After Donald Trump gave an interview to WKBT-TV in Wisconsin, the national press focused on the candidate’s aversion to changing tactics to increase his appeal. “I am who I am. It’s me,” he said. “I don’t want to change.” He would not “pivot.”
Mostly ignored was an intriguing nugget deeper in the interview, one that made me reconsider my whole outlook on the Republican nominee and his frequent lies and untruths. For months, I’ve taken his mendacity about his wealth, his tax returns, President Obama’s place of birth, the behavior of Muslim Americans on 9/11, Ted Cruz’s father, the integrity of American elections, his support for the Iraq War, and scores of other matters that arise in the course of his rallies, interviews, and other doings as evidence of amoral opportunism and poor character.
While I never believed that he would “pivot” and refrain from spreading falsehoods of outrageous proportions, I held him personally responsible for his mendacity.
I thought that he was choosing to be dishonest.
But perhaps Trump has less of a choice than I imagined.
“I don't want to change,” he said later in the interview. “Everyone talks about 'Oh, are you gonna pivot?' I don't want to pivot. I mean you have to be you.” Then he delivered this line: “If you start pivoting,” he said, “you are not being honest with people."
See what I mean?
From the start, Trump has been himself on the trail. That has meant near-constant calculated lies and false statements made carelessly with little or no regard for the truth. Lots of politicians lie to save their own skin (like Bill Clinton lying about Monica Lewinsky and Hillary Clinton lying about the reason she set up a private email server), or to fudge past positions, as when Mitt Romney pretended he never flip-flopped.
But any way that one measures dishonesty—frequency, degree, diversity of subjects, outrageousness, shamelessness—Dishonest Donald is in his very own category:
Perhaps he is, at his core, a liar and a bullshitter. Perhaps to stop telling outrageous lies about rivals and misleading the public, Trump would have to go against his own nature—to cease being his true self. Who could ask that in our era? Not Oprah. Not Gwyneth. Not Newt or Chris Christie or Corey Lewandowski. Consider the double-bind Trump may face. To conduct himself daily as an honest man does would be to live a lie! A Joseph Heller protagonist for our times.
This inverse George Washington—I cannot tell a truth!—would suffer in an alternate reality where he cared about the consequences of attacking folks falsely, mass misinformation, stiffing creditors, filing bogus lawsuits, and exploiting the working class.
For Trump, there’s good news—he cares so blissfully little about the harms that his lies cause other people. But there is bad news for him, too: A man who lies enough to be an extreme outlier, even among the ranks of professional politicians, who isn’t even the least bit ashamed or embarrassed when caught, is unfit for the presidency. Whether he chooses his dishonesty or is trapped into one form of it or another by a duplicitous nature is an intriguing question. But for voters, it is beside the point. Regardless, the attendant damages and uncertainties are too great to risk. If only he’d conclude that wanting to be president is another lie, one he told himself. For that, I’d proclaim him the very best liar. Is that consolation prize enough to quit?