Trumpery & Truthiness
Trumpery is an actual noun. The website wordsmith.org lists three meanings: 1. Something showy but worthless; 2. Nonsense or rubbish; 3. Deceit, fraud , trickery. Its root is an old French word, tromperie, which means 'to deceive'. Does it describe someone we know?
Its earliest documented use was in 1481 but perhaps no word in English, or French, can more aptly describe the current Republican candidate for the most powerful job in the world. Donald Trump fits the three meanings to a T, judging by his performance in three presidential debates. Alarmingly, for most citizens of this great democracy and for the rest of the world, his trumpery is unparalleled in American presidential politics, if we are to believe respected historians.
It is also almost beyond comparison in current global electoral politics. I say almost, because there is one elected head of state, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who runs neck and neck with Trump in displaying sheer undemocratic chutzpah. Neither the demagogic Viktor Orban of Hungary nor any of the rest of the world's elected leaders come close, not even Putin, whom Trump seems to idealize as a powerful and smart leader. The Russian leader is indeed smart. He plays it cool, with a smile and bland denials of anything that might be wrong with what he and his cronies do abroad or at home, as he exerts near total control over the Russian state.
But whereas Putin employs a stiletto style in political tactics, Trump prefers the wrecking ball. After last night's debate performance, little doubt remains that Trump, in order to get his way even as he loses, is ready to wreck the nation's democratic structure that has served Americans well for more than two centuries. He appeared almost ready to revive the crisis of 1860 if need be by ominously suggesting he may not accept the election results on November 8 as legitimate and egging his followers on to prepare for possibly violent confrontations after the election. And the morning after the final debate he clarified he would "totally accept" the result "if I win".
Despite having covered two presidential elections in the US as a foreign correspondent and being in the White House press corps for five years in the 1980s and 90s, I confess I cannot bring myself to comprehend the enormity of the Trump phenomenon. Is it real or just a show?
Anxiety over profound changes going on rapidly around the world and in American society may be herding voters behind a candidate who promises radical change to make America great again but in fact signals a retreat to a past that many fear may soon be gone. But there were other conservative candidates who they rejected in favor of this one supposed savior. Why?
If, for instance, we contrast his threatening style with Hillary Clinton's measured but admittedly vanilla style of campaigning, we could find it baffling how nearly 40% of likely voters remain resolutely behind Trump while Clinton, despite extending her opinion polls lead in recent weeks, continues to struggle defending her suitability for the job against persistently negative vibes on nebulous issues like trustworthiness and likability. Is there a word to explain her plight?
There is. It's a word coined by the comedian Stephen Colbert and now included in dictionaries. It's 'truthiness', which dictionary.com defines as "the quality of seeming to be true according to one's intuition, opinion or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence or the like". It might explain why a person, who had approval ratings in the mid-60s percentile range when she was secretary of state and who was twice elected as a senator with impressive majorities, fell so far in approval ratings soon after she became an announced cabdidate for the presidency.
In numerous conversations over the past year with critics of Clinton -- not only from the right, but from the left and from moderates who would 'hold their nose' in voting for her -- I have heard a theme: She is somehow neither likable nor trustworthy. Why exactly no one says, other than citing three recurring points: emails, Benghazi and the Clintons' 'sordid' record in the 90s.
The emails charge is substantive but at the end of the day it's a bureaucratic blunder that was acknowledged by the candidate repeatedly as a mistake and subsequently regarded by the FBI after a thorough investigation as undeserving of further pursuit. Yet, to many Clinton skeptics it continues to stink. Some even echo Trump in suspecting the veracity of the FBI's conclusion.
Her alleged culpability in what happened in the US consulate in Benghazi when she was secretary of state, has been investigated by Congress ad nauseum without being proven. But the theme continues to reverberate, particularly on the right. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican majority leader in the House, nailed the truthiness of it when he gleefully said on TV that Clinon's approval ratings were once high but were brought down by the Republicans shouting "...Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi". It may be baloney but it stirs up doubts about her credibility. There's no smoking gun but there's a whole lot of smoke generated by her political opponents.
As for the Clintons' record in the 1990s, it is mostly a highly impressive one apart from the glaring stain of Bill Clinton's inexplicably stupid sexual behavior with a White House intern. But it was Bill, not Hillary. Nevertheless, Hillary's action or inaction at the time continues to be lumped with her husband's infidelity to have the adjective 'sordid' haunt the Clintons' past.
There is a lot in their past that can be debated, for and against, legitimately. But Hillary Clinton's share of it has hardly ever deserved a labelling of sordidness. Whitewater, Travelgate, Vince Foster were all accusations emerging almost entirely from an aggressive Republican political strategy and each of which turned out in the late 90s to be a haze of smoke without any real fire. No matter, a truthiness-driven narrative effectively hammered away at a strikingly qualified presidential candidate's credibility.
So, here we are less than three weeks away from a presidential election in which the choice is stark: Can too many citizens risk staying at home on November 8 with an incendiary candidate for president on the loose? Or will a thumping majority of Americans reject trumpery in order to reinforce the still sound foundations of liberal democracy by ignoring truthiness?
Gautam Adhikari is a Senior Fellow with the Center of American Progress Action Fund.