Historians someday will have to determine whether Donald Trump was the biggest liar ever to be President, but many people want an answer now, thinking that they know it already. On the left, The Nation has taken the lead in asserting an objective imperative for reporters to call the President a liar. Eric Alterman set this tone in numerous columns, and it was echoed more recently by Nic Dawes in the magazine's special "Media Issue." Dawes has no patience with people who hesitate over using the L-word, and no patience with their pretensions of neutrality. For him, there can be no neutrality between truth and falsehood, and neutrality between political parties is no excuse for not taking the proper stand. Dawes has nothing but contempt for Gerald Baker, the editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, who warned recently that "If we routinely make these kinds of judgments, readers would start to see our inevitably selective use of a moral censure as partisanship." Dawes answers this caution with the blunt assertion that "for the press to articulate a politics of independence, accountability, fairness and accuracy, and then to choose its words on that basis, is not partisan." He's even more contemptuous toward Baker's argument that, in Dawes' paraphrase, "we cannot see inside the president's mind and divine his [Baker's words] 'state of knowledge and moral intent.'" Dawes will no doubt be equally indignant with the latest Time magazine, which on its cover asks "Is Truth Dead?" in echo of its famous "Is God Dead?" cover of fifty years ago. Time editor Nancy Gibbs echoes Baker when she writes that "there's a limit to what we can deduce about motive or intent" when Trump or any politician says something obviously untrue. Perhaps more provocatively, she asks, "Does it count as lying if [Trump] believes what he says?...Where is the line between lie, spin and delusion?"
For critics like Dawes, there's no use answering with anything like, "Well, what about Obama's lies?" or "What about Clinton's lies?" because those critics are already immovably convinced that Trump has lied on an unprecedented scale, or with unprecedented contempt for facts. It's probably more accurate to say that Trump has unusual contempt for fact-checking, as many of his whoppers boil down to his impulsively repeating some unsubstantiated claim he read or saw somewhere. For a master businessman, he seems alarmingly trustful of claims that can easily be proven right or wrong online, so long as they appear to flatter him or further his agenda. He made no effort, it seems, to check the claim that he had won the presidency by the biggest margin in the Electoral College since Ronald Reagan until critics finally put the truth in his face. But not everything that's been described as a Trump "lie" is so plainly a matter of fact. In a partisan and ideological environment, a "lie" may well boil down to an alternative interpretation of a fact, or the choice of one fact over another. Ideologues tend to think that they alone see the world as it is and what the world should be; to contradict ideology, then, is often tantamount to lying about reality. The same goes for "tribal epistemology," which is how one writer describes the thinking of Trump and his supporters, though it could apply equally to Trump's most dogmatic critics. According to tribal epistemology, information only has value to the extent that it serves the good of your group. Leninists felt the same way, I suppose, but used usefulness to class or party as their standard. Inevitably, information is cherry-picked and inconvenient or uncomfortable truths are ignored. Something like this, I assume, is what Gerald Baker meant when he warned that a morally censorious impulse is "inevitably selective" and, implicitly, inevitably partisan. It's not a simple matter of sorting out facts from false assertion, since there are, inevitably, more facts than any ideology or party platform, or even any commitment to "truth," can encompass, especially in a democratic culture in which the "common good" is as much a matter of popular choice as it is a matter of objective fact.
In Time's truth article, Michael Scherer quotes the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt: "Truth has a despotic character. It is therefore hated by tyrants who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolize." Might it not also be hated by democrats who rightly fear a coercive force that is not a matter of choice. In the essay quoted by Scherer, Arendt goes on to write that truth "enjoys a rather precarious status in the eyes of governments that rest on consent and abhor coercion [because] Facts are beyond agreement and consent." Writing in 1967, she observed that "While probably no former time tolerated so many diverse opinions on religious or philosophical matters, factual truth, if it happens to oppose a given group’s profit or pleasure, is greeted today with greater hostility than ever before." She goes on:"The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering; they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking." It may be a mistake to think that anyone whose subject is politics is capable of an unimpeachably truthful account of the truthfulness of politicians, if truth is never politics' goal. When people insist on labeling Trump a liar, or when others claim that he has never told a lie, it's not the truth that's really at stake -- but I'm not going to call anyone a liar for thinking otherwise.