Barely an hour after the close of the first US presidential debate on Monday night in the United States, Republican candidate Donald Trump was back to his old tricks. At one point during the debate, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had prodded him on why he hadn’t released his tax returns—the only presidential aspirant in recent American history to refuse to do so.
“Maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is,” Clinton said. “Or maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be. Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes…” To which Trump interjected: “That makes me smart.”
Was that an admission that the bombastic mogul and reality TV star whose campaign platform is about “making America great again” had, in fact, defaulted on paying taxes—which means “zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health,” as Clinton pointed out? A lot of observers thought so; how else was that retort to be interpreted? In any case, the whole exchange was caught on tape and was seen by millions who had tuned in.
But, hardly out of the venue afterwards, Trump was asked by CNN’s Dana Bash if he had indeed admitted not paying federal taxes and even boasted that it was a smart thing to do. His reply: “No, I didn’t say that at all.”
Politicians lie as a matter of course, but how do you deal with someone like Donald Trump whose disregard for the truth appears to be on an entirely different level?
Once upon a time, political figures caught with a fib, an exaggeration, or a whiff of BS in their statements would have been savaged and judged untrustworthy by the public. Former Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore’s claim of having invented the internet turned him into a late-night punchline. Even now, Hillary Clinton struggles with a reputation among a sizable portion of the US electorate that, on more than one occasion, she “misspoke.”
Trump’s ever-expanding list of falsehoods and fallacies, his catalogue of sexist, racist, misogynistic statements that he would deny saying despite incontrovertible evidence on tape or online, makes him out to be the vanguard of an uncharted new world. In this world, politicians can lie through their teeth and insist on their own version of the truth, and—incredibly—still be seen as a serious contender by a good number of people, not least by the once-vaunted Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln.
A generation that has grown up on the fake news, instant memes and viral falsities of social media appears to be increasingly unable to distinguish between reality and make-believe—or at least to put in the effort to know one from the other with any constancy. Skillful demagogues like Trump are only too happy to exploit that dissonance by playing on the perceived grievances of a public now impatient with civil, sober discourse and more attuned to the braying, fact-free formulations with which it is being bombarded 24/7.
Apparently, the Trump trait of defiantly doubling down on a lie is not unique to him. In the Philippines, for instance, there is the case of Peter Tiu Laviña, one of President Duterte’s closest advisers and his former campaign spokesman no less, who on more than one occasion has peddled bald fabrications to advance the administration’s agenda. Worse, when called out for it, the guy has simply shrugged.
Earlier, in a Facebook post cheering on the administration’s war on drugs while hitting back at its critics, Laviña was caught passing off a picture of a dead girl in Brazil as a local murder perpetrated by drug addicts. More recently, he disseminated the fake news that Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe and Tanzania President John Magufuli had praised Mr. Duterte and called him a “hero.” When netizens pointed out that the story was from a satire site and reposting it might foster misinformation, Laviña dismissed the comment as being “KJ” (killjoy) and said the country could use a good laugh.
This man speaks for and with the authority of the President, who, as it happens, has himself been needlessly and repeatedly entangled in controversy due to loose lips. Mr. Duterte is famously averse to anything American, and even more so to unsolicited advice on his demeanor, but perhaps he and his team can ponder on one of Clinton’s statements in the debate: “Words matter when you run for president, and they really matter when you are president.”
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