Comment on Godmorgon Världen, Swedish Radio, July 31, 2016.
When lying becomes norm
Lies are of course nothing new in politics. Machiavelli famously advised his proverbial prince to occasionally make ”his words shroud the facts”, assuring him that “princes who have done great things have considered keeping their word of little account”. Immediately adding however, that this must be done “in such a way that no one become aware of it; or, if it should be noticed, excuses must be at hand to be produced immediately”, since it is always better to appear a man of good faith than a man of deception.
The question arising these days is whether the advice of Machiavelli is valid any more.
Not about having words occasionally shroud the facts, here Machiavelli can rest assured, but about doing it without anyone taking notice.
What seems to have occurred is the fact that it doesn’t seem to matter any longer whether the lie of a prince or a politician is noticed or not. That to distressingly many people it doesn’t seem to matter whether a politican appears to be a truth-teller or a liar. That distressingly many people seem to be prepared to vote for an American presidential candidate who openly proclaims that what he said yesterday doesn’t have to be true today. Who in fact has made a virtue of having people not knowing what is true and what is false from one day to another.
Which is the gist of Donald Trump’s repeated answer when he is caught with a lie or a self-contradiction or with having reverted his positions overnight:
“I want to preserve my unpredictability”, says Donald Trump. I do not want to make anyone certain about what I say and believe.
As it becomes clearer by the day that what Donald Trump has to say bears little relation to any ideal of truth or honesty, this is no longer a matter of having words shrouding the facts but of having words make lying the norm.
It is true that Machiavelli also informed his prince that “the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived”, but I find it hard to believe that he could have imagined millions of people willingly being deceived by someone who openly and shamelessly had declared to anyone willing to listen that his truth of today was his lie of tomorrow.
No one can therefore be surprised if the coming American presidential campaign will turn out to be the dirtiest and most deceitful in living memory. It is true that American presidential campaigns have never been a gentleman’s sport, the bar of decency was set low early on. In the campaign of 1928 Andrew Jackson had to hear his mother being called a whore and he himself a bigamist (he became president by a landslide anyway), and in the campaign of 1988 democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was made an accomplice to assault and rape (by George Bush the elder, who went on to win).
But with a candidate who doesn’t even bother to appear as trustworthy, who on the contrary seems to gain support by appearing erratic and unpredictable, there will soon be no bar of decency left to crawl beneath.
This situation is certainly not helped by the systematic erasure of the distinction between truth and lie by a growing army of Internet trolls, large and small, hiding behind undisclosed identities and false agendas, making shameless use of lies, half-truths and selective facts, disseminating distrust in everything and resentment against everybody.
The recent leak of embarrassing e-mail-intrigues within the Democratic National Committee with the purpose of hampering Bernie Sanders’ campaign, might of course be seen as a service to truth, but if the leak was initiated and executed at the initiative of Russia with the purpose of interfering in the US election campaign, then it is not the truth we are being confronted with but with a propaganda lie in new shape.
If lying is allowed to become norm in our democracies, then it is of course only a matter of time before we are being deceived for the last time.