Election 2016

The Lies From Trump, Clinton, and Obama That We Choose To Believe

"We don't pay ransom for hostages" and other obvious falsehoods from the past week.


Contemporary politics, explained in one chart

The past few days have featured several spectacular instances of would-be presidents and an actual president lying their faces off. Depending on your partisan and ideological affiliations, you have probably chosen to believe some of the lies while calling attention to vileness of the folks with whom you disagree. Congratulations, you—we—are part of the problem.

Can we at least agree that we are living in a post-fact world? Hell, maybe we always have. Such an admission might be the start of a productive reset, at least when it comes to politics. Here are three examples to illustrate the depth and breadth of the problem.

Example 1: Donald Trump and the Amazing, Disappearing Jetliner Full of Cash for Iran. Earlier this week, the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, testified several times yesterday that he watched a video in which $400 million in cash paid to Iran earlier this year was "pouring off of a plane." He repeated this claim even after his own campaign denied its validity. In fact, there is no such video, plain and simple, or (same thing) no video that Donald Trump has ever seen. Eventually, even The Donald had to retreat from his blatant falsehood:

Example 2: Hillary Clinton's Straightfaced Denialism of Very Basic Reality, James Comey Edition. Last Sunday on Fox News, host Chris Wallace laid out very clearly and precisely a series of statements made by Hillary Clinton about the level and amount of confidential material that passed through her personal email server while acting as Secretary of State. As Jacob Sullum noted earlier at Reason,

"On July 5, the day he recommended against prosecuting Clinton for her "extremely careless" handling of "very sensitive, highly classified information," Comey directly refuted Clinton's claim that retroative classification accounts for any official secrets that may have made their way into her email. "From the group of 30,000 emails returned to the State Department," he said, "110 emails in 52 email chains have been determined by the owning agency to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received [emphasis added]."

Clinton's response to Wallace is priceless, partly because it's delivered in a countenance suggesting she could be the all-time champ on the old game show Make Me Laugh (which awarded prizes based to contestants who never cracked a smile while comedians told jokes): "Chris, that's not what I heard Director Comey say."

Only the most in-the-tank zealot could insist that Clinton is not full of beans on this score. For anyone undecided who can still be convinced, watch this:

Example 3: The Great Iranian-Hostage-Release Coincidence & Good-Timing, $400-Million Miracle. Back to Iran: As The Wall Street Journal reported recently, the U.S. government flew $400 million in currency to Iran in January, just as long-held American hostages were being released by the Islamic Republic. This raises an obvious question: Was the payment actually ransom? "We do not pay ransom for hostages," said Obama when asked about it. But as Eli Lake at Bloomberg View notes, that's a total, bald-faced lie. Of course we pay ransom for hostages and have been doing so for decades. In fact, that's especially the case

when it comes to Iran…, ransom payments are standard operating procedure. It goes back to the Reagan administration. In the early 1980s, Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy in Lebanon, had taken several Americans hostage. In 1984, the Reagan administration began what it had hoped was an opening to Iranian moderates (sound familiar?). Eventually, that secret diplomacy turned into a deal to exchange anti-tank missiles from Israel for the release of hostages in Lebanon. The profits from the arms sale later went to fund the Nicaraguan Contras, but that's another story.

Reagan didn't get his story straight at first. In an address in November 1986 he acknowledged the arms sale, but insisted it was not part of a deal to free the hostages. By March 1987, Reagan came clean to the American people and acknowledged the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran.

Obama supporters claim that the $400 million payment was in the works for years now, don't you understand, and the bizarre timing doesn't suggest anything about payments for hostages. If that's the case, someone should get on the Don Ameche with Tehran immediately since, Lake writes, "Since releasing the four U.S. citizens in January, the regime has arrested two more Iranian-Americans and detained other Westerners. The Wall Street Journal reports that friends and family of two captives say Iran wants more cash or a prisoner exchange." Of course, the payment was ransom. (And let's not pretend that this is the only dissembling done by the Obama administration. It's simply the most recent. See here for early instances.).

Now, you can argue that paying ransom for hostages is or isn't a bad idea, or that Hillary has to deny any wrongdoing related to her email scandal, and that Trump suffers from some sort of neurological condition that impairs his reality-testing, or whatever. But let's not pretend, shall we, that these people are not recidivist bullshit artists.

Sure, the internet and other technologies allow us to live in an ideological bubble that is virtually impervious to non-confirming information and data.

Vaclav Havel
David Sedlecký, Wikimedia, Creative Commons

But it's equally and even more true that we live in the Age of Transparency where the whole world can fact-check your ass (including mine!). The best way forward, especially in a time when confidence and trust in major institutions are flopping quicker than Cristiano Ronaldo in UEFA play, is for the people in charge of our politics to actually argue in good faith. Failing that, it's up to us little people, regardless of ideological predispositions, to hold our own folks as accountable as possible. My colleague Matt Welch is fond of citing Vaclav Havel, the great Czech writer, dissident and, later, politician on the subject of insisting on truth in everyday discourse. One of Havel's greatest essays, "The Power of the Powerless," was published in "post-totalitarian" Czechoslovokia in 1979, under circumstances that are virtually incomprehensible in 21st-century America. And yet, Havel's call to "live within the truth" is relevant to contemporary discourse.

We would do well to heed his warning that "Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them." And we'd make not just the 2016 election but our country's future much better if we insisted on calling bullshit where we find it, even or especially when spoken by our politicial allies.