entered national politics. In Iowa, a new ‘super PAC’ paid for pro-Trump robocalls featuring Jared Taylor, a self-described race realist, and William Johnson, a white nationalist and the chairman of the American Freedom Party. (‘We don’t need Muslims,’ Mr. Taylor urged recipients of the calls. ‘We need smart, well-educated white people who will assimilate to our culture. Vote Trump.’)
Some are elated by the turn. In making the explicit assertion of white identity and grievance more widespread, Mr. Trump has galvanized the otherwise marginal world of avowed white nationalists and self-described ‘race realists.’ They hail him as a fellow traveler who has driven millions of white Americans toward an intuitive embrace of their ideals: that race should matter as much to white people as it does to everyone else. He has freed Americans, those activists say, to say what they really believe.
But on the flatlands of social media, the border between Mr. Trump and white supremacists easily blurs. He has retweeted supportive messages from racist or nationalist Twitter accounts to his nine million followers. Last fall, he retweeted a graphic with fictitious crime statistics claiming that 81 percent of white homicide victims in 2015 were killed by blacks. (No such statistic was available for 2015 at the time; the actual figure for 2014 was 15 percent, according to the F.B.I.)
In January and February, he retweeted messages from a user with the handle @WhiteGenocideTM, whose profile picture is of George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party. A couple of days later, in quick succession, he retweeted two more accounts featuring white nationalist or Nazi themes. Mr. Trump deleted one of the retweets, but white supremacists saw more than a twitch of the thumb. ‘Our Glorious Leader and ULTIMATE SAVIOR has gone full wink-wink-wink to his most aggressive supporters,’ Mr. Anglin wrote on The Daily Stormer.
The discussion that white Americans never want to have is this question of identity — who are we?” said Richard Spencer, 38, a writer and activist whose Montana-based nonprofit is dedicated to “the heritage, identity and future of people of European descent” in the United States. “He is bringing identity politics for white people into the public sphere in a way no one has.”