We all know the story. The candidate for President of the United States wanted to spew dirt on his opponent. But he did not want any direct involvement in such low tactics. So, who could be trusted to swim in that gutter for him? — only his eldest son, who bore his own name. The candidate’s evasive maneuver proved quite wise, because the dirt spewed indeed provoked a huge controversy. But plausible deniability worked wonders: when confronted, the candidate was easily able to tell the American people that he was in no way involved in spewing the dirt on his opponent. And of course, he won the election.
That’s Donald Trump and Donald Trump, Jr.’s nepotistic dodge in 2016, right? No, this tale actually refers to John Adams and his eldest son and future President, John Quincy Adams, who published letters criticizing his father’s opponent Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election, in the harshest terms.
Everyone is shocked, shocked at how many lies Donald Trump has been telling. But in democracy’s 2,500-year history, voters worldwide have always known the candidates lie to them. And throughout world history, the ruled have also known their rulers lie to them. In 1513, in his most renowned book, "The Prince," Machiavelli provided this quite rational explanation:
"Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep his word, and to behave with integrity rather than cunning. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have considered keeping their word of little account, and have known how to beguile men’s minds by shrewdness and cunning. In the end these princes have overcome those who have relied on keeping their word."
- This is why nobody gave much thought when Lyndon Johnson told soldiers a blatant lie that his grandfather died at the Alamo.
- This is why, when nuclear war loomed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the JFK administration did not disclose the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba to the American public. The head of Pentagon P.R., Arthur Sylvester, asserted: “It’s a government’s right, if necessary, to lie to save itself.” In 1966, Morley Safer recorded Sylvester telling a Saigon press conference, “Look if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you’re stupid. Did you hear that? — stupid.”
- This is why Bill Clinton is one of the most popular recent presidents, despite the fact that he did, in fact, “have sexual relations, with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
- This is why Ronald Reagan today has nearly been canonized as a saint, despite “We did not, I repeat, did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we” — when of course we did. Or turning ketchup into a vegetable when those school lunches were draining the budget.
And why aren’t we talking about the quality of lies, instead of the quantity of lies? Wasn’t the Gulf of Tonkin lie, which resulted in the deaths of 58,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese, a lot worse than all this superficial noise about the size of inaugural crowds, the size of hands, etc.?
Actually, we need to accept that the public can be far more hostile when someone well-known tells the painful truth about something. Consider:
- “We have been the cowards. Lobbing Cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it. Not cowardly.” Bill Maher was fired by ABC for saying this about the 9/11 attacks.
- “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Barack Obama was widely accused of being disrespectful of Christian values when he said this about jihadi attacks.
- “The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next 5 years will be worse than the past 5 years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote.” Although Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech in 1979 was factual and included many very promising new programs, it was depressing and he lost the re-election the next year.
- “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them ...And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Despite the fact that what Obama said here was plainly obvious, Hillary, Bernie, and Trump all chased the voters Obama was discussing with a crassly opportunistic anti-trade line. Those jobs that have been gone for 25 years aren’t coming back, not in the next three years, not in the next 25 years. And national unemployment has been at record lows throughout this period.
- “You could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic -- you name it.” Hillary Clinton spent weeks walking back this comment, but it’s just a simple fact that Trump’s victory was based on capturing 100 percent of the voters with these sentiments, and a very large chunk of mainstream Republicans — and don’t forget the complacent Democrat couch potatoes who just stayed home.
- “The President starts out with 48, 49 percent …These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax.” Mitt Romney’s comment was picked up by a clandestine recorder, and was never meant for general consumption. The public thus perceived it was a secret message to a cabal of his billionaire buddies, and Romney was widely condemned in the press. However, what Romney said was in fact 100 percent true. Sure, there’s lots of capitalist greed in the U.S., but, let’s face it, since the New Deal, many socialist benefits have been institutionalized here on a permanent basis.
- "There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?" With six words, Donald Trump was bursting the entire balloon of American Exceptionalism, that the U.S. enjoys some kind of permanent moral superiority over all other nations. And he was widely condemned for saying so.
The above clear and honest truths go far beyond being “inconvenient.” Each was in fact unspeakable to at least 100 million Americans, perhaps even you. Trump is an easy target if you want to criticize a president for not speaking the truth, but expecting the truth from the President of the United States is a utopian fantasy. In 1966, the Pentagon stated officially expecting it from them was quote-unquote stupid, and the Iraq War certainly indicated no policy change.
Throughout history, the ruled have always sacrificed something when agreeing to be ruled. Otherwise, from a psychological perspective, regicide would be an irrepressible impulse, so the instinct for self-rule is inhibited. And in democracy, this is still the case, regardless of any “freedoms” protected by law. For the ruled to even consider voting, this inhibition is fortified by a process of denial, displacement, wish-fulfillment, in which the voter prefers to hear rosy promises and recoils in horror when someone dares speak the too-traumatic truth. Trump’s mendacious promises and other creative formulations are a constant with Twitter. But does he, in Machiavelli’s words, “beguile men’s minds by shrewdness and cunning?” I think we’ll have to wait until November, 2020, to find out.
Henry Seggerman managed Korea International Investment Fund, the oldest South Korean hedge fund, from 2001 until 2014. He is a regular columnist for the Korea Times, and has also been a guest speaker, written for, or been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Bloomberg Television, Reuters, and FinanceAsia — covering not only North and South Korea, but also Asia, as well as U.S. politics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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