Martyn McLaughlin: Disdain for truth is not enough to undermine Trump

Donald Trump may have lost the televised debate, but he cannot be written off easily.
Donald Trump may have lost the televised debate, but he cannot be written off easily.
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It is a measure of how grotesque the US presidential race has become that the lies that Donald Trump tells no longer have any bearing on his prospects of becoming the most powerful man in the world. In a campaign that has chewed up convention and it spat it out, his embrace of deceit has laid down new ground rules. We know he is dishonest, as does he, but still he persists, and America is a nation bewildered, impotent and uncertain how to respond.

The first televised debate between the Republican candidate and Hillary Clinton, his Democrat rival for the White House, was fertile ground for Mr Trump’s falsehoods. According to the Huffington Post, Mr Trump evaded the truth no fewer than 16 times when responding to questions from the moderator, Lester Holt. There were numerous other lies that seeped out from him unprompted, like a boil that bursts under the sheer pressure of the pus inside. His performance was willfully ignorant, vindictive and erroneous. The worst part is that is exactly the Donald Trump he wanted us to see.

From his first answer to his last, he offered up a litany of fibs old and new. Some, such as his remarks on climate change on the Iraq war, were whoppers. Others, such as his claim that the terror group, IS, is several decades old, were patently absurd, yet instructive in their wanton triviality.

Whether through habit or practice, Mr Trump’s mendacity is now so all-consuming, it is no longer designed to fulfil the most obvious purpose: to deceive. A long, inglorious line of politicians have consciously embellished facts or evaded them altogether. Increasingly, however, Mr Trump’s lies seem to stem from no motivation other than his own pathological tendencies. They are the product of compulsion, not calculation.

In an anticipation of another unabated masterclass in invention, a host of news outlets and organisations both partisan and independent deployed a phalanx of fact checkers to scrutinise the claims and counterclaims in unprecedented detail. They were not left wanting for source material, unpicking a contradictory tapestry of nonsense over the course of the 90 minute debate.

But we have been here before with Mr Trump over the course of a protracted and maddening campaign. Daniel Dale, a reporter for the Toronto Star, has taken to collating the demonstrably false utterances of Mr Trump. On an average day, the tally hits double figures. Another news site, Politico, counted no less than 87 lies weaved by Mr Trump over the course of five days, an average of one every three minutes over about five hours’ worth of remarks.

Such diligent work is fascinating but ultimately it will not change a thing. Not once has Mr Trump apologised for, let alone retracted examples of his duplicity. His nonchalance is unerring. Those who seek to pull him up time and again are oblivious to the most dispiriting fact of the entire campaign - millions of ordinary Americans simply do not care that he is a proven liar. The more he is attacked for it, the more it feeds his anti-establishment narrative.

Not so long ago, such seasoned charlatanry would have spelled career suicide for a politician, but Mr Trump has aggressively positioned himself as the outside candidate, bound to no one’s regulations but his own. Traditional bedrocks of democracy - chief among them an informed debate centred around facts - have been eroded and no amount of sober protestations can restore them, especially not at this late hour.

It has reached the point where Mr Trump now revels in his disregard for the truth. In the mangled stew of hyperbole, doom and non sequiturs he offered up to the world last night, one phrase stood out: “semi-exact.” It may have been overlooked amid the pugilistic bluster, but it is so perfect for Mr Trump, it could well serve as his slogan for the remainder of the campaign.

The antagonistic debate showed that Mr Trump is uniquely unsuitable for the role of commander in chief, but this was hardly a revelation, and as grimly fascinating as the spectacle was, it provided no indication of November’s outcome. The consensus granted victory to Mrs Clinton, who despite appearing overly restrained at times, exhibited a poised and detailed command of policy. But as history has shown, these debates are notoriously uncertain barometers of the electorate’s intentions.

The odds on Mr Trump emerging victorious have lengthened, albeit only slightly. Perhaps that speaks of the difficulty we have in defining success in a campaign where the participants are engaged in different battles. Mrs Clinton is fighting for presidency; Mr Trump is waging a war on truth. He is winning it, but he has not yet secured the ultimate prize.

The best way of preventing the unthinkable coming to pass is not to focus on his serial untruths. Mr Trump has done a better job of discrediting his candidacy than anyone else could. Instead, it is essential that Ms Clinton and her team do not lose sight of the fact many Americans will remain desirous of a deep fracture in their country’s political life, and are willing to accept the consequences of their disruptive act.

Mr Trump has shown once again his indifference to verity. His greatest asset is the emotional resonance of a rhetoric that trades in sweeping themes of fear, anger and disenfranchisement. It may be dishonest but it is hard to debunk.