He oversold his opposition to the war in Iraq. He said he didn’t call climate change a hoax (he did), insisted he was not running negative advertising against his opponent (he is), and downplayed the size of a “very small loan” he received from his father. (The loans—plural, according to the Wall Street Journal—reportedly ran into eight figures.)
Misstatements, misdirection and dissembling are nothing new for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. But Monday night’s debate in Hempstead, N.Y., was the first post-truth presidential debate of the modern era, a contest between two candidates who not only don’t agree on the facts, but also whether they matter.
“Look, it’s all words,” Trump told the audience early on. “It’s all sound bites.” Trump was trying to parry a point made by rival Hillary Clinton, but the blithe dismissal captured the core of his campaign message. Pay no mind to the smooth lines and slick language; a career politician like Clinton can’t be trusted.
As for the Democrat, she came into the clash at Hofstra University with the clear goal of discrediting her opponent. She directed the audience to a fact-checking section of her campaign website, challenged statements on the fly and hurled zippy rejoinders. “I hope the fact checkers are turning up the volume,” she said during one foreign-policy exchange.
Trump’s falsehoods began in his very first answer, with a claim that Ford was moving “thousands” of manufacturing jobs from the Midwest to Mexico. (It is not, according to the company.) The businessman was wrong when he denied saying pregnancy was an inconvenience for employers. There were misstatements about the murder rate in New York (it is down, not up, since the city ended stop-and-frisk), his role in the birther movement, and how long Clinton has been fighting ISIS. (Not “her whole life,” which would be impossible.)
Does any of this matter? For all of Trump’s falsehoods, it’s Clinton who is dogged by greater doubts about her honesty. In a recent New York Times/CBS poll, 63% of respondents said the former Secretary of State wasn’t trustworthy, a tick above the 60% who said the same of Trump.
Such statistics seem to validate Trump’s theory of factual relativism. In his campaign’s view, he cannot be lying if he believes something to be true. Earlier Monday, campaign chief Kellyanne Conway argued that Trump hadn’t lied when he wrongly claimed that debate moderator Lester Holt, a registered Republican, was actually a Democrat. “I don’t think he knew,” Conway said. “A lie would mean he knew the man’s party registration.”
Holt came prepared to challenge Trump, though he was less aggressive about confronting the Republican than Clinton aides would have liked. The NBC Nightly News anchor corrected Trump’s comment on stop-and-frisk, noting that a court had ruled the practice unconstitutional. (“No, you’re wrong,” Trump shot back. “It went before a judge who was a very against-police judge.”) Holt challenged Trump’s prior statements about President Obama’s birth certificate and questioned Trump’s excuse that a routine audit was preventing the release of his tax returns. And he jumped in when Trump erroneously claimed to have opposed the Iraq invasion from the beginning. “The record shows otherwise,” Holt said. Trump’s defense? He had “numerous conversations” with Fox News anchor Sean Hannity about it. Good luck finding the transcripts or video evidence of those private chats.
Such interjections were part of an unusually broad media campaign to fact-check Trump in real time. Bloomberg TV tried running on-screen corrections, while news organizations ranging from BuzzFeed to the New York Times sent push notifications alerting readers to misstatements. Every candidate spins, massages and manipulates facts. But Trump’s habit of twisting the truth has been such a major part of this election that it has turned chroniclers of the presidential contest into combatants and given rise to a cottage industry of professional fact-checkers.
Clinton tried to capitalize. “Donald never tells you what he would do,” she said. Which cuts to a core question about two sharply different candidates and the mood of the voters they are vying to win. Do they want a Democrat who has been around for decades, and rattles off policy points as if she has swallowed a briefing book whole? Or a Republican newcomer who thrives on policy vagaries and operates as if his next torrent of words will erase the last? Can America really vest such power in someone who will only promise a secret plan to solve the threat of Islamic extremism and calls his rival’s specifics irresponsible?
Trump says they’re just words. And Clinton? “Words matter when you run for President,” she told viewers Monday night. The next six weeks will fact-check whether that statement is still correct.