The Platform

Donald Trump with two of his children in 2016. (Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock)

“View this the same as the flu,” former President Donald Trump said at the beginning of a news conference addressing COVID-19 on February 26, 2020. “We have it so well under control. I mean, we really have done a very good job.” Later, in his first speech after his hospitalization for the virus, Trump stood on a White House balcony on October 10 and made a grand declaration about the coronavirus: “It’s going to disappear. It is disappearing.”

Over the course of the pandemic, Trump suggested to Americans that they didn’t have to change much about their usual behavior, and government measures will definitely keep them safe. Of course, when we look at the 876,000 Americans who have died from the virus today, Trump’s dishonest claims are starkly obvious, and frankly ironic.

At this point, Donald Trump’s constant lying has long been unsurprising. But dishonesty is actually a shared trait between politicians across the political spectrum. After fact-checking former President Barack Obama, Politifact shows that less than half (47%) of his statements are true or mostly true. President Joe Biden has a slightly worse record of 36% true or mostly true.

Since the birth of the nation, U.S. politicians have been telling lies to meet their political goals, and former President Andrew Jackson was amongst the most infamous of his kind. In an official speech on December 6, 1830, Jackson made false claims about the consequences of the Indian Removal Act, a policy that granted lands west of the Mississippi to Native Nations in exchange for Indian lands within existing state borders. With stoking racism and flat-out lies, Jackson persuaded Americans that the relocation of thousands of Native Americans would cost them little, and would be beneficial to the Natives themselves.

The Indian Removal Act “will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; […] enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers,” Jackson declared. Using “rude institutions” to describe Native lifestyles and culture, Jackson blatantly discriminated and disrespected the indigenous peoples in an official speech. Furthermore, his promise that relocation would “retard the progress of decay” and preserve Native communities was a deceitful one. Looking back at the event from a contemporary lens, the Indian Removal Act was bound to cause the iniquitous Trail of Tears from the start, yet Jackson’s lies convinced Congress to still authorize the Act. In fact, many Americans also championed Jackson’s resolve, especially the newly empowered middle-income and poor white men who were eager to claim the spoils of Indian land.

At valued educational institutions in this country, dishonesty is often taken very seriously by both the student body and the administration, and most people are taught from a young age that lying is unethical. However, the examples above demonstrate that, when it comes to politics, many Americans seem to tolerate or even favor candidates who regularly promote false claims. After all, the four aforementioned politicians were all, at some point, elected by the American people to be the decision-making president. Inevitably, the ethical quandary of lying in politics arises. The media, the public, and experts such as Dan Ariely, a Duke psychology professor, frequently pose one question: “If you’re a politician who lies to get elected, how do you weigh honesty versus the good of the people?”

Defenders of lying politicians draw a parallel between political deception and the socially acceptable “white lies” that many of us use daily. Professor Robert Feldman at the University of Massachusetts claims that untrue statements from politicians can be equivalent to a spouse saying that an outfit looks amazing on their partner, even though it looks awful. He says, “the lies that we accept from politicians right now are lies that are seen as acceptable because it’s what we want to hear.” There are lies that fall under polite norms and are not very dangerous. When politicians deceive beyond white lies, as in the case of Donald Trump or Andrew Jackson, defenders still attempt to rationalize such behavior. Professor Ariely maintained that the public “understands that Washington is a dirty place and that lying is actually very helpful to get [politicians’] policies implemented.” Thus, according to Ariely, people “don’t mind so much if their politician lies because they [themselves] think it’s for the common good.”

On the other hand, critics of lying in politics see no distinction between the justified “white lies” and other forms of deception that are harmful and self-interested. Psychology researcher Bella DePaulo at UCSB believes, “it doesn’t matter if the attempt was motivated by good intentions and it doesn’t matter if the lie is about something little.” She believes being honest is always what a moral individual should do, regardless of inner motives or outside circumstances. Hence, to many critics, lying in politics is fundamentally intolerable.

Determining the morals behind acts of dishonesty in politics is a dilemma that sets short-term outcomes against long-term effects. In the moment, it is right to speak the truth, as honesty is widely recognized as an honorable trait. Yet it is also right to do what’s best for the future. White lies and outright false claims are both proven to be useful for politicians when they want to sway public opinion to get elected. For many politicians, this means that telling lies in the short term can be the right decision too, as doing so gives them the opportunity to positively influence more people in the long run.

Some politicians, whose momentary untrue statements helped them win office, do end up making long-lasting, net positive impacts. For example, Abraham Lincoln reunited America and took major steps to end slavery in the country. Unfortunately, not every elected politician implements policies that are overall beneficial to the public. The recent political agenda of former President Donald Trump is evidence of this, as it has divided and sparked more conflicts between diverse groups of Americans than that of other recent presidents.

Likewise, Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, which he maneuvered political lies to pass, is a historical example that bore apparent detrimental long-term effects. Despite asserting that the Act will “relieve [Natives] from all the evils, real or imaginary, present or prospective, with which they may be supposed to be threatened,” Jackson lived up to none of these promises. Instead of alleviating the Natives from evils such as discrimination and cultural erasure, Jackson’s policies and the means by which they were carried out aggravated generational trauma and drastically dwindled Native populations.

To ensure that white Americans shoulder as little burden from Native relocation as possible, Jackson proposed to hire private contractors to oversee the process, awarding each contract to the lowest bidder, with very little care. The resulting corruption and negligence, combined with the sheer scale of the endeavor, was what gave the “Trail of Tears” its name. One contractor who received almost $20,000 bragged to a colleague that “he had never issued a single ration.” A Seminole reported that this was typical, explaining that “rations [were] issued irregularly; when due, not delivered, and when delivered but half issued.” Without the food and basic care which the government promised, Native women were forced to trade sex for food to survive. Disease ran rampant among Natives on the journey of relocation, coinciding with America’s first cholera epidemic, during which 40 percent of a camp died overnight. Smallpox, influenza, and yellow fever struck as well. In this circumstance, one U.S. official argued that medicine should be issued as a standard provision, but his authorities disagreed. Blood and tears drenched the Natives’ journey; in the approximately 16,000 Cherokees who were removed from their homelands under the Act between 1836 and 1839, about 4,000 perished.

Indeed, since situations differ from politician to politician, it is impossible to holistically evaluate the ethics of each political liar with consequentialism, as one cannot weigh every harm and benefit of lying in politics throughout history against each other. To avoid variable and contingent conclusions, analyzing the ethics of lying in politics using Immanuel Kant’s categorical rule-based reasoning proves effectual.

From a rule-based perspective, in order to be moral, every individual must follow a set of universal duties. According to Kant, “truthfulness […] is the formal duty of man to everyone, however great the disadvantage that may arise therefrom for him or for any other.” Based on this statement, a rule-based thinker would judge that it is unethical for politicians to lie, simply because they would be disregarding a significant moral duty. Moreover, one’s duty to tell the truth in the moment holds, no matter the future ramifications. Thus, from a Kantian standpoint, possible long-term advantages that politicians, if elected, may bring to society cannot excuse their dishonesty.

Kant also informs us that each individual should always respect others as rational beings who value the universal moral laws, regardless of what people actually want in a particular situation. By telling a political “white lie” to the public out of concern for what people want to hear, a politician would arguably be using the public as a means to its own contentment, rather than respecting everyone as rational beings. Hence, through a rule-based lens, a politician would inherently be acting immorally by telling any lie, including ones with amicable intentions.

In a time when democracy is being challenged by insurrections and violence, lying can exacerbate threats to this longstanding system, expanding a culture built on fake science and false news. In the past, Andrew Jackson’s manipulation of pseudoscience swayed voters’ opinion by reducing Natives as a race to “savage hunters” inferior to whites, contributing to an American civilization rife with racism and bias. In recent years, Donald Trump’s disregard of experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci cultivates a collective ambiance in many places across the country that dismiss science, safety, mask-wearing, and social distancing.

These deceptions matter as our democracy depends on the truth. If people cast votes based on lies, the basic integrity of the democratic system, founded on informed voters making choices about who will run their countries, is destroyed.

In court, you can’t lie without being charged with perjury. In business, you cannot say that a product melts away fat if it doesn’t, which four U.S. companies hawking weight-loss products learned after the Federal Trade Commission fined them $26.5 million dollars. But how can we expect to have a functioning democracy when unbridled lying from political leaders is viewed as less harmful than dubious claims about a diet product?

Even if our toleration of these lies is often driven by our own collective psychological need to distance ourselves from harsh realities, even if it hurts sometimes to accept the truth, it is past time for us to regulate validity in political advertising and be increasingly mindful of what comes out of leaders’ mouths.

Li Yin is a Chinese national studying at The Thacher School in Ojai, California and on the move to Athens, Greece. Li is a polyglot who loves classes in Language, Literature, Art, and History. She hopes to major in Art History, Classics, or International Relations in the future. Beyond the classroom, Li is a queer activist, student journalist, actor, musician, visual artist, equestrian rider, and cowgirl. She regularly volunteered with the Lions Club when she lived in Asia and co-founded the Paper Plane Project, a student-led mental health non-profit based in southern China, through Harvard Innovation Labs.