According to the running tally of the Washington Post, Donald Trump has lied 3,001 times since taking office. That works out to 6.47 lies per day, or one every three hours, more or less, on the assumption that Trump also finds time to sleep six hours a night. The Post hasn’t published a parallel list of the times Trump has told the truth, so it’s hard to know whether he prefers facts to fabrications, or vice versa.
And yet, according to the ongoing average calculated by Five Thirty Eight, Trump’s approval rating has held steady. In recent months, it has even rebounded. Trump has an approval rating of 42 percent, which is identical to what he had at the same time last year. Three hundred sixty-five days of falsehoods, misleading statements and downright lies – never mind Russiagate, nepotism, misogyny, corruption, conflicts of interests et al – seem to have made no difference, especially to those who voted for him in the first place.
Many of them, one assumes, don’t believe he’s lying. They thoroughly distrust the media that reports on the president’s fibs. Others – including, most famously, Christian Evangelicals – simply don’t care. As long as Trump fulfills the bulk of their agenda, they will overlook his lies and give him their approval. Many others, who may disapprove in principle of presidents who say one thing in the morning and another at night, are gradually becoming inoculated against Trump’s falsehoods. They are increasingly willing to judge Trump on the merits of his achievements alone.
For anyone who believes leadership requires a bare minimum of ethical conduct, this is an appalling prospect. His detractors may console themselves with the thought that Trump’s lies will ultimately be his undoing, but his first 15 months in office suggest otherwise. On Friday, U.S. unemployment reached a new low of 3.9 percent, despite Trump’s wildly fanciful boasts of dramatic changes in the U.S. economy since he took office. The New York Stock Exchange has soared, notwithstanding Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of a massive return of jobs from overseas and his equally loopy assault on free trade. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are slated to meet, despite Trump’s mountains of falsities. He may have invented the notion that all three Americans currently being held by North Korea were arrested during Barack Obama’s tenure, even though two were imprisoned after his inauguration, but their release will nonetheless be described as a feather in his cap. And if the Trump-Kim summit produces an unexpected breakthrough that could advance a peaceful resolution of the Korean crisis, Trump will be a leading candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. His approval ratings could go through the roof.
All of which creates a great moral dilemma, a sort of Catch-22, for anyone who sees intrinsic value in truth and still prefers that leaders talk straight, rather than in circles. No rational human being wants Trump to fail in North Korea, or for the American economy to tank, or for his expected decision to abandon the Iran deal to result in Middle East conflagration. Nonetheless, one must live with the depressing thought that each and every one of Trump’s accomplishments strikes a blow against truth and reduces its importance in the eyes of ordinary citizens.
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The same conflict of interests is increasingly prevalent in Israel as well. Benjamin Netanyahu has never been known for sanctifying the truth – remember his Election Day concoction about Israeli Arabs stampeding to the polls – but the pace of his misrepresentations and distortions is constantly accelerating. In recent weeks, he falsely blamed the New Israel Fund for persuading Rwanda to renege on its agreement to accept asylum seekers. He maliciously accused Israeli Arab football fans of booing during a moment of silence for the 10 victims of flash floods. Over the weekend he pursued his perpetual crybaby campaign against the media by claiming that it hadn’t covered the recent visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, because it would supposedly portray him in a positive light. A cursory check, subsequently carried out by diplomatic correspondents, proved him wrong.
Following in Trump’s footsteps, Netanyahu no longer feels the need to retract or apologize for his perversions of truth. He took off his defamatory Facebook post about the booing Israeli Arabs, but found no need to express regret for his recidivist incitement against a fifth of the Israeli population. Trump made Netanyahu realize that his “base” doesn’t care whether he lies or not. The more Netanyahu succeeds in turning the internal Israeli debate into a tribal us vs. them culture war, the less his followers will judge him for his falsehoods. In war, as Greek playwright Aeschylus discerned twenty-five centuries ago, truth is the first casualty.
Netanyahu’s achievements neutralize potential public outrage at his dishonesty. A booming economy and stable security situation have safeguarded the prime minister from paying a heavy political price, not only for his lies, but for the more significant allegations of his criminal behavior as well. Asked to choose between a dishonest prime minister who does well and an inexperienced novice who may be clean as a whistle, Israelis have consistently opted for the former and shied away from the latter.
Even among his critics and opponents, ambivalence necessarily reigns supreme. No rational Israeli wants to see Netanyahu’s obsessive campaign against the Iran nuclear deal blow up in Israel’s face. No one wants the Iranians to succeed in entrenching in Syria. No one wants the occupied territories to erupt in violence, or for Israel to be boycotted internationally or for Israel’s high-tech bubble to burst. Such disasters are deemed too high a price to pay for ridding Israel of Netanyahu’s lies and deceptions.
His new role model Trump is not the first world leader or U.S. president to lie, of course, but he has elevated falsity to a new and brazen level, which cannot but contaminate both U.S. and international politics. Times have changed since Teddy Roosevelt said that uncritical acceptance of a president’s deeds and statements “is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” One is reminded of Joseph Stalin’s infamous response to French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval’s plea to consider the sensitivities of the Vatican. “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?” he asked. Netanyahu and Trump both seem to subscribe to Stalin’s cynical devotion to force and disdain for moral values. Truth, it seems, can’t deploy too many divisions either.