How good are politicians at shape-shifting?

Donald Trump’s lies, compiled by the New York Times a few days ago, are interesting not so much for what they reveal about him, but what they reveal about his audience. Anthropologists Martin and Frause-Jensen point out that he seems to get support despite or even because he doesn’t try to hide or duck the lies, faux pas and contradictions.  Perhaps this is the core of his appeal? Like a classic trickster, he embodies contradictions in a way that appeals to those struggling with the same oppositions themselves. He once said he hoped the housing market would collapse, which it did with 5 million people losing their homes, and shrugged that off as business. But he wrote proudly about how he bullied a bank manager not to foreclose the mortgage of a widow. It is a familiar pattern. People frequently make themselves feel good by sponsoring the education of one African child but shrug about the poverty across most of the world, seeing it as beyond their control. People do tend to lie, so perhaps they forgive Trump’s mis-speaking – as he pretends it is – because they can imagine themselves doing the same. At least he is not a robot spouting the scripts of his mandarins.


However, how long can this last? David Runciman writes about how we need to be more discerning about political hypocrisy. Some political rhetoric has to be insincere – for example, if politicians are going to work within political parties, then they have to make statements they may not personally agree with and are compromises thrashed out with colleagues. We do the same in many organisations. We articulate a line worked out with a team in charities too. In my experience of working in international development charities, when we had bad news for the donor – a project not going quite to plan – we would choose our timing about explaining ‘failure’ carefully. Once we had marshaled as much information as possible, and a plan for recovering the situation, we would rush to be honest to our back donor. But we were not honest as soon as we knew our predictions and promises had failed because events or preferences had changed. However, some hyporcrisy or lies are unforgiveable. If you never admit to failure, or leave it too long, for example, to protect the interests of your organisation, party or yourself, then you are a wicked politician (or charity worker).


Politicians seem to hold themselves to different standards when campaigning and when governing. It has become more difficult to cover over failures of government, especially since the Freedom of Information Act was enacted, so Ministers and Prime Ministers will tend to be honest about difficulties (even if they still tend to evade personal blame for failures if possible). During campaigning in contrast, their promises become fantastical. When Teresa May put social care cuts in her manifesto it was as if she (or her special advisers) forgot they were campaigning in an election – it seemed like political incompetence to include something so unpopular, honest although it was (within her own ideological framework). If Jeremy Corbyn ever gets into government, the test for him will be the opposite: whether he can shape-shift out of campaigning mode. His promises have been portrayed as good politics but will he be capable of good administration, which always involves privileging the interests of some above others, when he has had little experience of it? It may depend on whether he has the sense to rely heavily enough on others who do.


Can Trump ever shift from campaigning to wise government? If not, his trickery may have got him into office but will his support and sympathy sustain? He once wrote that he doesn’t make money for the money – he gets his kicks from making deals. As Tony Swartz, the guy who wrote the book on the Art of the Deal for him explains, Trump wants to dominate people to avoid being beaten by predators. And he wants adulation. The inherent problem for him is that he wants to make himself great through presiding over a country but once you have power, you can’t do that by campaigning. There is surely a limit to the magic of contradictory rhetoric over time? There is no getting away from his need to forge alliances with key players and groups within the world of politics and administration and with them, to achieve tangible outcomes if he wants to win a second term. Otherwise America's weakness becomes his own and disguising that will become impossible. The only other alternative is that he shape-shifts into a different person, reinventing himself as something completely new. Global public humiliation could be enough for him to give that a go.


The President Josiah Bartlet in the political series the West Wing reminds me of Obama whereas Trump is like Frank Underwood in the totally inferior House of Cards. This is not because the first set is morally good and the other is wicked (although that may be the case), but because Bartlet/Obama were consummate, shapeshifting and honorable politicians knowingly engaged in political struggle and compromise for others, those close to them and themselves. Trump is stuck in a quest that mystifies him and he doesn’t appear to have a clue what he is doing which will eventually, I anticipate, be his undoing. We don’t have to live in a post-truth world, we just need to be more discerning about what political work is about and what truth in this context means.