Don Wycliff

Truth and consequences

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The genius of the tempter in the biblical story of the Fall lay not in spinning a lie for Adam and Eve (“You shall be as gods …”), but in knowing the falsehood they wanted to hear. We have seen a similar genius displayed by many of our politicians from time immemorial — more recently by Donald Trump, first as a candidate and now as the president of the United States, especially as he attempts to sell a tax bill cruelly designed to take from the poor and give to the rich.

This is hardly a surprise. First, from day one, Trump fastened on fear as the way to the hearts of his supporters and played to it: fear of Mexicans and other immigrants, of Muslims, of “others” of whatever type; fear of economic dispossession and displacement. For every fear, he offered a falsehood: Mexico was sending us “rapists”; trade deals had left Uncle Sam with his pockets turned inside out; high taxes were suppressing job growth, when in fact federal taxes remain near historic lows. (Never mind the fact that trickle-down theories were criticized by Pope Francis in “Evangelii Gaudium” as “never [having] been confirmed by the facts.”)

Second, the president is hardly the first U.S. politician to struggle with truth-telling. On the contrary, it’s more accurate to say that Trump is the culmination of a decades-long process in which we the people have taught our public officials that candor is not welcome, hard truths are unappreciated and honesty carries severe penalties — especially when it comes to paying for the government and the needs of our neighbors.

Consider the case of Walter Mondale, the Minnesota senator who was the Democratic nominee for president in 1984. Taxes were a big issue that year, as President Ronald Reagan, after having won major tax cuts, faced growing deficits.

“Mr. Reagan will raise taxes; and so will I,” Senator Mondale said in his Democratic convention acceptance speech that year. “He won’t tell you. I just did.”

Mondale won just one state — his own — in that election. Reagan won in a landslide. While Mondale’s tax promise was far from the only reason he suffered such a dramatic defeat, it was certainly one of them — and one of the most important. Telling Americans you would raise their taxes is not the way to America’s heart.

Of course, Reagan did raise taxes. To his credit, he was a genuine fiscal conservative, a true believer in budgetary discipline, and he felt obligated to try to restore some balance between revenues and expenditures.

His successor, President George H. W. Bush, shared that approach. But Bush had absorbed the Mondale lesson and, in 1988, famously promised, “No new taxes.” He probably even meant it. But as he watched deficits climb through his term, Bush became persuaded that fiscal responsibility was more important than his tax pledge. He negotiated and signed a tax increase that arguably helped pave the way for the prosperity the nation enjoyed during the latter half of the 1990s. But he failed to win re-election in 1992, the only incumbent in decades to suffer that fate.

Again, there were factors other than taxes that played a role in that outcome, but taxes were a major reason Bush was voted out of office. Once again, millions of Americans signaled to their elected officials that there were some truths they simply had no interest in hearing. 

Truth be told, we Americans have come to resemble the witch Eveline in the musical “The Wiz.” “Don’t bring me no bad news!” she admonishes. Our politicians have heard this admonition and learned to abide by it, and we voters need to acknowledge our responsibility in teaching them this lesson. 

But we Catholics are obliged to uphold the moral value of truth-telling. This is one reason the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a series of refreshingly frank statements about the “unconscionable” tax proposals now under consideration by Congress. “The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act bills recently passed by the House and the Senate,” according to a Dec. 6 letter to Congress from Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice, “raise taxes on the poor and cut taxes on the rich, violating basic principles of justice.”

That’s what telling hard truths looks like. Would that our elected officials take a page from that playbook — and that we voters be courageous enough to listen.