Can political honesty be resurrected?

To the seasoned political observer, placing the words ‘political’ and ‘honesty’ together is an oxymoron. 

Everywhere we look, we see the opposite - political dishonesty.

Every day the President of the United States of America lies – often. He denies he’s lying. He repeats his lies. His lying is compounded when he contradicts himself. Every day the media reports his multiple lies. Even his masterly emotion-laded State of the Union address this week was peppered with exaggerations, misrepresentations, and false claims. Take a look at CNN’s Reality Check

This January CNN reported that when talking about immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa during an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers he asked: ‘Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?’ Predictably, Trump denied ever making these coarse racist remarks. Trump lies even in the face of the testimony of eyewitnesses. Truth means nothing to him.

In a previous post on The Political Sword: Is Donald Trump mad? we canvassed that possibility. Today we can say that whatever other mental problem afflicts Trump, it seems apparent he is suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in which lying is a significant feature.

NPD is a long-term pattern of abnormal behaviour characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of understanding of others' feelings.

A person with NPD has the propensity to lie, manipulate, isolate and control his or her victim. Trump’s victim is the US as a country and as a people, and sadly, the people of the world.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM- 5) individuals with NPD have most or all of the symptoms listed below. Check them to see how well they describe Donald Trump.

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment by others.
  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness.
  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions.
  4. Needing constant admiration from others.
  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others.
  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain.
  7. Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs.
  8. Intensely jealous of others and the belief that others are equally jealous of them.
  9. Pompous and arrogant demeanor.
Trump exhibits all of these features. Take a look at the images in this linked reference. They reinforce the thesis that Trump has NPD.

To further corroborate the diagnosis of NPD, read Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which Wolff claims is based on more than 200 interviews with Trump administration insiders undertaken during months ‘sitting on a couch in the White House’.  

Here are a few excerpts from commentaries on the book:

Wolff insists that Trump has a ‘fundamental’ need to be liked. He says Trump is uncomprehending about why everyone did not like him, or why it should be so difficult to get everyone to like him. A former White House deputy chief of staff agrees: ‘He just fundamentally needs to be liked so badly that … everything is a struggle for him.’ This is NPD.

Writing in, James Law offers this assessment:

Under the headline: Trump is like a child Law writes:

Perhaps the most damaging part of the book is the claim that Trump possesses a staggering ignorance of what it takes to be president.

Wolff says that the President refuses to read anything, is unable to pay attention during crucial briefings and has no interest in legislation. “To say that he knew nothing – nothing at all – about the basic intellectual foundations of the job is a comic understatement.”

For example, adviser Sam Nunberg was sent to explain the Constitution to Trump and this is what happened. “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head,” Nunberg said.

Wolff writes that Trump lacks the “executive function” to do the job. “His brain seemed incapable of performing what would be essential tasks in his new job. He had no ability to plan and organise and pay attention and switch focus ... on the most basic level he simply could not link cause and effect.”

Trump’s former deputy chief of staff Kate Walsh is on the record saying that trying to set an agenda was “like trying to figure out what a child wants”.

Wolff writes: “Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate ... But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen. He preferred to be the person talking ... What’s more he had an extremely short attention span.”
Yet Trump’s rebuttal of the Wolff book was that he was mentally stable and a genius to boot: ‘a genius...and a very stable genius at that!’ Yet more evidence that he has NPD.

If you Google ‘Trump and mental illness’ you will find a plethora of opinions, most suggesting he has a form of dementia. Frontal lobe dementia is the favoured diagnosis. He is certainly showing signs of cognitive decline.

But this piece is about dishonesty, about lying, so let’s not go down the dementia track, not now anyway.

Trump is surrounded by liars! Steve Bannon is one. He labels Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner treasonous for liaising with the Russians to get ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton, then within days declares he is ‘a patriotic man’ and that he was really referring to Paul Manafort. He criticises Trump one day, then the next says he’s a great man. Bannon is a habitual liar; even his own Brietbart News has now extruded him.

Honesty is dead in the White House. Trump’s Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, who likes to include Huckabee in her name, mouths Trump’s lies shamelessly day after day.

I could go on and on reciting the lies, the sheer dishonesty that abounds in the White House. We hear about the lies several times every day. So let’s look back through history for political lies and recount some of the most egregious to remind us that lying is not a recent phenomenon.

Dishonesty, lies, and mendaciousness are not new! Political honesty is dead, buried, and as Tony Abbott would say, cremated as well! But can it be resurrected?

Recall these historic lies:

Nazi propaganda against the Jews: Joseph Goebbels said that no matter how big the lie, people will believe it if you repeat it enough. Nazi propaganda blamed Jews for almost everything wrong in the world, and this resulted in their mass extermination in concentration camps.

Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction: In 2002 the U.S. government was trying to convince the world that Iraq had ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, which it was claimed would be a huge threat to national and world security. Both George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld clearly stated this as fact, and ‘supported’ the claim. However, following the War in Iraq this was proven to be false, as WMDs were never found.

Watergate: President Richard Nixon lied when denied any involvement in the June 17, 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. In his defense he stated publically that he was not a crook! However, the resulting investigation found proof that the Nixon administration had knowingly spied on the Democrats’ campaign. Nixon was a crook and became the first and only US president to resign the office for lying.

The Lewinsky Scandal: Bill Clinton insisted: ‘I did not have sexual relations with this woman, Miss Lewinsky’ when accused of an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, a bald-faced lie. Grand Jury investigations of the scandal led to the President’s impeachment and an apology.

If you’re interested, there are more historic lies to be found here.  

Political honesty is dead and has been for a long while. Can it be resurrected?

More recently, flagrant dishonesty was exhibited by many players during the Brexit debate, leading to a confused electorate voting in favour, leaving Britain in the monumental mess it is in now trying to negotiate a fitting exit from the European Union. Now the possibility of another Brexit vote is being canvassed – providing another opportunity for more lies, misrepresentation and deception.

Dishonesty lives closer to home. Take some recent examples.

When torrential winds tore down hundreds of power stanchions in South Australia, both the PM and Energy Minister were quick to condemn SA’s use of renewables as the reason for the Statewide blackout that followed. While the causes and sequence of events were found to be complex, there is no doubt that the prime cause was a devastating adverse weather event: the ferocious winds that destroyed countless towers and power lines. Wanting to castigate the Labor government in SA for its reliance on renewables – a purely political move – Turnbull and Frydenberg lied blatantly, again and again, hardly mentioning the weather. Eventually Premier Jay Weatherill called out an embarrassed Frydenberg publically for his mendacious misrepresentation of the cause of the blackout. Read the details in the recent fine piece by 2353NM: The system works – pity about the politics. 

I note that the NSW Coalition government blamed the train delays in metropolitan Sydney in January partly on lightning strikes that disabled signaling equipment. It was ever so ready to use an adverse weather event as one of its excuses.

Last month another example of misrepresentation was revealed, but only after Treasury documents were obtained under Freedom of Information laws. Ever since Labor announced its housing policy that included changes to negative gearing and the capital gains tax, Treasurer Scott Morrison and his ministerial colleagues, PM included, insisted that Labor’s policy would ‘smash’ the housing market. Coalition figures claimed the plan would attack the housing market with a ‘chainsaw’, ‘axe’ or ‘sledgehammer’, and would bring Australia's economy to a ‘shuddering halt’. As it turns out, these were not just wild exaggerations, but deliberate, calculated lies. Political honesty is dead in Coalition circles.

Early in 2016 Treasury officials gave contrary advice to Morrison. Writing in ABC News, Dan Conifer and Michael McKinnon reported the Treasury advice:

‘The ALP policies could introduce some downward pressure on property prices in the short term, particularly if the commencement of the policy coincides with a weaker housing market. In the long term, increases in taxation on rental property could have a relatively modest downward impact on property prices.’

'Overall, price changes are likely to be small'. (My emphasis)
In the documents Treasury gave several reasons why prices would not plummet.

With Labor also proposing to raise taxes on other assets, officials said ‘households may increase their investment in owner-occupied housing’ [where profits are not taxed].

‘This would tend to counter any downward pressure on prices arising out of the rental market.’

Changes to negative gearing in the 1980s, and the introduction of the CGT discount in the 1990s, had ‘little discernible impact on the market’, officials noted.

‘Overall, price changes are likely to be small, though the composition of ownership may shift away from domestic investors.’
Predictably, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen was soon telling the media that the Treasury documents showed the Government had lied to the public. 

‘The most important thing about these documents is it goes to Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull's character.

‘They knew they were just engaging in a political smear and scare campaign, they knew it wasn't backed by the facts … during an entire election campaign.

‘All these claims were a lie. Treasury analysis showed that, and the Treasurer was aware of it.’ (My emphasis)
Yet despite the Treasury documents revealing that the government had mischievously misrepresented the situation, indeed had lied about it blatantly, government minsters were out the day after their release continuing to maintain Labor’s policies would be ‘disastrous’. Kelly O’Dwyer, Minister for Small Business, insisted that the Treasury documents confirmed the governments’ view, which clearly they didn’t!

Respected economist Saul Eslake was soon on the airwaves repeating what he said years ago in supporting Labor’s policies, that they would have minimal negative effect on the housing market.

So here is yet another example of political dishonesty, blatant lying for political gain, carried out quite unashamedly, again and again, all during an election campaign, and when caught out lying, the lie was repeated, as indeed it will be during the next election. The Coalition is following the Goebbels dictum that if you tell a lie often enough the people will believe it, and the bigger the lie, the more they will be inclined to do so.

As if one Treasury document on the subject was not enough, within days another document emerged, this time from the NSW Treasury, prepared in 2016, that suggested negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount create substantial distortions to the housing market and favour investors, and that negative gearing changes would improve housing affordability. But then-treasurer Gladys Berejiklian, despite her all her talk about improving affordability, deceitfully sat on the advice and did not pass it on the federal treasurer as recommended.

Only this week a filing cabinet full of confidential federal cabinet documents was unearthed by the ABC, the so-called Cabinet Files, which it is predicted will reveal extensive lying to the people by successive governments over many years.

Need I go on any further?

Throughout history, and continuing unabated to this day, politicians the world over, no less in Australia, lie over and again, so long as it is to their political advantage. They seem to have no compunction in doing so. They seem untroubled no matter how gross the lie. There is none of George Washington’s concession: ‘I cannot tell a lie’. They use another line: ‘Anything it takes’.

What can we ordinary citizens do? Beset by lie after lie after lie, how should we respond? Is political honesty so dead that it cannot be resurrected? Maybe, but at least let’s call out every lie, every misrepresentation, every exaggeration, every example of mendaciousness.

Maybe if we in the Fifth Estate protest with our loudest voices every time we see a lie, every time dishonesty puts its head above the parapet, we might just penetrate, with our political sword, chinks in the armour of our politicians.

They do have chinks, they are penetrable, and if we can wound them often enough, they just might change their ways. Political honesty just might be resurrected!

We can only live in hope!

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