Apparently, brash shouting of a lie over and over is all it takes for something to be true in the Trump Era, as witnessed by the fascinating—and disturbing—performance of White House Senior Advisor Stephen Miller’s on some Sunday talk shows last month.
He was pushing the blatant and increasingly harmful lie that millions of illegal aliens voted for Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, with a new bizarre twist that voters were bused in from Massachusetts to vote in New Hampshire, explaining President Donald Trump’s and former Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s losses.
Despite sometimes forceful, sometimes milquetoast, rebuttals by the various press victims, he persisted by claiming proof that he just did not happen to have on him at the time. It’s an obvious reminder of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s 1950s gambit of waving blank sheets of paper ostensibly proving . . . well, absolutely nothing.
It starts at the top, with President Trump, heretofore known as President Liar, and filters down throughout the power structure of the party in power, the Republicans. South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson infamously called former President Barack Obama a liar during a State of the Union speech for something that was not a lie (that illegal immigrants would not be covered under the ACA, and they are not). But their lie-ometer has gone strangely silent with the whiff of power and the smell of conservative legislation finally being signed.
Let’s face it, all presidents lie, sometimes for good reasons such as national security, mostly for political, self-serving ones. But President Liar, and now his minions, have become dark masters of the art. The press agonizes over whether to use the actual term, and truth be told (ha ha, so we all wish!) there are gradations and degrees of violations of the ninth Commandment. Besides the outright big lie, there’s obfuscation, exaggeration, braggadacio, half-truths, untruths, falsehoods, pants on fire and of course the jewel of them all, #alternativeFacts.
President Liar had a long history of all these variations, but he really took off at the beginning his presidential campaign. Down the escalator Trump began his journey into, malebolg, Dante’s eight circle of hell populated by deceivers, with unsubstantiated exaggerations of how evil Mexican immigrants were. Right from the start, his lies had two qualities that have endured: They were vague enough and hedged enough that responsible news outlets had trouble using the word “lie,” especially applying the almost impossible standard of proving his personal intent. Second, they were aimed at scapegoating or insulting someone or group.
The most enraging aspect of his deceptions is the complicity of both his supporters in the voting public and more lately among the brownnosing Republican establishment now kowtowing to He Who Brought Them Victory. For he will make their agenda great again.
I would love to understand his voters, to somehow build a bridge that at least acknowledges each side’s concerns. It’s just difficult to comprehend, however, how they were so willing to give his worst utterances such a pass. But what’s even more scary is that far too many, for a healthy, liberal democracy —in the sense of respect for rights, not ideology—actually believe his lies, and agreed with them.
Take the birther lie that first made Trump’s political fame. It is the most outrageous example of this dynamic. Despite the overwhelming evidence against it, way too many people bought it hook, line and sinker. The same with so many of the campaign’s so-called issues, such as that a harsh crackdown on undocumented immigrants would bring back jobs in areas where hardly a Mexican, Muslim or other “other” has ever trodden.
You saw the rallies, when Candidate Liar asked who was going to build the wall, the crowd gleefully played along, at times even prompting him if he failed to mention it. Part of that was mob mentality—who doesn’t want to join in a good ol’ foreigner-hating party?—but too many, again, were willing and eager to believe.
The Big Lies go back far past President Liar, of course, they’ve been part of parcel of Republican red-meat politics at least since President Ronald Reagan: It’s Us against Them. They—defined by whoever you want to scapegoat the most that season—are taking your jobs away, destroying your (read white, straight, male) culture, sapping or even stealing your tax dollars.
Part of that hate-building process has been the spreading of myths and stereotypes—other forms of lies—that dehumanize and stoke anger. From Reagan’s welfare queens to Trump’s “millions of illegal immigrant voters,” the game has been played well.
Why are his supporters so willing to play along? You can make all kinds of excuses for them—they’re low-information voters or relying on fake news or the Fox News bubble is the most widely used—but the plain fact is that they, not unlike most of us, will simply believe what they want to believe. Both sides live by a narrative, their worldview. That “reality” is so often baked in, what theologians call embedded theology, set in place by a combination of upbringing, life experiences and probably very little “continuing education” and adjustment.
The cynicism fed by anti-government, us vs. them ideology for so many years only shores that up, and no “facts” can break through that thick crust. We can mock Kellyanne Conway all we want, but she is spot-on that many on the right—and I’m sure they’d say many of the left as well—will gladly accept whatever “alternative facts” fit their narrative. Not everyone has the time, or more importantly the will, to be a fact-checker.
Our judgment should be even harsher of those they view, even if with some skepticism, as their leaders. From Trump on down—including White House triad Bannon-Spicer-Miller, the GOP establishment led by power cynics Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, and the soulless conservative media led by campaign spokesman Sean Hannity—they lead their fact-challenged sheep to lie down in lying pastures.
They do this with clear intent, with malice aforethought toward liberal democracy. They are intelligent people, they would not have gotten where they were if they were otherwise. That is the big debate among mainstream media: can we call use the word “lie” and “liar” without ascertaining their intent? J’accuse! The intent is clear: to mislead. The intent is to feed those false narratives, to stoke anger and bigotry and misogyny and keep the pitchforks—or more frighteningly accurate, rifles—raised high against the government, and against Them.
It is frustratingly difficult to fight against. How to break through? Facts, education, shouting back, protests? Useless, all just part of both echo chambers. Nah, nah, bounces off of me, right back at you!
President Liar and his coconspirators in that effort do great harm to democracy. The old-school protectors of basic institutional decency, the John McCain types (though I do wish he had even more backbone) are few and far between. So many go-along GOP disappointments, the Susan Collins’s of the world, also: J’accuse! You value your committee assignments more than your conscience.
The only hope is in the most important tool of democracy, the vote. There is no building of a bridge to those so willing to either believe the Big Lie, or cynically spread it. The only hope is to defeat them at the polls, so resoundingly, so completely, that finally, finally, there is consequence to the Lie. Heretofore, there has only been reward.