I’ve known politics and honesty were a contradiction since I was a kid: In the movie (ahem, major motion picture) Newsies, the paperboys sing about wanting some good headlines. “How about a crooked politician?” one of them asks. “Hey, stupid, that ain’t news no more!” his comrades reply. Clearly, the paperboys of Newsies had never met Donald Trump. The Republican candidate has so successfully spun the narrative around his opponent that in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday, Trump bested Clinton on honesty and trustworthy ratings by eight points.
These are strange times we’re living in.
To put the numbers into a little context, the sample was taken in the days just following FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress stating that the bureau was looking into additional emails pertaining to Clinton’s alleged misuse of a private email server during her time as secretary of state. Further reporting revealed that the new emails were found during the FBI’s investigation into Anthony Weiner, former congressman and husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Weiner, who has had several embarrassing public scandals regarding his sexting, is currently under investigation for having allegedly exchanged sexual messages with a 15-year-old girl. Abedin and Weiner are currently separated.
Even as cable news was busy dousing itself with kerosene and lighting itself on fire over Comey’s letter, people within the FBI were trying to clarify what Comey's letter really meant for the Clinton probe. But in many ways, the damage was already done: The Clinton campaign was put on the defensive, and Trump was able to unleash an all-out offense.
Still, for many observers, this is puzzling to the point of distraction. Chris Cillizza put the question in his headline in the Washington Post, “How the heck can voters think Donald Trump is more honest than Hillary Clinton?” Cillizza tried to come to the rescue of the “easy scapegoat… the media,” holding up the Washington Post’s fact-checker as proof of good deeds and hard work.
Yes, there has been a lot of good journalism done this election cycle, and yes, people resist ideas that contradict their own beliefs, but that’s a small part of what’s going on here. Moreover, restricting “the media” to only mean the Washington Post or the New York Times — or even CNN and Fox News and MSNBC — is a naively narrow way to conceive of how politics is interacting with media.
For one thing, even as certain quarters of the media have been critical of Trump, he’s been lavished with attention. I’m far from the first person to impute that Trump is a “reality TV candidate,” but I think it might be worth taking a moment to acknowledge that the reverse is true, as well, that the American electorate — or at least a large swath of it — is the reality TV electorate. As we’ve reached the fever pitch of nonstop entertainment (another episode of Law and Order: SVU starting up before the last one’s credits have finished) we’ve also de-emphasized the importance of educating ourselves, of truth itself.
So, when we wring our hands asking how the heck people could think Trump is more honest and trustworthy than Clinton, maybe the crucial misstep isn’t Trump or Clinton — maybe it’s that the electorate no longer values honesty, trustworthiness, and truth as a positive in and of itself.