what people mean when they say that Trump or Clinton is honest

It flabbergasts many people to learn that more Americans view Trump rather than Clinton as “honest and trustworthy” (35% versus 33%), even though we can read in The New York Times, “A Week of Whoppers from Donald Trump”; in The Washington Post, “Trump’s Week Reveals Bleak View, Dubious Statements in ‘Alternative Universe‘”; and in The Los Angeles Times, “Scope of Trump’s Falsehoods Unprecedented for a Modern Presidential Candidate.”

In philosophy school, you learn to make distinctions, and I think two distinctions may be useful for interpreting the public’s response. First, “truthfulness” can mean:

  1. Saying what is true. Because they envision truths as claims consistent with evidence, many fact-checkers compare candidates’ assertions to government data and public records or to academic research. For instance, Donald Trump has said that Lester Holt, the debate moderator, is a Democrat, but official records show that Holt is a registered Republican. The Times calls that a “whopper.” I am confident that Hillary Clinton’s claims are far more often verifiable than Donald Trump’s, and in that sense, she is more truthful and trustworthy.
  2. Investing skill and effort in finding the truth. If truth is correspondence to some independently verifiable reality, then a person could say something true–or false–by accident. We can also err when we fact-check. But some people truly strive for truth. They are careful not to opine on matters for which they lack evidence, they listen to alternative views, they complicate their positions when they encounter contrary evidence, they may even seek contrary evidence, and they select appropriate methods for answering empirical questions. They can still be wrong, but they have a respectful attitude to truth. I am confident that Hillary Clinton is a much more dedicated and skillful truth-seeker than Donald Trump is, although one could raise serious criticisms of her truth-seeking in episodes like her vote to authorize the Iraq War (when she had privileged access to intelligence) or her endorsement of the “super-predator” theory of crime.
  3. Speaking what is in your mind. For many people, honesty and truthfulness mean candor, sincerity, or forthrightness. Provoked by tricky Odysseus, guileless Achilles exclaims, “I hate like the Gates of Hell a man who says one thing and thinks another in his mind!” A candid straight-shooter can say lots of things that are false, either by accident or because he’s not a good truth-seeker. If he really, truly thinks that taxes are higher in the US than any other country, he looks you in the eyes and says so. Judged by that third standard, I am not sure whether Trump is “honest.” Although he may be guileful, it’s at least plausible that he blurts out what he really thinks, reflecting an ideological/normative worldview that he genuinely holds. Sometimes he even says things that cost him tactically because they make him look dumb or alienate a specific voting bloc that might have preferred him. And just for that reason, lots of people think he’s “honest.” As for Hillary Clinton, I perceive that she thinks many things in her mind and puts them through a very careful screen before she speaks aloud. Voters are sensitive to that kind of processing. They take slip-ups, like her “deplorables” comment, to be glimpses of a hidden stratum of sincere beliefs. This is what some have in mind when they call Trump more honest than Clinton.

“He tells it like it is”

My own view would be something like this: Truth-seeking is an important virtue for political leaders. It raises the odds that leaders will know the actual truth, although I’d forgive any human being for making errors if she demonstrates both commitment and skill in her truth-seeking.

Politicians should also demonstrate some candor. To struggle to know the truth and then to say something less than, or different from, the truth in public is not very democratic. On the other hand, politics isn’t a seminar room, a lab, or a witness stand in a court of law. Other political virtues may conflict with candor, such as tact, diplomacy, privacy, national or global security, and sheer effectiveness. A political leader must strive to enact and change policies, and it can undermine her effectiveness if she says everything she believes. I am pretty sure that’s why Clinton talks as she does, but because many people equate truthfulness with candor, she pays a price.

It’s also worth distinguishing between …

  1. the immediate empirical truth of statements (e.g., “Lester Holt is a Democrat,” which is false), and
  2. the truth or validity of broad ideological positions (e.g., “The media is biased against regular folks”).

I believe that Hillary Clinton’s center/left ideology is much more defensible than Trump’s authoritarian ethno-nationalism, but that requires arguments rather than empirical data; and other positions are more defensible still than Clinton’s.

I am also inclined to think that Trump is pretty candid about his own ideological position, although he fails to acknowledge its implications (which is a fault of his truth-seeking). I am not sure how candid Clinton is about her ideology; that is hard to assess from afar. I’d argue that center-left American politicians exhibit a general lack of ideological candor because they presume that many beneficial policies are unpopular. For instance, it would be wise to borrow and spend on infrastructure, but you can’t say that because the American people don’t trust government. It would be desirable to standardize curricula and tests because in lots of communities, parents are creationists or otherwise misguided, but you’d better not say that because those people vote. I’d posit that Clinton struggles to attract trust in part because she belongs to a whole ideological bloc that has struggled since the 1970s to present itself candidly to the electorate.

See also: Bernard Williams on truth as a virtue of the humanitieswhy Hillary Clinton appears untrustworthy; and Hillary Clinton on spending for infrastructure.