Why Donald Trump’s Lies During the Presidential Debate Don’t Matter

Campaign 2016 Debate
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton smiles as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Rick T. Wilking/Pool via AP)
Photograph by Rick T. Wilking — AP

The Internet’s fact-checking engines were working overtime during Monday night’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Even Clinton’s home page turned into a fact-checking site to debunk the Republican candidate’s statements. But will it matter to his fan base?

As expected, given his performance so far, the Republican candidate repeatedly stretched the truth, denied making certain statements despite ample evidence to the contrary, and twisted the facts until they broke.

According to one estimate, Trump made more than 34 comments that were either lies or mis-statements of fact during the debate. Clinton, by comparison, was tagged with four. According to much of the post-debate analysis, Trump also came off looking like a bully.

Moderator Lester Holt got a passing grade for his performance from media analysts. He didn’t do as badly as Matt Lauer did in his back-to-back interviews with Trump and Clinton, where he was criticized for not calling the candidate out on his incorrect statements.

Unlike Lauer, the moderator on Monday night stepped in on several occasions to challenge Trump, including his comments about the “stop and frisk” program and his repeated protests that he was not in favor of the Iraq War. Holt pointed out that there is audio evidence that Trump was in favor.

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Prior to the event, there was considerable debate about whether a moderator should check the facts stated by a candidate, or whether they should remain neutral. Chris Wallace, who will be moderating an upcoming debate, said he didn’t think moderators should check facts because that would be equivalent to expressing an opinion.

Holt clearly disagreed. But checking a candidate on his or her statements can also backfire. Some Trump supporters, including Rudy Giuliani, suggested after the debate that Holt was too aggressive with the candidate and that meant he was unfair. That could give the Trump campaign more ammunition.

The biggest problem with fact-checking the Republican candidate is that he seems to have a reality-distortion field that applies to his fan base in which even if he tells what appears to be a lie, he is seen as telling some larger truth.

In the case of the “stop and frisk” program, for example, Trump said that it was not unconstitutional and that crime rose after it was stopped. Neither of these statements is accurate. A judge ruled the program unconstitutional, and the NYPD said the crime rate actually fell after it ended.

Donald Trump finally admits President Obama was born in the United States. Watch:

And yet, Giuliani and others maintained following the debate that Trump was right and Holt was wrong—even though the evidence clearly supports a claim that the Republican candidate was mistaken.

In a similar vein, many of the mainstream media noted that Trump’s performance was marred by repeated interruptions of Clinton, vague or even incorrect comments about the economy and foreign policy, and an overall bullying attitude towards the Democratic candidate.

And yet, some voters said that he won them over because he pushed Clinton to defend herself on issues like deleting her emails and her support of NAFTA. “Trump had the upper hand this evening,” one bar patron said.

Much of the mainstream criticism of Trump focused on how unprepared he was for some of the complex questions about job creation (on which he was fact-checked by Ford (F) in real time via Twitter (TWTR)) and the economy, and yet during CNN’s post-debate analysis, Trump’s supporters criticized Clinton for being too prepared. Trump seemed more like “a regular person” rather than a mannequin, they said.

In almost every case, in other words, Trump supporters seem to be able to find a way to excuse their candidate’s incorrect statements, forgive his inadequacies, and put a positive spin on his failures.

Which raises the question: Does all of the fact-checking really matter? Is it going to change anyone’s vote that much? Or does it just support the Trump campaign’s argument that the media and the establishment are out to get their candidate, and that he represents a fresh start for America?

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