Newt Gingrich, one of president-elect Donald Trump’s closest political allies, said on Thursday that Trump will “spend a lot of time controlling the border. He may not spend very much time trying to get Mexico to pay for it, but it was a great campaign device.” This is an astonishing claim, given that one of Trump’s signature promises, made in his first speech announcing his presidential run and repeated countless times, was that he “will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”
Now we discover it was probably just a “campaign device,” which is a craven’s way of saying it was an intentional over-promise, if not a lie. Nor was this the only such device Trump used. We’re discovering that some of his most famous promises may have been made with his fingers crossed.
Joyce Karam of pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat reported Thursday that, according to Arab diplomatic sources, the Trump campaign reached out to Middle East embassies in Washington, D.C. three months after Trump declared a ban on Muslims entering the U.S.: “The message from the Trump campaign to key Arab diplomats last Spring was a plea to ‘ignore Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail.’” This might explain why Trump is still trying to figure out what to do with the Muslim ban, which briefly disappeared from his website on Thursday, only to reappear.
Trump also said on the campaign trail that he woul “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” calling it his “number-one priority.” But Walid Phares, a senior foreign policy adviser to Trump, told the BBC on Thursday that “he’s gonna take that agreement, it’s been done before in international context, and then review it.... He will take the agreement, review it, send it to Congress, demand from the Iranians to restore a few issues or change a few issues, and there will be a discussion.”
It’s not news that Donald Trump is perhaps the biggest fabulist in American political history, someone who engages in a wide variety of untruths, ranging from tall tales and fibs to outright fabrications. Perhaps his slippery relationship with truth comes from being a real estate developer, a profession where fantastic hyperbole is accepted—if not required—in the negotiation room. Trump’s political promises can be viewed through a similar lens: If he has no real intent to make Mexico pay for the wall or ban all Muslim immigrants, these statements can be seen as a special type of deception: pie-in-the-sky salesmanship.
Trump says whatever it takes to get the deal done—to win. In this way, he’s merely an extreme version of your average Republican. And now the Democrats, who too often sprint to the moral high ground, are facing at least two years without any control in Washington. It’s time for them to start promising the moon too.
There are a few saving graces to Trump’s habitual bullshitting. Perhaps this means that some of Trump’s supporters aren’t suckers and merely enjoy indulging in his flights of fancy: They think it would be great if Mexico paid for the wall, but are aware that Mexico probably won’t. This would also mean that Trump won’t necessarily enact his most extreme measures. Such mitigating factors are small compensation, of course, for the pervasive nihilism of Trump’s political rhetoric—the way it had created a post-truth discourse that makes honest civic discussion impossible.
But in light of Trump’s victory, a disturbing question arises: Maybe Hillary Clinton’s problem was that she was too honest. To describe Clinton this way flies in the face of her popular reputation, with polls showing that the public trusts her less than Trump. But that distrust was based on Clinton’s shifty explanations about her private email server—influenced by the media’s disproportional coverage—and bore little relation to her campaign promises. Clinton’s extremely detailed policy proposals were all grounded in reality, with careful cost-benefit analyses.
Sanders, who appealed to many of the same voters who delivered Trump’s victory this week, understood the importance of overly simplified, if not downright fantastical, campaign rhetoric. As political scientist Daniel W. Drezner wrote in The Washington Post in March:
[I]f Donald Trump has been campaigning on a big lie about the global economy, Bernie Sanders has been campaigning on two big lies. Sanders’s first lie, akin to Trump, is that he thinks trade protectionism will trigger a massive inflow of manufacturing jobs, when most of those jobs have disappeared from the face of the Earth. Sanders’s second lie is that he pretends that there would be no foreign policy consequences from a U.S. shift back to the days of Smoot-Hawley.
The question is whether these are simple untruths or something closer to what Trump is doing: promising an outlandish feast on the understanding that it’s more likely to be a regular meal.
Even Barack Obama, as honest and respectable politician as we’ve seen, over-promises. According to Politifact, Obama has kept 45 percent of his promises, compromised on another 26 percent and broken 22 percent (with the remainder stalled or in the works). Since compromise is essential to politics—especially when power is divided between the parties—no politician can deliver on everything. Political promises, then, belong in the realm of aspiration, and can fairly have an element of day-dreaming.
It’s fair to say, though, that Obama would have tried to keep all of his campaign promises if he’d had a Democratic Congress for eight years. Trump will have a unified government in January, and already his campaign is backtracking on some of his boldest promises—the ones that helped him build a winning base. But that’s precisely it: Trump has already won. He can now do as he pleases, campaign rhetoric be damned. (And if you think reelection strategy will influence Trump’s thinking from day one, as it would an experienced politician, then you haven’t been paying attention for the past year and a half.)
To fight Trump-style politics, Democrats will have to steal at least a page or two from Trump’s playbook by making more audacious promises, as Sanders did with his call for free college education for all and a $15 minimum wage—both of which Clinton balked at. While her plan might have been more fiscally responsible, Sanders better understood the power of raising expectations, especially during a populist wave and change year in American politics. To go the full Trump would be nihilistic, but Democrats need to stop worrying about the fine print and start forging their own unrealistic utopia.