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Here’s a counter-cyclical observation. Politicians very rarely tell direct untruths. At the very least, they do so less often than the general population. This is not because they are any more virtuous, but because the consequences of being caught out in a lie are — or used to be — so much more serious for them than for other professions.

“You can tell which politician is lying: it’s the one whose lips are moving.” How many times have you heard half-clever observations like that? How often have you repeated them yourself? In fact, politicians tie themselves in knots trying not to lie. We all know how it’s done. Sometimes they affect to misunderstand the question, or answer a different question than the one that has been asked. Sometimes they imply something without saying it in so many words. Sometimes they use lawyerly formulations that are technically true but misleading to any casual listener. Sometimes they simply flannel (“I’ve already set out my position on that issue, and I don’t intend to repeat it here”).

I don’t like it any more than you do. As the poet William Blake observed, “A truth that’s told with bad intent / Beats all the lies you can invent.” I’m simply pointing out that politicians very rarely tell point-blank whoppers. Or, rather, not until now.

The executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, was on British TV the other day talking about how the rules had changed. His newspaper had hitherto been too high-minded to use words like “lie,” he said, but Donald Trump had left it with no choice. He cited a number of Trump’s outright fabrications – “I was against the war in Iraq,” “Hillary started the birther controversy and I finished it,” “I have high poll numbers from African-Americans” — and argued that these were in a different category from the more usual politicians’ techniques of exaggeration, selective quotation and dodgy statistics.

He’s right, but Donald Trump is not alone. The Clintons, too, engage in these straightforward lies, from not having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky to deleting emails even after you’ve announced that you’ll hand them over.

Bill Clinton realized that, in a world where everyone thinks politicians lie, you might as well actually lie. The point is not that he was the first politician to dissemble, but that he was the first to do it without any notable diminution in his popularity. He saw the way the market was moving, and took a position accordingly.

It was happening in the United Kingdom at the same time and for the same reason. Tony Blair, too, realized that the sheer cynicism of the electorate had lessened the penalty for being caught fibbing. The British parliamentary system had until then been based on the idea that saying something untrue to the House of Commons was an unspeakable disgrace. Even to accuse another MP of lying was so serious that it would bring immediate expulsion from the chamber. If a minister cited erroneous statistics in good faith, he was expected to make a groveling apology.

Blair changed all that, cheerfully propagandizing from the Dispatch Box, erasing the distinction between electioneering and government. As a result, lying to Parliament has ceased to be a big deal. In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, for example, David Cameron was asked in the Commons whether he would stay in post to implement a Leave vote. “Yes,” he replied glibly: A bare-faced, chateau-bottled, ocean-going lie. And you know what? No one cared. Of all the criticism thrown at David Cameron on his departure, much of it enormously unfair, no one thought to mention misleading Parliament.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the product – we might almost say the excrescence – of a scornful, sneering, sarcastic media vernacular. In the old cliche, you get the politicians you deserve. If you start from the proposition that all candidates for public office are shysters, some of them will conclude that they might as well act like shysters.

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Let me make the same point more positively. If you expect higher standards from your representatives, just as from your kids, they are likelier to try to live up to them.

For a generation, popular culture in general, and Hollywood in particular, has worked on the premise that every candidate for office is either Al Capone or Adolf Hitler. Sure enough, you now have Hillary versus Trump. Don’t act surprised.

Dan Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.

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