In the last minute of a Today interview on her new book Tuesday, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley described President Trump as a "truthful" person. Did Haley have "any doubt about his truthfulness, his ability to tell the truth?" asked host Savannah Guthrie. "Did you think he was a truthful person?"
"Yes," Haley replied. "In every instance that I dealt with him, he was truthful, he listened, and he was great to work with."
It is possible, I suppose, that Haley's personal interactions with the president were so limited that she either never encountered or never recognized any of the literally thousands of lies — many of them petty, obvious, and apparently pointless — he has told on record while in office. More likely, however, is that Haley is using "truthful" to mean something more like "authentic." But these are not the same thing, and they should not be conflated.
Authenticity as it is commonly used today is about self-representation. When we say people are authentic, we mean they are not pretentious. They do not disguise their character (or lack thereof) or bow to social convention. They are unfiltered in their language and open about their flaws. In this paradigm Trump is "perhaps the most authentic" president ever, as former White House communications aide Cliff Sims put it earlier this year, because he "basically looked at the American people and said, 'This is who I am. You know everything about me.'"
Truthfulness is about accurate conveyance of reality, not personal affect. Granted, being truthful will sometimes entail being truthful about oneself, but one also could be quite personally guarded — "inauthentic," if you will, even operating under anonymity or pseudonymity — and yet be truthful. Older models of authorship and commentary, which did not rely on establishment of a personal brand and platform as is generally required now, permitted writers to publish without revealing much, if anything, about themselves. By our standards this may be deemed inauthentic, but it does not mean their work failed to communicate truth.
Conversely, an authentic person can be a habitual liar. The president is an exemplar here. Trump is demonstrably not truthful, to the point that the brazenness of his lies has become part of his authenticity. His deception is shameless and communicative. He tells us what he wants to be true as if it were true, and that works as a sort of self-revelation.
For example, Trump wanted the largest inaugural crowd, so he claimed he had it. Truthful? No. Authentic? Well, the lie did clearly convey his priorities and character. Or consider Trump's net worth, which he infamously said in a 2007 deposition "fluctuates, and it goes up and down with the markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even [his] own feelings." So he lies about his money but in doing so communicates authentically how he feels about himself. Or take his announcement, on the occasion of GDP growth falling from 2 to 1.9 percent at the end of October, that this is the "Greatest Economy in American History." Unrestrained, counterfactual boasting is authentic Trump, but his superlative is clearly a lie. This is who he is. You know everything about him.
Of late Trump has been preoccupied with the impeachment inquiry congressional Democrats have opened against him, and his self-defense is predictably authentic and untruthful. His tweeting pace has accelerated since the inquiry began — he posts at a dizzying pace, seemingly sharing every thought as soon as it comes to mind — and so has his rate of lies, moving from an average of 14 false claims per day to 22, as measured by the Washington Post's fact-checkers. He has claimed, among other impeachment-related counterfactuals, that the whistleblower is not actually a whistleblower; that his administration is the "most Transparent ... in history;" and that the whistleblower's report "bore no relationship to what the call was."
No doubt they authentically express the president's feelings and desires, but these are not truthful statements. They do not correspond to reality.
Maintaining the distinction between authenticity and truthfulness is imperative. Authenticity as we talk about it in politics is mostly a matter of personal style — maybe you like the unfiltered, "what you see is what you get" presentation, or maybe you prefer more propriety and discretion — but truthfulness is not subject to taste. The very act of mislabeling authenticity as Haley has done is negligence toward the truth, and the truth is Trump is a liar, however authentic he may be.
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