The Trustworthy Fact About Presidential Mendacity


Falsity is prime to U.S. politics.

An orange illustration of the presidential seal being flipped in a pan like a pancake
Illustration by Matteo Giuseppe Pani

That is an version of Time-Journey Thursdays, a journey via The Atlantic’s archives to contextualize the current, floor pleasant treasures, and study the American thought. Join right here.

Not so way back, an Atlantic author got down to defend the previous president, a infamous liar with a knack for escaping jams—and one who derived an unseemly pleasure from impunity. Hand-wringing about this type of habits, Roy Blount Jr. wrote, not solely smacks of self-righteousness, but additionally misunderstands the very enterprise of politics, which is to get issues carried out, not be an ethical exemplar. Regardless of the whining of elite courses, the general public was getting what it wished:

The American folks like being lied to. Therefore Ronald Reagan. However even for a President who is just not knowledgeable actor, misrepresentation is a part of the job. Commentators who don’t bear this in thoughts are like critics within the viewers shouting “Inform us what you actually assume” at an actor who’s making an attempt to convey off a drama.

Falsity is so basic to U.S. politics that to even communicate concerning the private integrity of a president is to bask in oxymoron, which is why folks shouldn’t get so censorious concerning the former president, Blount argued: “Perhaps Invoice Clinton was despatched from heaven to protect us from those that would current themselves as unimpeachable.”

Okay, so Blount wasn’t speaking about Donald Trump. However as People wrestle with the apparently interminable presence of that former president, in addition to the extensively dreaded prospect of a second Trump–Joe Biden election subsequent yr, Blount’s concepts about what precisely we should always search for in our presidents are helpful for fascinated with the hazards and virtues of partisanship.

Although simply over 20 years outdated, Blount’s essay is a time capsule from a second when the stakes of politics didn’t really feel fairly so speedy and existential. The flexibility to jot down about Washington with ironic detachment was useless even earlier than the 2022 passing of its nice exponent P. J. O’Rourke—though, as my colleague McKay Coppins wrote 5 years in the past, at the moment’s apocalyptic vibes are a white-elephant reward from the Clinton period. “If we considered a President much less as a job mannequin than as a personality in fiction, we’d see him extra clearly,” Blount wrote. “Invoice Clinton could not have had an awesome character, however he has been one.”

That is exceedingly true of Trump, however few of his critics could be wanting to say so, for causes that Blount defined once I requested him concerning the variations between the 2 ex-presidents. “I hasten to state that I don’t regard Trump in the identical gentle as Clinton. Or if the identical gentle, then Trump exhibits up far more nastily in it,” he wrote me in an electronic mail. “Trump has no humorousness or respect for the regulation or custom. Clinton, like several profitable politician, had Teflon. Trump’s coating is poison.”

Blount made one other level in 2001 that feels as recent as ever: “We should resist the temptation to dismiss all candidates for president as beneath us. In any other case we’ll by no means forgive ourselves for voting for any of them. We should examine them not with ourselves however with one another. Considered one of them is at all times much less deeply beneath us.” Or as Biden likes to place it: “Don’t examine me to the Almighty. Evaluate me to the choice.”

Cringing at presidential candidates is simple, as a result of they’re all cringe, at finest. Pundits and voters obsess over whether or not politicians are “genuine” or honest, however Blount proposed a extra pragmatic metric: “I desire a president who caters, successfully and constructively, to the appropriate folks.” Given how coalition politics work, an election is perhaps higher understood as a alternative about which citizens to empower, fairly than which candidate. The issue, then as now, is the very subjective enterprise of figuring out who the “proper” individuals are. Everybody believes they’re on the appropriate facet, and all of them get a vote.



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