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Beyond 'Routine' Lies: When The Leaders Of The Pack Are Also The Most Dishonest

Julie Wittes Schlack: The fabrications we're hearing from the presidential frontrunners go beyond the standard distortion we've come to expect in political campaigns. In this photo, Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump addresses supporters at a campaign rally, Dec. 21, 2015, in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Carlos Osorio/ AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Julie Wittes Schlack: The fabrications we're hearing from the presidential frontrunners go beyond the standard distortion we've come to expect in political campaigns. In this photo, Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump addresses supporters at a campaign rally, Dec. 21, 2015, in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Carlos Osorio/ AP)

When I was in first grade and living in a place and time when kids routinely walked around the neighborhood by themselves, I’d sometimes go to my friend Alan’s house after school. I was frizzy-haired, he was buck-toothed. I was chubby, he was scrawny. I was shy, he was unfashionably and uncontrollably loud in his enthusiasms. We’d sit on the floor of Alan’s room (which featured a gumball dispenser and a basketball hoop hung low on the back of his door) and I’d listen as he’d tell wild, ridiculous tales about his adventures scuba diving or elephant-riding with his father.

I knew Alan’s stories were inventions, but didn’t challenge them. He knew I wasn’t taken in, but would never acknowledge that he was making them up. This complicity served us well. Alan’s bedroom was a safe place for us each to let our imaginations run wild in partnership with someone whose fantasy life was as rich as our own. We both knew better than to share any of these stories with the other kids at school, a place where we both dwelt awkwardly on the social margins. In Alan’s room, we could take comfort in our isolation and know that our inventions would never leave it.

These people are confabulating to arouse resentment, not to assuage it.

Now, over 50 years later, we’re seeing exactly the opposite dynamic at work in the campaigns of both political parties, but most egregiously among the Republicans. Though I know little of their childhoods, I suspect that the candidates leading in the polls were not the outcasts in first grade, but their tormentors — the schoolyard bullies and mean girls. And rather than spin tall tales in secret, they are broadcasting, repeating — indeed insisting on — their fabrications.

A quick look at the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact checking site Politifact bears this out. The editors and reporters from The Tampa Bay Times who staff it examine the accuracy of claims and assertions made by politicians and others in the public eye, and rate them on a six-point scale: True, Mostly True, Half-True, Mostly False, False and Pants on Fire.

In totaling the statements classified as any of the latter three, I found that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were tied at 28 percent, meaning that just over a quarter of the 140 Clinton statements and 43 Sanders statements checked by Politifact were Mostly False, or False. (None of Sanders’ statements and two of Clinton’s were classified as Pants on Fire.)

Contrast this with the Republican candidates. Only one — Jeb Bush — uttered a lower percentage of falsehoods (22 percent of the 72 statements evaluated). And the three candidates leading the Republican polls also lead the pack in mendacity, with 76 percent of Donald Trump’s statements, 68 percent of Ted Cruz’s, and 84 percent of Ben Carson’s falling into one of the three False buckets. Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Carly Fiorina (whom I’d argue is Trump’s match, if not in the quantity of her lies, certainly in the demagogic quality of them) all score in the mid 50s, solidly occupying the middle tier. Deft as always, Marco Rubio has managed to limit his Falsehoods to 40 percent of the 121 statements evaluated.

I realize there’s nothing newsworthy in saying that people running for office tend to exaggerate and distort. They do it to demonize their opponents, as when Cruz said that Democrats threatened the Catholic Church that they’d use federal powers to shut down church charities and hospitals. They do it to mythologize themselves (as when Clinton recalled landing in Bosnia under sniper fire) and their humble or heroic origins (as when Rubio claimed that his parents were exiles from Castro’s Cuba when in fact they’d become U.S. citizens three years before Castro came to power).

While not admirable or even justifiable, this kind of hyperbole is understandable. Anyone who’s jostled for promotion, competed for a job or a college admission, or simply tried to cope with the scorn or indifference of others, has at some point created a narrative that recasts themselves in a more favorable light. Most of us have done it, and few of us are proud of it.

...never in my lifetime have I heard such a hit parade of incendiary lies, told by bullies to rally other would-be toughs.

But never in my lifetime have I heard such a hit parade of incendiary lies, told by bullies to rally other would-be toughs. Carly Fiorina isn’t being self-aggrandizing when she makes and defends her demagogic and fabricated assertion that she saw a Planned Parenthood video showing “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.' ” Trump’s well-publicized insistence that on 9/11 he saw “thousands and thousands of people in New Jersey cheering … a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down,” or his equally vicious and flagrantly false tweet that blacks kill 81 percent of white homicide victims, are driven by more than mere ambition or personal insecurity.

These people are confabulating to arouse resentment, not to assuage it. They are creating a fictitious “reality” to justify their ideology, not responding to actual conditions with reasonable ideas. In an election for arguably the most powerful position in the world, they are turning reality on its head, seeking to rally the extremist fringe and call it the mainstream.

Though I’m over a half-century past first grade, I’m frightened. And though his little bedroom, with its plaid bedspread and Jean Béliveau poster has probably been razed and replaced by one twice its size, I’d still much rather be listening to awkward Alan’s adventure fantasies over presidential candidates’ lies. At least his weren’t dangerous.

Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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