Shades of Truth

We are all wizards at the art of self-deception. It’s why the flimflam man and the carnival barker succeed, while the poor soul that earned a degree in history spends his career at Starbucks making Pumpkin Spice Lattes.

It may also explain the central conundrum of the current presidential election. Polls consistently show that voters believe Donald Trump is more honest than Hilary Clinton.

This is an unsettling distortion in the fabric of our democracy. Even the Grand Old Potentates who’ve drunk the Kool-Aid from the Trump cup have to admit that. By any objective measure Hilary Clinton is running the more honest campaign. And by a margin so large that it makes the mainstream media look like chumps when they try to treat the two with some sort of objective equivalency.

Political analysts have been scrambling to make some sense of the phenomenon. The Economist magazine tells us we’re living in a time of “post-truth” politics, as if the grim predictions in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four have at last arrived.

But I think what’s going on here is more human than all that, buried somewhere deep in our emotional core.

We have a soft spot in our hearts for the magnificent liar. The street hustler. The jet-setting mountebank. The bad cowboy. Professional wrestling. Don Draper. Unabashed charlatans all. Yet we can’t help but like them.

It’s the person who shades the truth that makes us squirm.

This is neither fair nor intelligent. The big lies are the ones that do all the damage, draining our retirement savings into Ponzi schemes and dropping monkey wrenches into the workings of our institutions. A voice with a thick Russian accent calls on the telephone and says he’s from the IRS. Before you know it he has all the passwords to the bank accounts.

We fall for it time and again. The big whopper skates right past our defenses, while the person caught up in small inconsistencies gets heaped with invective. Maybe it’s that the shader of truth is little too close to our own situation for comfort. Most often it’s someone trying to balance too many realities at one time. You’re a Mom, former First Lady, Secretary of State of the world’s sole remaining superpower, and you forget to pay attention when the guy from down in office services is telling you how to use the company email. Then suddenly it’s a problem, and there you are trying to work backward and see if you can get yourself out of it following the same slippery path that got you in. This sort of thing is red meat dipped in honey to a congressional investigating committee.

And so the fierce whisperings proceed, the dried voices described by T.S. Eliot as rats’ feet over broken glass. In response Hillary Clinton shaves the explanation ever more carefully. Decent folk wonder if we’ll ever find a path back to the light.

Yet in the end I don’t want to agree with the assessment of The Economist, if only because it leaves so little hope. Truth is still a bright sword if only someone will wield it. And the debates approach.

I’ve read that Clinton’s people are schooling her in ways to bait Trump, hoping to make him blow his top on stage and look un-fit for the presidency. This is unhelpful. Even if she succeeds it merely demonstrates what everyone already knows and so many have chosen to ignore (we’re wizards at self-deception, remember?). Worse, it might come off as manipulative and plow her likeability score further into the cornfield.

If I was a candidate with a trust problem and an opponent who fibs at near sociopathic levels I’d see the debates as a golden opportunity to take up the cause of truth itself. Facts have been so ill-used by politicians of late that I think people are finally starting to notice. The debates are the time and place to give truth its moment.

There are big, sensible American truths to play against the falsehoods that will be rising from the opposite podium. We all make honest mistakes, and once we’ve mustered the humility to admit them it’s time to get back to work. We greet the new faces in the neighborhood and bring them a plate of cookies. In uncertain times this makes our communities stronger and safer than a wall with a locked gate ever could. We know the Constitution will not allow us to ban Muslims any more than it will allow us to take away everybody’s guns, so we need to talk about realistic ways to address the frightening violence in our cities. America is still the City on the Hill. The world is better when we step up to that role and leave the intimidation and deception to the Russians.

The list goes on. Truths that are big and simple, so they can resonate the same way that Trump’s idea of getting back to some sort of faded American glory has resonated. The debates will be the first time voters will be able to do a side-by-side comparison of the candidates. What we need to see is bright sunlight opposing a campaign built of dark fabrication. It will shine right though all the holes.