Politics & Policy

The Post-Reality Election

Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Fredericksburg, Va., August 20, 2016. (Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
When did candidates start insisting that the obvious truth wasn’t true?

One of the more surreal things about the 2016 campaign is the frequency with which the candidates insist that the reality we’re seeing and hearing is false, asking us to believe them and not our own eyes and ears.

In November, Donald Trump promised to create a “deportation force” to deal with the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants if he was elected president. “They’re going back where they came [from],” he declared. Wednesday night, in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, he indicated he’s no longer convinced that mass deportation is necessary: “Can we go through a process, or do you think they have to get out? Tell me. I mean, I don’t know.”

Thursday morning, Trump’s dutiful spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, insisted once again that her boss’s sterling consistency was being misinterpreted.  “There’s not a different message. He’s using different words to give that message.”

Everyone saw and heard Trump’s words; everyone who reacted with surprise understood what all of the words in his sentences meant. Trump did not speak in a foreign language, subtle code, complicated metaphors, or veiled literary allusions. The plain meaning was clear: Trump had begun to back away from a central promise of his campaign. And yet Pierson insisted that everyone around her was wrong; she denied the reality everyone had just witnessed.

At the same time that Trump was dispensing his now-familiar brand of truthiness to Hannity’s audience, Hillary Clinton was seeking to assure CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the complicated and shady financial dealings of her family foundation were on the up and up. “I know there’s a lot of smoke, and there’s no fire,” she said. This was perverse to say the least: The adage is, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and that’s what common sense and experience tells us. But in Clinton’s telling, smoke should not be taken as evidence of fire. It’s like she’s citing an ancient proverb from her own personal alternate reality.

After it emerged that Melania Trump’s speech to the Republican National Convention had been plagiarized from a speech by Michelle Obama, the Trump campaign denied the charge, even though several sections were word-for-word identical. For days, they insisted the overlap was coincidental. “To think that she would be cribbing Michelle Obama’s words is crazy,” Paul Manafort said. A few days later, Meredith McIver, a speechwriter for the Trump Organization, said she had accidentally included the plagiarized material after Melania Trump read aloud sections of Mrs. Obama’s speech over the phone.

Those who believed Trump’s speech had been plagiarized weren’t crazy; they merely recognized the reality of the situation while the Trump camp asked surrogates and supporters to deny it.

Meanwhile, Clinton keeps telling audiences, “As the FBI said, everything that I’ve said publicly has been consistent and truthful with what I’ve told them.” Anyone who has followed Clinton’s e-mail scandal at all knows this isn’t true. Most of us watched FBI director James Comey’s press conference, in which he made clear what she’d spent months denying: Her e-mails contained classified information.

Earlier this month, as questions about the Clinton Foundation grew more urgent, the campaign deployed former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm to CNN to insist, “She has abided by the ethics agreement she signed at the beginning” of her time in charge at Foggy Bottom. Except that under the ethics agreement, the Clinton Foundation promised to get State Department approval for any financial donation from a country that had not donated before . . . and then forgot to check on a $500,000 donation from Algeria in 2010. An ethics agreement doesn’t matter if the parties can just ignore or conveniently “forget” about it.

In this election cycle, the quickest way to success is to offer a fanciful alternate reality, free of trade-offs, compromises, costs, or consequences.

#related#The candidates themselves deserve plenty of blame for this new normal, but deep down their habits reflect the electorate’s desires. On the whole, American voters chose to avert their eyes from difficult realities, refusing to make difficult choices and always picking the candidate who tells them they can have the best of both worlds. We want to defeat ISIS but avoid war. We want a safer, more stable, less dangerous world, and we want our troops to come home. We want a health-insurance system that gives everyone the best care from the doctor of his or her choice, and we want that care to be dirt cheap, if not completely free. We want the minimum wage to be higher, and we want more opportunities for new workers to get entry-level jobs. We want to enjoy buying all of the cheaper goods imported from overseas even as we rail against the loss of American jobs to foreign competition.

We are so adamant in our desire to have everything both ways that we lash out at those who tell us it isn’t possible. It’s easy to see, then, how it might behoove our politicians to pretend that we’re right. Don’t like what you just heard or learned? Insist it’s a lie. Insist it’s taken out of context. Insist the source isn’t trustworthy. Choose to believe your own alternate reality.

It’s a lot easier to live in denial, but we’ll all regret it later.

— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.

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