Politicians Will Always Be Damn Rascals

Politicians Will Always Be Damn Rascals

by James Bovard, June 10, 2024

Former President Donald Trump was recently convicted by a New York jury after prosecutors claimed he was guilty of “hoodwinking” voters in the 2016 election by paying to cover up his boinking of a beefy porn star. Manhattan prosecutor Alvin Bragg proclaimed that Trump was guilty of taking steps with “the end of keeping information away from the electorate.”

Cue the casino scene from the movie Casablanca, with the French officer lamenting that he was “shocked, shocked” to find gambling on the premises.

Lying is practically the job description for politicians. Economist John Burnheim, in his 1985 book Is Democracy Possible?, wrote of electoral campaigns: “Overwhelming pressures to lie, to pretend, to conceal, to denigrate or sanctify are always present when the object to be sold is intangible and its properties unverifiable until long after the time when the decision to buy can be reversed.”

A successful politician is often merely someone who bamboozled more voters than the other liar running for office. Dishonesty is the distinguishing trait of the political class. Thomas Jefferson observed in 1799, “Whenever a man casts a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.” One carpetbagging Reconstruction-era Louisiana governor declared, “I don’t pretend to be honest. I only pretend to be as honest as anybody in politics.”

A lie that is accepted by a sufficient number of ignorant voters becomes a political truth. Legitimacy in contemporary democracy often consists merely of lying to get a license to steal. Candidates have almost unlimited prerogative to deceive the voters as long as they do not directly use force or violence during election campaigns. And once they capture office, they can use government power against those they deceived.

Trump is being legally hounded eight years after a presidential campaign that was a bipartisan farce. Americans recognized they had a choice of scoundrels. A September 2016 Gallup poll found that only 33% of voters believed Hillary Clinton was honest and trustworthy, and only 35% trusted Trump. Gallup noted, “Americans rate the two candidates lowest on honesty.” The combined chicanery of Clinton and Trump made “post-truth” the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year. But according to prosecutor Bragg, Trump’s alleged payoff to Stormy Daniels was a greater sin against democracy than Hillary Clinton deleting 30,000 emails from her time as secretary of state that a congressional committee subpoenaed in 2015 and her lying to FBI agents in July 2016.

The era of nearly boundless cynicism did not begin with Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office. A 1996 Washington Post poll found that 97% of people interviewed trusted their spouses, 87% trusted teachers, 71% trusted the “average person,” but only 14% trusted politicians. A 1994 poll found that only 3% of those surveyed had a “high” opinion of politicians. Burns Roper, the director of the Roper poll, observed, “Those in government-related occupations are at the very bottom of the list of occupational groups thought well of.” A 1995 survey by The Washington Post, Harvard University, and the Kaiser Foundation found that 89% of respondents agreed with the statement that “politicians tell voters what they want to hear, not what they will actually try to do if elected”; only 10% disagreed.

Public opinion polls on trusting politicians reveal perverse preferences. A 1997 CNN–USA TODAY–Gallup poll asked, “Is Clinton honest and trustworthy?”; 44% of respondents said yes and 51% said no. Yet, when asked, “Is Clinton honest/trustworthy enough to be president?” 55% said yes and 41% said no. Apparently, the more power a person acquires, the more irrelevant his character becomes. Someone who is not scrupulous enough to sell used cars somehow becomes sufficiently honest to commence wars. It is almost as if people presume a politician’s power magically compensates for his moral depravity.

The same subversive assumptions rescued George W. Bush. A Time magazine poll in late September 2004 found that only 37%  of registered voters believed that Bush had been “truthful in describing the situation” in Iraq, while 55% said the “situation is worse than Bush has reported.” Ironically, exit polls on Election Day showed that “Voters who cited honesty as the most important quality in a candidate broke 2 to 1 in Mr. Bush’s favor.” (Both Bush and Democratic candidate John Kerry flogged the truth.) In 2004, many voters apparently concluded that Bush was trustworthy despite his false statements and misrepresentations on Iraq. The vast extent of Bush’s Iraq lies was covered up until after his re-election.

While New York prosecutors are legally impaling Trump for lies tied to the 2016 election, incumbent President Joe Biden has faced to no legal consequences for an endless torrent of falsehoods. From fabrications on foreign conflicts, to his denials of Biden family kickbacks from foreign governments, to the January 6 Capitol clash, to those Pfizer vaccines that would magically keep everyone safe from COVID, Biden has uncorked one howler after another. But as long as Biden occupies the Oval Office, he enjoys sovereign immunity from the truth.

Lies are political weapons of mass destruction, obliterating all limits on government power. Lies subvert democracy by crippling citizens’ ability to rein in government. Citizens are left clueless about perils until it is too late for the nation to pull back. Political lies are far more dangerous than Leviathan lackey intellectuals admit. Big government requires big lies—and not just about wars but across the board. The more powerful government becomes, the more abuses it commits and the more lies it must tell. Unfortunately, Americans have no legal way to commandeer government files until long after most power grabs are consummated.

The pervasiveness of political lies goes to the heart of whether Leviathan can be reconciled with democracy. How much can the people be deceived and still purportedly be self-governing? Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote of the “most essential political freedom, the right to unmanipulated factual information without which all freedom of opinion becomes a cruel hoax.” But any such right has become practically extinct since her time. Even when much of the public becomes convinced that the government has lied, there is still little or no pressure on Congress or from Congress to force executive agencies to disclose facts.

When people blindly trust politicians, the biggest liars win. There is no reason to expect politicians to be more honest in the future than they were in the past. Biden’s lies on Ukraine are eerily similar to the Obama administration’s lies on Libya, which resembled the Bush team’s lies on Iraq and the Clinton administration’s lies on Kosovo. But there is no reason to expect whoever wins the next presidential election to morally redeem the U.S. government.


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