• Ideas
  • politics

What Undecided Voters Think of the Liars’ Club Campaign

7 minute read
Jordan is a TIME columnist, an NBC News/MSNBC political analyst and a co-host of the Words Matter podcast.

William Faulkner, who spun the resentment of poor white folks into literary gold, understood that trust works in mysterious ways. “The feller you trust aint necessarily the one you never knowed to do nothing untrustable,” he wrote in his novel The Mansion. “It’s the one you have seen from experience that he knows exactly when being untrustable will pay a net profit and when it will pay a loss.”

In 2016, voters are deciding whose version of untrustworthiness—Donald Trump’s or Hillary Clinton’s—they can afford to live with.

Clinton thinks voters are ridiculous for expressing concerns about her health and her missing emails. Meanwhile, Trump is proud that nothing he says gets taken seriously enough to hurt his poll numbers. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he once bragged. Clinton recently edged out Trump, who had inched closer to her in the polls over the past month, following the first presidential debate.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve listened to focus groups with voters in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Virginia conducted by Lord Ashcroft Polls, the British polling outfit that conducted the most comprehensive research prior to the British vote to exit the European Union. (You can hear directly from these voters on our weekly podcast.)

Undecided voters don’t care about Trump’s tax returns or what he says about women. The question on their minds is simple: experience or change? And for many of them, Clinton’s experience is the opposite of a selling point. These voters are so disgusted with our government and our leaders that they would rather marry a blind date (Trump) than continue a bad relationship with someone they are tired of (Clinton).

“I could at least respect the man,” said a Trump supporter in Richmond, meaning Bernie Sanders. “At least he seemed to be a decent human being. Hillary’s just not.”

Clinton is the partner you’ve been with for years. She’s smart and hard-working, sure, but it’s hard to focus on her good qualities when she can’t stop lying, sometimes over the dumbest things—like, say, cleaning out the White House travel office for political patronage, or blaming the Benghazi attacks on an offensive video, or covering up her pneumonia on the campaign trail. By the time you’ve managed to untangle her evasions and half-truths, you’re the one who feels like a fool—for having spent so much time worrying about something so frivolous.

No one likes to feel stupid. And by making Americans feel stupid for asking questions about her behavior, Clinton has pushed many Americans into the arms of Trump, despite his obvious flaws.

If you stick with Clinton, you know what you are going to get: more of the same old detached treatment from Washington. Trump’s unpredictability is exciting. He’s rich, which instinctively makes America’s capitalistic veins pump with admiration—and anticipation for what might be ours one day.

It’s only more attractive that all the people you loathe—the elitist intellectuals and establishment party figures on both sides of the aisle who make money telling you to follow rules that don’t apply to them—hate him so much. If these are his enemies, the guy has got to be doing something right. When you hear from the annoying authority figures in your life—in this case, the media—that your chosen one is lying to you, it’s easy to ignore them because you feel they have lied to you so much in the past. Why listen to them now?

And even if you do have to admit that Trump lies an awful lot, his falsehoods are so crazy, frequent, and outlandish that it seems like he must be doing it purely for effect.

That’s the sell: Trump is so wild and unpredictable that he can go around the world driving everyone else as batty as he’s driven the establishment here at home. His man crush Vladimir Putin, Syria’s butcher Bashar al-Assad, North Korea’s Kim Jung-un—these guys have had President Obama on a string, but they’ve never seen anything like Trump. Is he crazy, or crazy like a fox?

A hard-core Trump supporter in Virginia voiced anger at how Trump’s comments on Putin have been reported, offering a Hitler analogy in his defense. “Hitler was a strong leader. He led people to hell, but he was a strong leader,” the man said. Another Virginia voter fully acknowledged Trump’s narcissistic tendencies but believes his self-love will work in the national interest–the logic being, Trump will work hard for change so that he’s recognized as our nation’s Messiah.

That Trump has copped to playing his audiences, saying that he gauges the audience’s level of interest and spices up his content if he sees a lull in their enthusiasm, gives his supporters faith that what we see isn’t what we are actually going to get once he’s won the White House.

As Trump explains it, he doesn’t mean the nasty remarks he says about women, he’s just using them for entertainment.

Well, that makes me feel a lot better. If you get beaten by someone you are dating and they say they won’t do it again, they usually don’t, right?

Because cheaters only cheat just once—or, as Trump’s surrogate former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani put his views on adultery, “Everybody does.”

I guess Giuliani’s mama didn’t teach him that just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s right.

Given Trump’s self-inflicted hemorrhage after his first debate with Clinton, a Trump loss is likely. Trump and his surrogates are certainly setting the stage to call any Clinton victory illegitimate. “The Democrats are unashamedly cheaters. They will do anything to win,” Corey Stewart, Trump’s campaign chair in Virginia and a candidate for Virginia’s governorship, told me this week.

For now, Trump’s voters are rejecting a candidate who has shown she can’t learn from history for a blustering bully who doesn’t even have a basic concept of it.

“I think she’s a disgusting individual. I pray for her every day. I certainly do not want her to be President,” said a Trump voter who still voiced significant misgivings about his vote, primarily the end of democracy. “My concern is that he becomes some sort of quasi-fascist or dictator.”

Which is why Trump might actually have to make it to the Oval Office for his voters to realize that they have been duped.

A female Trump voter in North Carolina described her worst case scenario. “He runs that yap and gets us in World War Three,” she said.

I trust this much is true: Trump will keep running that yap, be it on the campaign trail, from the White House, or on Trump News Network—and continue the pattern he sees as a net profit.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.