The 2016 election is a referendum, but not on any single issue. It encompasses something far larger; it is nothing less than a modern day relitigation of the Zenger trial.
Can facts be defamatory?
That was the question colonial New York when newspaperman John Peter Zenger printed an editorial critical of the royal governor. Though the allegations in it were true, they were also considered libelous by laws of the time, and therefore treasonous, for an attack on the king’s representatives amounted to an attack on His Majesty himself.
And that is the question which modern day voters must adjudicate.
In the tussling between media and campaigns over how scandals of the past are dredged up and framed, one refrain is common. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have complained the attacks against them influence the election. It is not the accuracy of the charges which they contest, but the very mention of these allegations, which they claim color voters’ judgment.
They do color judgment, but is that a reason for silence? All elections are about persuasiveness. For decades now, substance has been less the subject of campaigns then appeals to highly desirable demographic blocks whose support promises to carry the day.
Rarely have candidates complained about irresponsible rhetoric in these instances. They have also profited from the framing of elections as a binary choice where the only moral obligation a voter has is to distinguish between the lesser of two evils. Again, facts have very little to do with this.
The media’s dredging up of semi-relevant and shoddily-researched scandals of the past is the logical outgrowth of this brand of politics. Candidates, and the voters who have sanctioned such behavior by complacently acquiescing to the mistruths of elected officials at the voting booth, are reaping what they have sown.
Facts, when they are not convenient, are now disposable. They are labelled pejorative, when of course they can be no such thing.
Facts simply are. They are an absolute which, while it cannot be acted against, also cannot act.
It is the way they are positioned in relation to other facts and to actions that is the issue. The scandals which plague Clinton and Trump are off-putting because they display a flagrant disregard for consistency. When caught, it is they who are degraded, not by the facts that come out, but by their own fecklessness.
Donald Trump’s quip that he could should someone on 5th Avenue and still retain his supporters may be the most telling moment of modern electoral politics.
This statement should be shocking, because it highlights a culture where politicians, whom are elected on the trust and discretion of the people, can not only lie, but then paint the truth as defamatory and believe their followers to be so reasonless that they will except such obvious tripe. Perhaps the only thing which is more alarming is those who do accept such behavior.
While the vision of the apocalypse which most Americans have as the outcome of this election, regardless of who wins, is unlikely to materialize, it is a return to an era of dishonesty. A victory either way is like the second coming of Richard Nixon, for Trump has the same need for validation and Clinton is as willing to use government resources to her own ends.
Nixon, at least, paid for his crimes, for he lived in an era where facts were still valued.
The same cannot be said in 2016, however. This election is a question of what magnitude of sins voters are willing to overlook. Though this is hardly the first election to be framed in this way, it is the first where the deficiencies are so fundamental and so public, and the first where there has been successful pushback against revelation of wrongdoing as an unfair defamation of character.
Can truth be defamatory? Pre-colonial America rejected that notion and set a standard for free expression which would come to define the nation. Hopefully, 2016 voters will uphold that decision.