The Political Culture of Lying
Trump has fueled it, but plenty of others are more than willing to accept and emulate this expanding culture
I don’t like liars, which makes the political world particularly dispiriting these days. It’s not like this hasn’t always been a problem—the long-held notion that politicians equate to liars is not an accident. The need to attract voters leads them to make pledges they don’t keep, make themselves look better than they really are and frequently make their opponents appear more broken and dangerous than what’s true.
But we are witnessing lying on a scale that I never have seen, fueled especially by a man who is untethered from the world of facts and principles, incapable of experiencing shame, desperate for money and power, and determined to employ bullying, threats and other violent incitements to get and keep what he wants.
Donald Trump’s cult followers, more than happy to ignore facts to sustain the trance, are quick to dismiss sustained criticism of their hero as Trump Derangement Syndrome. But the danger of this current and burgeoning dilemma is how the constant bombardment of big and small lies has dulled people’s capacity to know what is true, normalized this reality so it barely registers and convinced so many others to pursue their worst selves with the assumption that they will not face consequences for their lies. (Recall that The Washington Post tallied over 30,000 "untruths"during Trump’s four years in office and 60 percent of Republicans continue to believe the 2020 election was stolen, down only slightly after eight televised hearings of the January 6 House Select Committee.)
This topic was reignited for me after surveying Donald Trump’s response to the unanimous vote of the January 6 committee to subpoena him (which I will specifically address in a moment). But it got me thinking about a whole host of others who are convinced that lying on a major scale is the path to victory, including Vladimir Putin asserting that Russia is invading Ukraine to root out Nazis, the Supreme Court nominees swearing that they recognized Roe v. Wade was settled law in order to secure their lifetime seats on the bench, and hundreds of election deniers now on the ballot continuing to insist the 2020 election was stolen.
As much as each of these examples makes clear that these perpetrators don’t care about the will of the people in their quest to take and keep power, the deeper problem is their assumption that lying is an acceptable mode of action, despite such profound consequences. While I’m not suggesting that the autocrat Putin and Justices Kavanaugh, Barrett and Gorsuch were directly emulating Trump, I don’t doubt that they are well aware of the increasingly permissive political climate for lying. Why not if it works? Why not if they won’t be held accountable?
As for the vast collection of election deniers, a likely mix of true believers and those who have cynically grasped that this is a way to grab attention and stay in the game, we’ll learn in three weeks whether sufficient majorities of midterm voters are all-in on the Big Lie as the past and future of American politics. It’s up to Democratic turnout to prove that dishonesty is not the best policy, whether the topic is the 2020 election and election fraud, overturning Roe and banning abortion, or defending democracy.
This week on Wednesday, Trump will be required to give a deposition after a Manhattan district judge, Lewis Kaplan, refused Trump’s gambit for another delay in the defamation lawsuit of E. Jean Carroll, a longtime advice columnist for Elle Magazine. Carroll alleges Trump raped her in the dressing room of a Manhattan Bergdorf Goodman store in the mid-1990s, a charge which Trump not only denied but appallingly dodged by insisting that Carroll is “not my type.” He then repeated that ugly comment last week in writing while insisting the accusations are “a hoax and a lie” and the case proves the legal system is a “broken disgrace.”
I wouldn’t bet that the pathological liar will be telling the truth this week. The question may be how many times will he say he doesn’t recall and how many times will he take the fifth, despite his own question back in 2016: “If you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?” These days he’s claiming this is what he must do because he’s become the target of so many “unfounded, politically motivated” cases—in other words, repeated ad nauseam, “Witch Hunts.”
But it’s Trump’s response to the January 6 committee that serves up the latest and most egregious demonstration of his refusal to face facts and his determination to continue dragging a majority of Republicans down into his swamp of lies. How did he begin his 14-page screed addressed to select committee chairman Bennie Thompson? “THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF 2020 WAS RIGGED AND STOLEN!”
The “fraud” is the “Crime of the Century,” the protestors “concerned American Citizens” and “great American Patriots,” and the committee members engaged in a “Which Hunt of the highest level,” even though they are suffering “very poor television ratings.” Following his scrawled signature are a series of photos showcasing the large crowds on January 6 and lists of thoroughly debunked “evidence” from five states that he lost.
I can’t wait for the day when it’s no longer necessary to pay attention to this man, but as long as he’s at large and able to continue spreading his lies, he continues to poison the body politic by convincing his followers to believe that up is down, down is up, Joe Biden is not the real president, and he really won states like Michigan and cities like (predominantly Black) Detroit were rife with cheating.
As long as he continues to spread these lies, even if disproven over and over, his cult followers won’t make the effort to confirm what’s true and what isn’t. As The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump reminds, Trump knows that “producing page after page of ‘election fraud’ will be just as effective as producing page after page of actual evidence: The sense of wrongdoing is all he needs.”
At the risk of repetition, allow me to conclude with this: I don’t like liars. I really don’t like liars who are more than willing to bring down the whole country in order to avoid the truth that they lost. And I really really don’t like those who know better but who are too cowardly, ambitious or both and will continue spreading the toxic culture of lying long after the former White House occupant has left this earth.
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