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Why Trump gets away with huge lies and Clinton gets trashed for little fibs

Surrounded by military veterans, US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump says US President Barack Obama was born in the United States, during a campaign event at the Trump International Hotel, September 16, 2016 in Washington, DC
Mark Wilson | Getty Images
Surrounded by military veterans, US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump says US President Barack Obama was born in the United States, during a campaign event at the Trump International Hotel, September 16, 2016 in Washington, DC

If you want to mess with a Hillary Clinton supporter's blood pressure, just ask why the media and voters are holding Clinton to a higher standard than Donald Trump when it comes to telling the truth. If you do raise the subject, be prepared for faces to get red, neck veins to bulge and obscenities and conspiracy theories to soon follow. It seems almost crazy to say it, but even as the bulk of the news and entertainment media routinely compare Trump to Adolf Hitler or seem otherwise dead set against his candidacy, the voters continue to show that they're simply not willing to disqualify him based on his history of false statements and contradictions.

And Trump is spouting this kind of misleading stuff on a regular basis. According to Politifact, only 4 percent of what Trump says on the campaign trail is true, compared to 23 percent for Clinton. A whopping 35 percent of Trump statements are rated "false," and an 18 percent chunk get the "pants on fire" designation, meaning extremely untrue, while just 11 percent of Clinton's comments are rated "false," and only 2 percent "pants on fire."

So why is Trump getting a pass from the voters? No it's not because Trump is a man and Clinton is a woman. No, it's not because some powerful media types secretly want Trump to win. You'll start to find the real answer when you learn a simple legal rule that boasts a rare combination of enforcing free market fairness and understanding human nature. It's called "puffing," and that is the official term that legally protects salespeople and businesses from making boastful claims about their products and services that no one really expects to be provable by empirical facts. Legal protections for puffing are the reasons why you can't sue Snapple for saying it's made from the "best stuff on Earth," or go after Budweiser for calling itself the "king of beers." You get it, right?

And when it comes to puffing, nobody has done it more and for longer in the public than Donald J. Trump. Every hotel he builds is the most elegant, every golf course the most beautiful and challenging, and every contestant on "The Apprentice" had a 200 I.Q. Trump's natural state is building up his brand and properties in a way that would make a used car salesman blush. The public is used to it and accepts it just as we accept that used car salesman boasting about the 2005 SUV he's pushing. If we ever get angry at that boasting salesman, it's only after that car breaks down. Otherwise, we believe we look like nitpicking maniacs to quibble over every conceited claim.

"Puffing is the official term that legally protects salespeople and businesses from making boastful claims about their products and services."

The voters are giving Trump much of the same kind of a pass for the same reasons. And Trump is helping achieve this result by making sure he maintains his salesman's image for as long as possible at every public appearance and interview. It's one of his many master persuasion skills. Even at his event last week where he was set to address the "birther issue," Trump pulled this maneuver and almost nobody noticed it. The marketing "experts" who saw the event noted that Trump was cunning to start the news conference by getting Medal of Honor winners and other top level military veterans to endorse him before he spiked the birther question so briefly by simply saying "Barack Obama was born in the United States, period." Some journalists were angry about it. CNN's John King publicly complained, "We just got played."

You know you're a master of manipulation when the people you're manipulating don't even know all the ways in which you've manipulated them. Because those experts missed the best part of the persuasion. And that was before he mentioned the birther question, before he said anything else, Trump went on and on about where the event was taking place: the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. He talked about how beautiful it was, how it was finished under budget and ahead of schedule, (no one's fact checking that either), and he praised the great staff from the managers to the construction workers.

The news media did notice the hotel comments; many of them even criticized Trump for the crass commercialism of it all. But what they miss is that Trump isn't actually selling his wares; he's changing the criterion with which we view him. Every time Trump mixes his salesman persona into the political arena he immediately puts himself into that less scrutinized salesman's role. It's why he gave the news conference at his new golf course in Scotland, it's why he talks so much about how he's still running his businesses, and it's why he launched his campaign from Trump Tower.

Note the key difference between businessperson and salesperson. Mitt Romney was a businessman, but not a salesman. He worked in private equity, emphasis on "private." He never went on TV to try to sell a hotel or other investment Bain Capital was backing. His sales and marketing experience and skills are in a different universe than Trump's. And you saw how that 2012 election worked out for him.

Hillary Clinton's one and only image in the public mind is that of a politician. She was seen as a more politically minded First Lady. And she was seen as a more politically ambitious U.S. Senator and Secretary of State. We don't look at her in any other context. Not only are politicians held to a higher truth-telling standard than salespeople, we don't even focus on their "product" or policies all that much to balance what they say. For the most part, politicians are what they say and salespeople are what they sell. It's the best way to understand why Trump gets away with so much of what he says. Ultimately, that's not his product.

Sure, most of us don't like boastful salespeople, but it doesn't mean we won't buy what they're selling. Compared to the tough scrutiny his fellow Republican candidates and Clinton endure, the salesman standard is better. It's infinitely better. We don't fact check the commercials or the guys yelling in those commercials. Trump knows that. So, he's playing the role of that guy in the commercial. And you probably think it's gauche for a presidential candidate to be engaging in crass commercialism on the campaign trail. You missed the point.

And that's why people like John King are getting played and they don't even know how much they've been played. Political reporters are not like financial journalists or consumer watchdogs, and they're certainly not experts in psychological warfare. This is why they not only don't understand Trump's appeal, it's why all their efforts to scrutinize and fact check him out of the race have failed. Maybe it's time to send all those political pundits and campaign pool journalists to an elementary marketing class. But it's probably too late.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.