WASHINGTON — Whit Ayres, a Republican political consultant here, likes to tell his clients that there are “three keys to credibility.”
“One, never defend the indefensible,” he says. “Two, never deny the undeniable. And No. 3 is: Never lie.”
Would that politicians took his advice.
Fabrications have long been a part of U.S. politics. Politicians lie to puff themselves up, to burnish their résumés and to cover up misdeeds, including sexual affairs. (See: Bill Clinton.) Sometimes they cite false information for what they believe are justifiable policy reasons. (See: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam.)
不實之辭一向是美國政治的一部分。政客撒謊的目的可能是自我吹捧，可能是美化自己的簡曆，也可能是掩蓋不檢行為，其中包括風流韻事。（參見：比爾·克林頓[Bill Clinton]。）有時候他們會出於其眼中正當的政策原因，援引虛假信息。（參見：林登·約翰遜[Lyndon Johnson]與越戰。）
But President Donald Trump, historians and consultants in both political parties agree, appears to have taken what the writer Hannah Arendt once called “the conflict between truth and politics” to an entirely new level.
From his days peddling the false notion that former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, to his inflated claims about how many people attended his inaugural, to his description just last week of receiving two phone calls — one from the president of Mexico and another from the head of the Boy Scouts — that never happened, Trump is trafficking in hyperbole, distortion and fabrication on practically a daily basis.
In part, this represents yet another way that Trump is operating on his own terms, but it also reflects a broader decline in standards of truth for political discourse. A look at politicians over the past half-century makes it clear that lying in office did not begin with Trump. Still, the scope of Trump’s falsehoods raises questions about whether the brakes on straying from the truth and the consequences for politicians’ being caught saying things that just are not true have diminished over time.
One of the first modern presidents to wrestle publicly with a lie was Dwight D. Eisenhower in May 1960, when an U.S. U-2 spy plane was shot down while in Soviet airspace.
1960年5月，德懷特·D·艾森豪威爾(Dwight D. Eisenhower)成為最早在公眾麵前努力應對謊言問題的現代總統之一。當時，一架美國U-2偵察機在蘇聯領空被擊落。
The Eisenhower administration lied to the public about the plane and its mission, claiming it was a weather aircraft. But when the Soviets announced that the pilot had been captured alive, Eisenhower reluctantly acknowledged that the plane had been on an intelligence mission — an admission that shook him badly, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said.
艾森豪威爾政府就這架飛機及其任務對公眾撒了謊，說它是氣象探測機。但當蘇聯宣布飛行員被活捉的消息時，艾森豪威爾很不情願地承認，這架飛機當時正在執行情報搜集任務——承認撒謊讓他極度心煩意亂，曆史學者多麗絲·科恩斯·古德溫(Doris Kearns Goodwin)說。
“He just felt that his credibility was such an important part of his person and character, and to have that undermined by having to tell a lie was one of the deepest regrets of his presidency,” Goodwin said.
In the short run, Eisenhower was hurt; a summit meeting with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev collapsed in acrimony. But the public eventually forgave him, Goodwin said, because he owned up to his mistake.
In 1972, at the height of the Watergate scandal, President Richard M. Nixon was accused of lying, obstructing justice and misusing the Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies, and resigned rather than face impeachment. Voters, accustomed to being able to trust politicians, were disgusted. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the presidency after telling the public, “I’ll never lie to you.”
1972年，水門事件醜聞鬧得轟轟烈烈之際，理查德·M·尼克鬆(Richard M. Nixon)總統被指撒謊、妨礙司法公正、不當調用國稅局(Internal Revenue Service)等機構，他選擇了辭職，而非直麵彈劾。習慣於把政客當成可信任之人的選民對此非常氣憤。1976年，吉米·卡特(Jimmy Carter)在告訴公眾“我絕不會對你們撒謊”之後贏得總統大選。
Over the past two decades, institutional changes in U.S. politics have made it easier for politicians to lie. The proliferation of television political talk shows and the rise of the internet have created a fragmented media environment. With no widely acknowledged media gatekeeper, politicians have an easier time distorting the truth.
And in an era of hyperpartisanship, where politicians often are trying to court voters at the extreme ends of the political spectrum, politicians often lie with impunity. Even the use of the word “lie” in politics has changed.
“There was a time not long ago when you could not use the word ‘lie’ in a campaign,” said Anita Dunn, once a communications director to Obama. “It was thought to be too harsh, and it would backfire. So you had to say they hadn’t been honest, or they didn’t tell the truth, or the facts show something else, and even that was seen as hot rhetoric.”
With the rise of fact-checking websites, politicians are held accountable for their words. In 2013, the website PolitiFact declared that Obama had uttered the “lie of the year” when he told Americans that if they liked their health care plan, they could keep it. (Trump won “lie of the year” in 2015.)
“I thought it was unfair at the time, and I still think it’s unfair,” Dunn said, referring to Obama. Obama later apologized to people who were forced off their plans “despite assurances from me.”
On the theory that politicians who get caught in lies put their reputations at risk, Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College (and contributor to The New York Times’s Upshot) and some colleagues tried to study the effects of Trump’s misstatements during last year’s presidential campaign.
達特茅斯學院(Dartmouth College)的政治學家布倫丹·尼漢（Brendan Nyhan，《紐約時報》Upshot欄目撰稿人）和幾個同事假定，如果政客被發現說謊，就會有聲譽受損的風險，他們試圖以此為前提，研究特朗普去年競選總統期間的錯誤陳述所產生的影響。
In a controlled experiment, researchers showed a group of voters a misleading claim by Trump, while another group saw that claim accompanied by “corrective information” that directly contradicted what Trump had said. The group that viewed the corrections believed the new information, but seeing it did not change how they viewed Trump.
“We know politicians are risk averse. They try to minimize negative coverage, and that negative coverage could damage their image over time,” Nyhan said. “But the reputational consequences of making false claims aren’t strong enough. They’re not sufficiently strong to dissuade people from misleading the public.”
Many of Trump’s lies — like the time he boasted that he had made the “all-time record in the history of Time Magazine” for being on its cover so often — are somewhat trivial, and “basically about him polishing his ego,” said John Weaver, a prominent Republican strategist.
That mystifies Bob Ney, a Republican former congressman who spent time in prison for accepting illegal gifts from a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, and lying to federal investigators about it. “It really baffles me why he has to feel compelled to exaggerate to exonerate himself,” Ney said.
共和黨前國會眾議員鮑勃·奈(Bob Ney)對此大惑不解，他曾因接受來自遊說者傑克·阿布拉莫夫(Jack Abramoff)的非法禮物，並就此向聯邦調查人員說謊而入獄。“這真的讓我感到困惑，為什麽他非得那樣誇張地宣稱自己沒有責任，”奈說。
But other presidential lies, like Trump’s false claim that millions of undocumented immigrants had cast ballots for his opponent in the 2016 election, are far more substantive and pose a threat, scholars say, that his administration will build policies around them.
The glaring difference between Trump and his predecessors is the sheer magnitude of falsehoods and exaggerations; PolitiFact rates just 20 percent of the statements it reviewed as true, and a total of 69 percent either mostly false, false or “Pants on Fire.” That leaves scholars like Goodwin to wonder whether Trump, in elevating the art of political fabrication, has forever changed what Americans are willing to tolerate from their leaders.
“What’s different today and what’s scarier today is these lies are pointed out, and there’s evidence that they’re wrong,” she said. “And yet because of the attacks on the media, there are a percentage of people in the country who are willing to say, ‘Maybe he is telling the truth.'”