Does truth matter any more in the public square?
I'm prompted to address that question by a recent analysis by Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, concerning President Donald Trump.
"Born amid made-up crowd size claims and 'alternative facts,' the Trump presidency has been a factory of falsehood from the start, churning out distortions, conspiracy theories and brazen lies at an assembly-line pace that has challenged fact-checkers and defied historical analogy," Baker wrote.
"Indeed," he says later, "the very idea of truth is increasingly a fungible commodity in a political environment that seems to reward the loudest voices, not the most honest."
Since Tuesday's election, Trump has made sweeping allegations, including "If you count the legal votes, I easily win," and "This is a case where they're trying to steal an election."
A Times story authored by Baker and Maggie Haberman and including those quotes is headlined: "In torrent of falsehoods, Trump claims the election is being stolen."
All of this struck a nerve with me, as I have watched that national scene from afar.
Covering campaigns and government for many years, I have always viewed it as part of the job to correct the record when I hear a candidate or elected official say something clearly wrong.
When former Gov. Bruce Rauner repeatedly said he couldn't even give away the old Mitsubishi plant in Normal because Illinois' business climate was so bad, it became a subject for me to write about. That's because a startup called Rivian purchased the plant with help from Rauner's commerce agency. Now, that company will build vehicles including delivery vans for Amazon.
But in the case of President Trump, it is virtually impossible to keep up.
Baker noted that the Times tabulated 131 false or misleading statements from the president at a single rally in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 17. And the Washington Post has kept a running tab of more than 22,000 false or misleading Trump statements over nearly four years, including 189 one day in August.
I asked a couple of central Illinois politicians about this on Election Day.
"I think he's brought down the level of political discourse," said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, of Springfield, who was at Operating Engineers Local 965 in Springfield. "I think (Joe) Biden is a man of principle and character, and I believe he'll restore that. But it depends on all of us — Democrats and Republicans — to get back to a level of professionalism and win back the respect of the American people."
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, evolved into a Trump fan after saying in late 2016, following disclosure of past Trump comments about grabbing women were revealed, that he couldn't vote for him. At an appearance at Knights of Columbus Council 2120 in Taylorville, I asked Davis about the Baker column, and if the president's lies and misstatements diminished the value of truth.
"I can tell you, unfortunately, I've been the subject of dishonest attacks," Davis said. "They shouldn't have been leveled. It's unfortunate that it becomes part of the political process, even at our level."
I followed up, asking if he was proud to be on the Trump's team, given incorrect things the president regularly says. Davis was an honorary co-chair of the president's 2020 Illinois campaign.
"Well, I think there are a lot of folks in office that get judged for what they say correctly or incorrectly on a regular basis," Davis said. "But I've been around the president numerous times where he's been nothing but accurate in helping me address the problems of this district."
Davis also said Trump brought on "some great people." He noted that he got a good-luck text Election Day from Sonny Perdue, the secretary of agriculture who has visited the district.
"I'm proud of the team that he and his administration have put together," Davis added. "And knowing that that team has been so accessible ... is another reason why I'm glad I'm co-chair of his campaign, and I certainly hope he wins."
Jeremy Elkins, associate professor of political science at Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia, co-edited a 2012 book "Truth and Democracy." In an interview, he said that there has been a movement in recent years to treat politics as war.
"And we know the kind of propaganda that takes place during war," Elkins said. "We sort of excuse it as ... one of the consequences of the war."
Elkins also said that historically, when authoritarian leaders come to power, "it's almost always on the basis of resentment."
Resentment, revenge and and a desire for vindication are powerful emotions, he said.
He said people in the Trump base fit among those who, over decades, have come to the idea that they "have been victims of all sorts of things — that the Democrats will take away their Bibles and their guns ... that there's a culture war, that there's a war on Christmas, that retailers are participating in that war because they say happy holidays rather than Merry Christmas, and that we are ... the ones that nobody pays attention to, and we need to have our voice heard."
He said the mindset has roots in President Richard Nixon's southern strategy that turned many states red, and the GOP Contract With America that helped make Newt Gingrich speaker of the U.S. House. And, he said, it creates "such a powerful sentiment, which I think has been intentionally cultivated. ... that becomes the only truth that matters. And then the question of, well, do masks really prevent the spread of disease doesn't really matter any more."
I would add that many Trump supporters like policies enacted while disliking tweets or taunts from the president.
Baker, in the analysis, did note that Democratic President Bill Clinton was impeached — though not removed from office — for lying under oath about an affair with a White House intern. And President Lyndon Johnson was hardly straight with the American public about the Vietnam War. But Baker also wrote that some Trump supporters understand what the president says not to be literally true, but consider him authentic.
Elkins said he agreed that part of Trump's appeal is being authentic, while Democratic candidates, in his view, often come across as more practiced and "a little bit patronizing."
During the Trump presidency, Elkins said, mainstream press outlets took a stronger stand in evaluating comments — not just saying there were two sides to things, but pointing out when statements were wrong. He said it will be interesting to see if reporters continue "having a stronger presence on discerning questions of facts that are in dispute."
I've always considered credibility of a candidate or officeholder to be a key factor in evaluating if they are doing the right thing. I'm hoping that remains an accepted standard.
New job for Jobe
Former Springfield Ald. Cory Jobe is moving back downstate, and congratulations are in order for a couple of reasons.
Jobe has been named president and CEO of the Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau, which encompasses Madison, Jersey, Calhoun, Macoupin, Montgomery and Greene counties.
Jobe was named state director of tourism in early 2015, and moved to Chicago in 2016.
More recently, he was vice president of marketing and communication for Navy Pier in Chicago — but that giant attraction has been closed because of the pandemic.
Jobe said in the new job, which he starts Nov. 15, he'll have a "great product" to sell, including the "only place in the world where Route 66 and the Great River Road meet."
Meanwhile, big congratulations are in order for Jobe and John Sinouansai , who were recently married in Chicago. Sinouansai works in digital advertising, and his company has an office in St. Louis. Jobe grew up in Robinson, in southeastern Illinois.