Donald Trump says things that are flatly untrue on a remarkably frequent basis. Bernie Sanders, citing several of these, called Trump a liar. Over at Chris Cillizza’s Cavalcade of EMAILS!, Amber Phillips is absolutely appalled by…Bernie Sanders:
Do me a quick favor. Hit pause on your temptation to either cheer or jeer what Sanders said and let this marinate: A prominent U.S. senator just described the president of the United States as a frequent and “shameless” liar, a claim that for reasons I’ll explain is difficult to prove. What’s more, what Sanders said about President Trump is one of a bazillion hefty criticisms that Democrats have lobbed and will lob at the president this week alone.
I am OUTRAGED that Bernie Sanders has not lived up to the standards of civil discourse set by President Grab Them By the Pussy! Why can’t he discuss how poor people can pay for their insulin by foregoing their weekly iPhone upgrade in calm, measured tones like that nice Representative Chaffetz! Now that’s some civilitude.
Why should you care it exists at all? Well, the manifestation of such no-holds-barred rhetoric is often a lot of talk and not a lot of action.
Say you have a job, and say within that job you have a colleague, and say said colleague is, in your mind, a frequent and “shameless” liar. You’re probably not going to want to give that colleague the time of day. The reverse is true, too: If you’re asked to work with someone who just told the entire office that you’re a liar, well, screw him, right?
Right. It was entirely plausible that President Trump, Republican Senate Majority Leader Dirksen and Senate Minority Leader Mansfield would civilly cooperate on bipartsian legislation before retiring to the lounge for 8 Cutty-and-sodas. But then Bernie called President Trump a liar for routinely saying things that are false, and suddenly longstanding norms of comity vanished.
It is worth noting here that the statements called out by Bernie were not statements that involved any normative judgement, not even on the “does Paul Ryan’s plan to replace Medicare with an annual $25 CVS gift card constitute ending Medicare?” level. The statements in question — assertions that 3-5 million people voted illegally, that Trump won the “biggest Electoral College win since Reagan,” and that Barack Obama was not born in the United States — were unambiguously false. Which leads to the most irritating political reporter diversion ever:
Here’s the problem with using the “L” word in politics, though. To say someone’s lying suggests that you know they don’t believe what they’re saying.
It’s possible Trump believes the allegations he’s making, which seem to have surfaced on a conservative news site one of his top aides used to manage.
In this kind of context, I think it’s time to retire the pointless hair-splitting about whether calling a politician’s statement a “lie” requires proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the falsehood was intentional. For political statements, can we just agree that “Trump knew the statement to be false or should have known” is good enough to call the statement a lie? Sanders can’t call Trump a liar and has to rely on more awkward constructions because Trump might be delusional enough to think that he won a huge landslide? All this does is shield people who say things that aren’t true. And even if you see value in this academic distinction that I don’t, it’s hardly some massive breach of civility to call someone who constantly says things that aren’t true a liar. What does undermine civility very effectively is clinging to the norm of Both Sides Do It.