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The Danger of the “Just Campaign Rhetoric” Excuse

The Danger of the “Just Campaign Rhetoric” Excuse December 19, 2016

I’m increasingly hearing that this promise or that promise that Donald Trump made was “just campaign rhetoric” or “just election talk.” He isn’t going to prosecute Hillary even though he straight-up said he would, he’s not going to deport millions of immigrants, that was just typical election season rhetoric, see.

As I hear this repeated, I am deeply concerned.

I don’t want Trump to prosecute Hillary, or to deport millions of immigrants. Hell no. But this “oh, it was just campaign rhetoric” gambit is dangerous, because it’s actually just a sanitized way to say “Trump was lying to the American people to get elected.” And sanitizing that is not okay. It is not okay for a candidate to lie to the American public to get elected. If we normalize that, we are in a boatload of trouble.

Over and over and over again during the election, I heard that Hillary was a liar, that you couldn’t trust a word she said, that she wouldn’t follow through on her promises, that she was just saying what she had to do to get elected, because she wanted power. It turns out that all of that was true—but about Trump. And yet, where is the outrage? I haven’t seen it. Instead, I’ve seen collective shoulder shrugging.

It was just campaign rhetoric.

Yes, it’s complicated to press Trump on this from the Left. It’s not like those on the Left (myself included) want Trump to fulfill the promises he made during the election—we don’t—and pointing out that Trump is a lying liar who lies might risk pushing him to keep those promises, given his psychology. We don’t want that. But what about the Right? What about those who said Trump was different, that Trump engaged in straight-talk, that Trump didn’t lie left and right like politicians do?

But wait. It’s not just Trump, candidates frequently don’t keep their promises once in office. This is absolutely true. When Obama failed to close Guantanamo, after promising during his 2008 campaign that he would, I was upset and disappointed. I still am. Still, I don’t remember anyone saying that Obama’s promise was “just campaign rhetoric.” That is what is different and that is what I find frightening.

Let me see if I can paint the distinction I see here.

Scenario one, Obama promises during the campaign that he’ll close Guantanamo, but realizes, once in office, that closing it would be harder than he realized, or that the base has some value he hadn’t realized, or that closing the base it would eat through some political capital he needs to save for other things. While he made the promise in good faith, he chooses not to fulfill it. Scenario two, Obama promises during the campaign that he’ll close Guantanamo, but he’s lying, he never intends to close Guantanamo, he’s just saying he will because he thinks it’ll get him elected.

A candidate who promises to do something and then, once in office, decides not to do it based on new information or circumstances is not a liar. Yes, this candidate has failed to fulfill a promise they made, and they have to explain that to their constituents, many of whom may feel understandably (and justifiably) betrayed. I put Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo in this category. But a candidate who promises to do something they never intend to do simply to get elected is in an entire different category, a far more dangerous category. It is this category people on both sides of the aisle are blithely suggesting Trump occupies.

I am worried that we are normalizing something fundamentally dangerous to our political system. I don’t have a fundamental problem with politicians shifting their positions on things once in office, based on new information—although I may or may not agree with such shifts and I will certainly want an explanation. But that is substantively different from a situation where a political lies outright, blatantly, saying they’ll do things they never even intend to do, just to get elected.

Let’s look at another example. Hillary was initially pro-TPP. It looks as though she took an anti-TPP position during the campaign because she felt she had to to get elected. Is that the same thing? Not necessarily. I have no problem with a candidate adopting a position they may not prefer because they feel they have to to get elected provided they actually intend to follow through on that. If Hillary had said she opposed the TPP until reaching office and then suddenly come out in full support of the TPP I would have had a problem with that.

Not keeping your promises is a problem. Adopting a position you aren’t completely happy with because the voters in your district demand it isn’t ideal. But lying outright during an election, just to get elected, is another thing entirely. Consider Trump’s statements about Hillary Clinton during the campaign. He stated outright that he would prosecute Hillary for her use of a private email server. As soon as the election was over he stated he won’t prosecute her, that he would never do that, that she’s been through enough. And people excused it, arguing that Trump’s fanning of “lock her up” chants had just been election talk.

This is fundamentally different. This is highly concerning. Dismissing Trump’s campaign promises as “just election talk” is a way to smooth over the fact that he lied to the American people to get elected. A lot of this is likely tied to Trump’s psychology. He is highly volatile and seems to say whatever he thinks will make him look best at any given moment, changing position with abandon. But if we normalize this, we risk extending this problem far, far beyond Trump.

Ideally, politicians are held accountable by voters in the next election. Ideally, a candidate who lied up and down on the campaign trail the previous election will be judged for that by their voters. Ideally, a candidate who doesn’t keep their campaign promises will face electoral consequences. But what happens if voters excuse this behavior? What happens if voters decide that what is said on the campaign trail is “just election talk” and cease to expect politicians to keep their promises?

Perhaps we’re there already. A surprising number of Trump voters who have benefited from Obamacare have told reporters that they voted for Trump on the assumption that he wouldn’t keep his promise to repeal the healthcare law. In other words, they believed Trump was lying on the campaign trail to get elected and they were okay with that. The trouble is that Republicans in Congress very much do want to repeal Obamacare. These assumptions have very real consequences.

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