Democratic politics is riven by a central conflict: the conflict between truth and desire. People generally want things; they want government to give them those things. Conservatives aren’t wrong when they say they can’t compete with Santa Claus — it’s far harder to draw voters to your side by telling them they won’t get something than by telling them that they’ll get real estate on the moon.
But thankfully, there is another human tendency that helps counteract the desire to receive from the government: the natural outrage at being lied to. Human beings aren’t fond of being promised the moon and then delivered moldy cheese.
This means that voters will support politicians who lie credibly, then turn radically on those politicians when those lies don’t work out. The result: a wildly variant politics in which nobody ever tells the truth — because telling the truth means avoiding the promises that get you elected.
The Founders laid out a way of dealing with this conflict between wanting to be lied to and hating to be lied to: They attempted to minimize the benefit of lying for politicians. Limited government made lying less worthwhile. Who would believe that a politician would use the government to provide “free” things when the government itself was banned from providing free things?
But with the rise of progressive government beginning in the early 20th century, the central conflict at the root of democracy took hold. For generations, conservatives struggled with the temptation to simply lie for political convenience and pay the cost later. Some, like Nixon, campaigned on big-government promises and paid for it with big-government failures. Others, like Reagan, campaigned on small-government truths and benefited from keeping their promises.
Now, however, the struggle seems to be over.
President Trump represents the notion, ascendant in Republican circles, that the only way to win elections is to fib to the American people. Power is its own justification, and there is no better way to demonstrate power than by promulgating a big lie. That fits with Trump’s view of the world, in which success is its own virtue.
Trump spent most of his adulthood attempting to win friends and admirers in the upper-crust circles of Manhattan; he struggled with the fact that he was treated as a nouveau riche vulgarian. His solution: Embrace the vulgarity, brag about victories he never won, and turn the art of the sell into his persona. For Trump, the greatest sin isn’t lying or cheating: It’s losing. That’s why he spends an inordinate amount of verbiage calling his opponents “losers” or “failing,” as though victory and defeat amount to some sort of moral status.
Americans can re-enshrine the Founders’ bargain by limiting government to minimize the impact of lying politicians.
After eight years of President Obama, many Republicans were prepared to embrace Trump’s ethos. That became particularly apparent after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, which Republicans attributed not to his overly cerebral civility but to his fundamental decency. The theory became prevalent in conservative circles that Romney had lost not only because he wouldn’t fight hard enough but also because he wouldn’t fight dirty enough. Establishment conservatives conflated civility and decency; anti-establishment conservatives made the same mistake. Instead of stating that a less civil but similarly decent candidate could have won in 2012, anti-establishment conservatives concluded that it would take an uncivil, indecent person to defeat Democrats.
And that, of course, was the ultimate purpose: defeating Democrats. Not truth, not a enacting a conservative agenda, but defeating Democrats: the lesser of two evils. Sure, Trump would make big-government promises, sound like a statist on health care and trade and economics. But he’d win, don’t you see? And his dishonesty would all be worthwhile, since he’d then pursue policies conservatives would like.
Trump’s victory rewarded that theory. But the theory is untenable.
It’s untenable because conservatives don’t seek the same policy results that leftists do. That means that Trump’s promises are bound to come up empty. And that means that Trump and the Republicans have placed themselves back on the horns of an ancient dilemma: They can lie to the people by promising them free things, but those things won’t materialize.
That, after all, is exactly what happened to President Obama. Obama remained personally popular for his entire presidency. But his chief achievements are on the verge of destruction because he lied: He told people they could have everything, and then he delivered less than that. He told Americans that they could keep their doctors if they liked them; they couldn’t. He told Americans that they would not see rising premiums; they did. He said that he’d be fiscally responsible, but at the same time, he was blowing out the budget. His lies caught up with him.
And if Republicans lie — as they have, in making guarantees about health care that mirror Democrats’ lies — they’ll pay the price, too.
There are only two directions from here: up and down.
Up: Americans realize that politicians who guarantee them free things are lying to them, and they react by re-enshrining the Founders’ bargain, limiting government to minimize the impact of lying politicians.
Down: Americans distrust everyone in politics but simultaneously embrace the lies of their own side, justifying tissue-thin conspiracy theories that put the other side at a disadvantage, breaking down the social fabric and the political discourse until all faith in the system disappears completely.
The choice is up to us. But whether we like it or not, truth will have its day. We can either acknowledge and celebrate the fact that power isn’t worth sacrificing truth, or we can lose both power and truth in the worshipful pursuit of power alone.