WHEN Joe Biden first ran for President in 1988, his campaign fell apart because of a “scandal”; he plagiarised a speech by the British Labour leader, Neil Kinnock. In the context of all that has happened since, it is extraordinary that such a minor sin could have derailed his campaign.
According to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, Donald Trump said 10,000 false or misleading things in his first 827 days in office, or about 12 a day. His approval rating, while lowish by past standards, is still 41%.
His lies do not affect him in part because his supporters either do not care, or do not accept the authority of such fact-checking services. Just 33% of voters in 2016 believed Trump was honest and trustworthy, and 64% did not.But he still got 46% of the popular vote (albeit two points behind Hillary Clinton).
Just as importantly, Trump has no shame. He repeats things that have been shown to be untrue. Just this week, he declared that he was “the most transparent President in history” although he has refused to publish his tax returns, reveal who visited the White House and has made his staff sign non-disclosure agreements.
Being shameless has a number of advantages. Opponents have so many lies and falsehoods to deal with that they find it hard to focus on an individual misdemeanour. Supporters start by ignoring trivial lies and then find themselves contaminated by the process; where can they draw the line? And the public suffers from exhaustion. There are so many scandals and departures from conventional morality. Like buses, another outrage will come along in a minute.
That brings us to Boris Johnson, who was fired from his first job at The Times for fabricating stories, fired from a post as a Conservative shadow minister about lying over an affair, and was notorious for making up stories at The Telegraph about the EU. In 2016, he persisted with his false claim about Britain’s £350m a week contribution to the EU, despite being rebuked by the head of the UK Statistics Authority, claimed that 77m Turks were about to have the right to move to the UK (and then lied about making that statement), and, while Foreign Secretary, endangered the safety of British citizen, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, by falsely claiming she had been teaching journalism in Iran.
Matthew Parris, the ex-Tory MP, says in the Times that Boris displays
Casual disregard for the truth; reckless caprice; lazy disregard for details, weak negotiating skills
as well as “moral turpitude.” Despite all this, he is the favourite to be the next PM. A party that claims to be pro-family and pro-business may elect a serial adulterer who recently said “Fuck business” because of its worries about Brexit.
Again, he has recovered from all these setbacks because he has no shame, allowing him to simply shrug off the claims against him. Trump loves him even though Johnson, once said, back when was pretending to be a liberal when Mayor of London that
The only reason I wouldn’t go to some parts of New York is the real danger of meeting Donald Trump
The broader question, perhaps, is why the public is willing to support such shameless candidates. A degree of caution is needed. Johnson may be backed by Conservative members, who are 75% male and 97% white; in Scotland, Wales and the north of England, his image may prove toxic. Trump too has a loyal demographic of white males; his approval rating is currently -27 among women and +1 among men, according to YouGov.
Studies show that men tend to be much more confident about their abilities than women. For example, a group of students were asked to recall their performance in a maths test; males overestimated their score by 30%, women by 15%. When incentivised to pick the best team to pass a test, more men were chosen, even when they were less able, because of their overconfident ciaims (see https://www8.gsb.columbia.edu/newsroom/newsn/1879/men8217s-honest-overconfidence-may-lead-to-male-domination-in-the-c8211suite ).
So one explanation for the death of shame in politics is that men have no problem with bullshitters. Couple that with anxiety about their loss of status in a more meritocratic world, and it seems that men are happy to vote for shameless candidates.