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Does the truth still matter?

Does the American public believe in or care about the idea of truth anymore?

Given that we have two candidates running for president who struggle with honesty, it’s as good a time as any to examine the question.

By definition, the word truth is pretty straightforward: the quality or state of being true.

But there’s a movement in our society away from objective truth and toward subjective truth. What’s true for me might not be true for you, the argument goes.

Donald Trump certainly believes in subjective truth — or else he’s very comfortable lying. Maybe it’s a combination of the two. He regularly spews disputed facts and mis-information without missing a beat. Reporters who cover his events have a hard time keeping up with and reporting on all the lies and half-truths.

Below is a quick sample and there are many others:

• Trump says he was against the Iraq War from the beginning. 

• Trump says he can’t release tax returns while being audited.

• Trump says Clinton started the birther conspiracy theory.

Hillary Clinton, while maybe not as openly or frequently dishonest as Trump, struggles with the truth as well (see her responses about her classified emails and her campaign’s recent remarks about her health).

Here’s the thing about lying — we all do it. Mostly, it’s due to unintentional statements that we fail to correct. I tell my 10-year-old son all the time that if the first words out of his mouth aren’t truth, he can always correct it but it has to be corrected immediately. Our first instinct in a difficult situation is to save face, even if that means lying. That goes for children and adults. But an immediate correction will set the record straight.

Politicians are generally terrible at this and Clinton and Trump are two of the worst. Instead of correcting a misleading or false statement, they just keep hammering it out of fear they will be perceived as weak or wishy-washy.

The danger when public figures lie — or fail to correct a mis-statement — is that the public often believes them. Any attempt by the media to point out those lies is often seen as a partisan attack. Some of you will find fault with the short list of lies that I put together for Trump and Clinton. But the truth isn’t partisan, it’s objective.

As long as a statement has a bit of “truthiness” (to borrow a word from Stephen Colbert), the candidates’ supporters buy in. It doesn’t help that so many of us bury ourselves in openly partisan media outlets that continue to reinforce those half-truths or mis-truths or lies.

If Trump or Clinton repeats a lie enough, does the public start to believe them? It looks that way. And we often defend those lies as an attack against our own integrity. And in some ways it feels like it is. If we openly support a candidate who is dishonest, does that make us dishonest? Maybe not, but we fear it speaks to our honesty on some level. So we have a hard time accepting that our favorite candidate could be an outright liar.

If he or she is, it would undermine the other qualities we find attractive. If Trump can so easily lie about his position on Iraq, does it mean he could be lying about his plans for immigration? What about his plans to help veterans or grow the economy? Once you start down that road, there’s no coming back. And the same goes for Clinton.

Pretty soon, you have to confront the reality that neither candidate is suitable for office. That’s not an acceptable position for someone who’s spent the last several months defending their candidate on Facebook and sticking signs of support in their yard.

Luke Horton is publisher of The Daily Leader. Email him at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.