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May the biggest un-truther win

For Republican presidential candidates, honesty is a vice

December 15, 2015 5:00PM ET

Here comes another Republican presidential candidates’ debate. What determines who will win and who will lose?

It’s simpler than you might expect. The biggest un-truther wins. Whoever tells too many truths loses. The truthier the candidates, the more they stumble.

Can that be true? It sounds so false. What about the issues? Presidential bearing? Quick wit? Presentation? Zingers and quips?

Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize–winning fact-checking website run by reporters and editors at The Tampa Bay Times, is in the business of rating political statements for truth. It’s possible to argue with their standards and nitpick this item or that. But it’s relatively neutral, and besides, it’s the only service of its kind we’ve got. So let’s go with it as our rough and ready guide.

In its data summary “Fact-checking the 2016 GOP presidential candidates,” Politifact has put the candidates in the order of their popularity and put their statements in six categories: true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false and pants on fire. Simple horizontal bar graphs alongside the candidates convey their essential truthfulness at a glance.

Take a look and you will see what you might suspect but what shouldn’t possibly be true: The more falsehoods a Republican candidate speaks, the more successful he or she is. If you are competing for the GOP nomination for president, telling the truth is the kiss of death.

Draw a dividing line across the middle of each chart, with true, mostly true and even half true as a positive (by normal human, not political, standards) and mostly false, false and pants on fire together below the line.

Donald Trump, for example, had 76 claims analyzed. Of those, 58 fell into the bottom half (11 mostly false, 29 false and 18 pants on fire). Thirteen were half true, five mostly true and zero (yes, zero) completely true. Fully three-quarters of what Trump said is rated false. 

Trump is in first place.

Sen. Ted Cruz is now in second place. He has kept his visibility high, and Politifact rated two-thirds of his statements as falsies.

Ben Carson had a higher nontruthiness percentage than Trump or Cruz, with 84 percent of his statements falling in the falsehood range and a mere 16 percent leaning toward reality and, like Trump, no statements rated completely true. So why isn’t Carson in first place? Perhaps it’s because he lied more only as a percentage. Politifact analyzed 25 of his statements, giving Trump almost three times as many false statements to work for him.

Nobody else comes even close.

There are Republican candidates who are nearly as truthful as Democrats, and as we see, they’re dead in the water.

Sen. Marco Rubio is at barely 40 percent in the mostly false to pants on fire range. That’s enough to get him noticed, but he can’t get any real traction if 60 percent of what he says has some truth in it.

Once upon a time, everyone expected former Gov. Jeb Bush to be the leading candidate. But he’s been stuck down at 5, 4, 3 percent. Is it because he’s low energy? Soft on immigrants? A bad debater? Because people remember his brother? Or is it too much truthiness?

What do Bush, Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rand Paul have in common? Their falsehood ratings are all way down around 30 percent. Their statements are true or have some elements of truth better than two-thirds of the time. Even that much truthiness — and it’s not really a lot — is the kiss of death for a Republican candidate. It’s got to be at least reversed; no more than a third can be dominated by factual elements, and a bare minimum of two thirds of what they say must be dominated by fantasy, legend and myth. In sum, falsehoods.

Is it party specific? Politifact rated Hillary Clinton at 62 percent on the truth side, Sen. Bernie Sanders at 63 percent and former Gov. Martin O’Malley at 75 percent (though saying very little). So yes, it’s party specific.

Does this tell us something about the candidates? Or about the voters? Do liars like to run as Republicans, or do Republicans like to be lied to?

There are Republican candidates who are nearly as truthful as Democrats, and as we see, they’re dead in the water. So it’s Republican voters. Of course, there are Democrats like that too, who like some delusion with their politics, but it’s a minority with a preference for fallacy. They both may be right in a sense, since, as Stephen Colbert said, reality has a liberal bias.

Admittedly, it’s a lot of work to sort it out. In theory, or once upon a time, we relied on the media to do it. They do, to some degree. Politifact does it, but it’s read only by political junkies. The 24-hour news networks do it, but feebly. And often in the most shallow ways. But nobody does it in such a way that telling lies has negative consequences. 

If telling lies has no negative consequences, then falsehoods become equal — even superior — to the truth. This is not merely a moral issue. Truth has value. Falsehoods form the basis for bad actions: Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, and he’s going to use them; cutting taxes for the rich will grow the economy and create wonderful jobs; arm the moderate Syrian rebels, and they’ll defeat ISIL and President Bashar al-Assad too.

So how has it come to be that in America today, lying is ever more the road to political success?  

Larry Beinhart is the author of “Wag the Dog” (originally published as “American Hero”), which was made into a motion picture of the same name, starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Anne Heche. He is also the author of “Salvation Boulevard,” also made into a motion picture, and “Foreign Exchange.” 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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