Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Is Trump Sui Generis

Mark Graber

Donald Trump is a liar who is profoundly in love with himself.  Whether these sociopathic and narcissistic tendencies make him sui generis is more controversial.  My previously expressed view is that Trump, who won the Republican nomination fair and square, exhibits the tendencies of the modern Republican Party.  Republicans who denounce Trump claim Trump is an accident who is not a fair representation of the GOP leadership.  The non-partisan organization PolitiFact suggests a third alternative.  Trump is fairly representative of the politicians favored by the most influential wing of the Republican Party, but not of the most establishment wing of that party.  

PolitiFact evaluates the truthfulness of fact claims political actors make when campaigning or governing.  Their surveys evaluate statements as “true,” “mostly true,” “half-true,” “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire” ridiculous.  For purposes of simplicity, the below analysis treats as true those statements that PolitiFact evaluates as either true or mostly true, and false those statements that PolitiFact evaluates as mostly false, false and pants on fire ridiculous. Half-truths are left out, which is why the percentages do not add up to one-hundred.

The data have interesting features that transcend present presidential politics.  Even the most honest presidential candidates and politicians do not tell the truth one time in four.  If we would label an adult a sociopath who lied 25% of the time, then the United States is governed by sociopaths.  Our Congressional leadership is particularly prone to falsehood.  Paul Ryan (34-42), Mitch McConnell (36-46), Nancy Pelosi (17-44) and Harry Reid (37-51) make more false than true claims (the numbers reflect percentages).  If a politician makes a long speech with numerous fact claims, some will almost certainly be false.  Nevertheless, so-called “balanced reporting” that highlights the lies every candidate tells fails to inform the public that some politicians tell the truth far more than others. Considerable variance, in particular, exists in the truth percentages of candidates for the presidency. 

Partisanship explains much of the variance in truth-telling and lying among presidents and candidates for the presidency.  Democrats in the executive branch or running for the executive branch are twice as likely to make true statements than false statements.  Hillary Clinton (50-27), Barack Obama (48-26), Bernie Sanders (52-26), Tim Kaine (50-24) are particularly truthful, at least when compared to all other prominent political actors. Joe Biden (40-33) is more truthful than not.  The two most prominent establishment Republicans who ran for president in 2016, Jeb Bush (48-31) and John Kasich (52-32), are almost, but not quite as truthful as prominent Democrats.  Establishment Republicans who actively seek support from evangelicals and Tea Party members, John McCain (40-42), Marco Rubio (36-41) and Mitt Romney (31-42), are considerably less truthful.  Those Republicans who represent the now dominant insurgencies within the party lie routinely.  The numbers suggest such luminaries as Sarah Palin (23-56), Ben Carson (7-82), Ted Cruz (22-65), Rick Perry (29-47), Michael Pence (20-50), and Donald Trump (15-70) stumble upon true assertions largely by accident.

This evidence supports, with important qualifications, the good faith of Bush-Kasich Republicans (i.e., the Republican defense establishment) who have recently denounced Trump.  Trump’s behavior is far different than the persons they believe most qualified to govern the United States.  Their favorites are relative truth tellers.  Trump is not.  The first qualification is that, contrary to some popular literature (see a particularly poorly argued piece by Jonathan Rauch in The Atlantic), no equivalence exists between Trump and Sanders that merits an implicit bargain whereby Republicans who denounce Trump today should be able to ask Democrats  to denounce Sanders or a Sanders-like candidate in 2020/2024.  Sanders is a strong truth-teller, at least when measured against his peers.  Trump is a barefaced liar, even by the low standards of contemporary American politics.

The second qualification is that the evidence demonstrates that Trump is not sui generis in his incapacity for truth-telling.  He is typical of the candidates who appeal to the present ascendant wing of the Republican Party.  Trump is more successful than Perry, Cruz, Palin, or Carson because he is a more effective liar, not because he has a statistically significant tendency to lie more.  Both establishment Republicans in particular and Americans in general must find a way to change a constitutional culture in which a majority of voters in one party clear prefer candidates whose programs belong in the fiction section of the library.  Denouncing Trump and Trump only as an outlier in American constitutional politics ignores the true threat to American constitutional democracy.   Should, as appears probable, Clinton wins the election, Trump may go away, but if present tendencies continue, his replacement is more likely to be an even better liar than an establishment Republican who does not think "facts are stupid things."

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