Opinion: Look out for truth twisters in first GOP debate
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Recently I received a forwarded “chain” email claiming that the rates for certain taxes we pay were slated to skyrocket come January, as a result of the Affordable Care Act.
Something seemed fishy, so I ran it through a couple of fact-checking services, and, surely enough, it was a lie. PolitiFact had given the verbatim email its “Pants on Fire” label over two years ago, when it first surfaced.
When I pointed this out to the man who forwarded it to me, he said he suspected as much but did not like to bother with fact-checking.
He recalled being bored to death in his college history classes because of their preoccupation with minute details; whereas, he said, he enjoyed his political science classes, since his poli sci teacher encouraged him and his classmates to “exchange ideas” without restrictions.
His explanation was both candid and interesting, and I could relate as a column writer. It’s similar to the difference between the fun of brainstorming for an op-ed, and going wherever the creative process takes you, as opposed to chiseling an essay, festooned with footnotes, which document the thesis but bog down the flow.
Of course, it’s fine for acquaintances and Facebook friends to talk politics without a “works cited” page.
But it is never harmless for politicians to do the same. We have lately seen too many who revel in rhetorical flourishes in their campaign speeches, whose substance often does not hold up when examined for accuracy. The first major GOP presidential debate is Thursday. All of us should look out for “Pants on Fire” one-liners.
For example, Donald Trump’s statement that Mexico was ”sending people that have lots of problems” to this country; that they are rapists, drug runners and criminals of one kind or another, turns out to be a non-factual generalization.
According to the American Immigration Council (AIC), dozens of studies have shown that “immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be behind bars than the native-born, and high rates of immigration are not associated with higher rates of crime.”
The AIC’s findings were accentuated by the Immigration Policy Center, which reported that the appreciably lower crime rate among the foreign born “holds true especially for the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the undocumented population.”
Nonetheless, Trump pointed to heinous individual examples of Mexican immigrants who have perpetrated crimes, as an argument to build a bigger wall along the border and get tougher on immigration.
But describing a horrible example or two in order to indict an entire nation or race is fallacious, divisive, statistically negligent, and, most significantly, manipulative.
That’s because Trump knows such strategy resonates for voters who are too busy, too overworked or too tired to research the facts. Instead, it is reassuring for them to hear an authoritative voice confirm and validate their uncertainties and fears. It is easier to succumb to Trump’s demagoguery than to go through the arduous trouble of making an informed decision.
Trump, of course, isn’t alone in truth twisting. The names of all the Republican and Democratic candidates pop up in fact-checking website searches.
A day after the domestic terrorism incident in which four Marines and one Navy officer were slain at a recruiting office in Chattanooga, presidential wannabes Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee blamed the administration of President Bill Clinton for a law prohibiting service personnel in recruitment offices from carrying weapons.
Their implication that the Clintons, one of whom will be the Democratic opponent in the next general election, are to blame for our servicemen not being able to defend themselves, was false, again according to PolitiFact. Research showed that the Republican administration of George H.W. Bush was, in fact, the author of the prohibition.
Still, Bush and Huckabee’s misleading attribution was probably effective with many people, particularly those already receptive to Clinton scapegoating.
And other voters, including independents, look for answers that are immediately available to them. And when they are frustrated or desperate or angry, as many Americans were after yet another mass shooting, they reach for whatever is closest. Politicians, of course, are more than ready to offer answers that are close, that are easy, but that are also lies.
Conversely, it is hard and time-consuming to learn the facts. It can even be drudgery.
But it is the responsible thing to do in a democratic society preparing to elect the next leader of the free world.
How, then, best to proceed?
With today’s modern tools, Fox News, which is sponsoring the Aug. 6 presidential debate, might consider activating a team of news surfers who can feed real time fact-check reports to the moderator, who in follow-up questioning, might confront any debaters making false statements.
This “lie detector” type mechanism could lead to increased tension, less pretension and certainly more candidate perspiration.
The American public would win with a clearer view of the truth, and Fox would win with likely higher Nielsen ratings.
I may even watch it myself.
David McGrath is emeritus professor at the College of DuPage and author of “The Territory.”