> Bret Stephens writes the foreign-affairs column of the Wall Street Journal, for which he won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Bret Stephens delivered the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture this week at the University of California, Los Angeles. Read the full text of his remarks below:
But the most interesting conversation is not about why Donald Trump lies. Many public figures lie, and he’s only a severe example of a common type.
The interesting conversation concerns how we come to accept those lies.
Nearly 25 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the great scholar and Democratic Senator from New York, coined the phrase, “defining deviancy down.” His topic at the time was crime, and how American society had come to accept ever-increasing rates of violent crime as normal.
“We have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard,” Moynihan wrote.
You can point to all sorts of ways in which this redefinition of deviancy has also been the story of our politics over the past 30 years, a story with a fully bipartisan set of villains.
I personally think we crossed a rubicon in the Clinton years, when three things happened: we decided that some types of presidential lies didn’t matter; we concluded that “character” was an over-rated consideration when it came to judging a president; and we allowed the lines between political culture and celebrity culture to become hopelessly blurred.
But whatever else one might say about President Clinton, what we have now is the crack-cocaine version of that.
If a public figure tells a whopping lie once in his life, it’ll haunt him into his grave. If he lies morning, noon and night, it will become almost impossible to remember any one particular lie. Outrage will fall victim to its own ubiquity. It’s the same truth contained in Stalin’s famous remark that the death of one man is a tragedy but the death of a million is a statistic.
One of the most interesting phenomena during the presidential campaign was waiting for Trump to say that one thing that would surely break the back of his candidacy.
Would it be his slander against Mexican immigrants? Or his slur about John McCain’s record as a POW? Or his lie about New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11? Or his attacks on Megyn Kelly, on a disabled New York Times reporter, on a Mexican-American judge? Would it be him tweeting quotations from Benito Mussolini, or his sly overtures to David Duke and the alt-right? Would it be his unwavering praise of Vladimir Putin? Would it be his refusal to release his tax returns, or the sham that seems to been perpetrated on the saps who signed up for his Trump U courses? Would it be the tape of him with Billy Bush?
None of this made the slightest difference. On the contrary, it helped him. Some people became desensitized by the never-ending assaults on what was once quaintly known as “human decency.” Others seemed to positively admire the comments as refreshing examples of personal authenticity and political incorrectness.
Shameless rhetoric will always find a receptive audience with shameless people. Donald Trump’s was the greatest political strip-tease act in U.S. political history: the dirtier he got, the more skin he showed, the more his core supporters liked it.
Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, called on Americans to summon “the better angels of our nature.” Donald Trump’s candidacy, and so far his presidency, has been Lincoln’s exhortation in reverse.
Way back on Friday, President Trump declared that several news organizations — ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, The New York Times — were “the enemy of the American people.” You know who’s not the enemy, in his book?
Mr. Jones, in case you aren’t aware, is the conspiracy-theorizing, flame-throwing nationalistic radio and internet star who’s best known for suggesting that Sept. 11 was an inside job, that the Sandy Hook school shooting was “completely fake” and that the phony Clinton child-sex trafficking scandal known as Pizzagate warranted serious investigation (which one Facebook fan took upon himself to do, armed with an AR-15).
Mr. Jones, 43, has been around for a while. Like every media outfit in the Trump era, his platforms have gotten record traffic and, he told me last week, seen increases in revenue, with ads for water purification systems and for supplements to enhance “brain force” and virility.
But he is apparently taking on a new role as occasional information source and validator for the president of the United States, with whom, Mr. Jones says, he sometimes speaks on the phone.
Millions of listeners and viewers tune in to Mr. Jones on his websites (Infowars chief among them), on Facebook and through old-fashioned radio, and their loyalty partly explains how Mr. Trump maintains a hard-core faithful who don’t believe a word they read about him in a newspaper like this one.
His audience, Mr. Jones told me, is “the teeth of the Trump organization on the ground — the information-warfare, organic internal resistance.” Sure enough, on Saturday the journalist McKay Coppins of The Atlantic tweeted from Florida, “Spotted at Trump rally: More than one InfoWars t-shirt.”