The United States of America is a two-party democracy, but one of them, the Republican Party, cultivates a strategy of lying.
Republicans are fiscally conservative, for “small government” with the goal of allowing individuals and businesses to act with minimal constraints. Democrats are fiscally liberal, for “big government” regulations and taxation that foster the common good. Until now, both have accepted government by the consent of the governed (fair and equal voting practice), checks and balances between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches, and adherence to the Constitution and the Rule of Law.
Here is an anecdote to illustrate what is happening. It involves two people, one a Democrat, the other a Republican: Adam Schiff, a prominent Democratic member of the House of Representatives and a lead prosecutor on the House Committee that impeached former President Trump for trying to bend Ukraine to his political will, as well as the author of Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost our Democracy and Still Could; Kevin McCarthy is the Minority Republican Leader in the House of Representatives.
Schiff recounts how “One of the stories I tell about Kevin McCarthy is, I was sitting next to him on a plane having a private conversation and then him going to the press and telling the press the exact opposite of our conversation, and when I confronted him on the House floor about this and said, ‘Kevin, you know I said the exact opposite of what you told the press,’ his answer was to me, ‘Yeah, I know, Adam, but you know how it goes.’”
How it goes is that McCarthy is a Republican, and today’s Republicans unashamedly practice mendacity. “Of all the damage that Donald Trump did to our democracy,” concludes Schiff, “the most corrosive was his relentless attack on the truth.”
Historic roots of political lying
Sissella Bok, the author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978), in a 1988 interview with Bill Moyers (news commentator and White House Press Secretary under Lyndon Johnson), suggests that “lying, of course, is a way of gaining power over other people through manipulating them in various ways.”
There are two elements to lying: the liar and people lied to. Without compliant believers, the liar is reduced to an Emperor with No Clothes whose Pants are On Fire.
Why ask Bok and Moyers, do we go along with lies from people in authority?
“We saw this,” says Moyers, “in the Johnson era when Democrats who had doubts about the Vietnam war nonetheless supported the [Democratic] President because he was their partisan. People remained loyal to Richard Nixon, despite the smoking gun, because he was a Republican president. And when George Bush announced that the most qualified man in the country was Dan Quayle, I saw good, honest, wise Republicans swallow, click their heels and step in line. Partisanship was the ultimate claim on their loyalty, not judgment and rational analysis of the evidence.”
He concludes: “And it’s partisanship, that parochial loyalty to a cause, an idea, a crusade, a campaign — that is the ultimate corrupter of one’s own judgment and one’s own standards.”
In 2017, as the parallels between the new President’s behavior and that of the dictators he admires became more and more evident, Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder listed 20 brief precepts about how to avoid autocracy in a little book called On Tyranny. #10 is “Believe in Truth […] To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so.”
A blitz of lies from political leaders raises a fog of confusion. As in gas-lighting, you know what is true but someone in power over you keeps refuting you. If this goes on long enough you get all confused about which end is up. If your leader goes overboard to appeal to your emotions by telling you exactly what you want to hear, to believe becomes compelling. Then, with your trust in your own reasoning undermined, your emotions abort critical thinking altogether. Besides, what a relief it is not to have to figure everything out for yourself!
And Snyder concludes:
“You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual – and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.”
The Republican Party’s strategy of political lying is an element in The Project for the New Century, a policy devised in 1997 by neo-conservatives William Kristol and Robert Kagan “for America to dominate the global military scene.” It was signed by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Under-Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, all high-level decision-makers in the George W. Bush administration.
Their particular strategy of mendacity is said to derive from the teachings of Leo Strauss, a prominent Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. To my mind, this is a bit of a reach from Strauss’s description of Plato’s theory of a power-consolidating elite who are endowed by nature to rule over lesser beings and to employ the “noble lie” for political expediency.
Nevertheless, Canadian political scientist Shadia Drury, among others, identifies Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz as a “Straussian Cabal” in that “Leo Strauss was a great believer in the efficacy and usefulness of lies in politics. Public support for the Iraq war rested on lies about Iraq posing an imminent threat to the United States.”
Thousands upon thousands of American and Iraqi deaths, dismemberments, and mental wounds later, I am still horrified when I see video clips of Geroge W. Bush’s Secretary of State, the ethically impeccable General Colin Powell, unknowingly telling lies to the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction, fed to him by Cheney and his cohort.
Trump mendacity: Pathology or Policy?
This history of the Republican Party’s lying strategy casts the argument that Former President Trump’s constant mendacity is merely pathological into doubt. (see also my Impakter article on “Trump and the Problem of Evil”.
On the one hand, there is no question that, in the psychological sense, Trump is a compulsive liar. Timothy Snyder notes his “open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts.” After “one attempt during the 2016 campaign to track his utterances,” it was “found that 78 percent of his factual claims were false.” A Washington Post tally of Trump’s lies reveals that “in the four years of his presidency, he lied to and misinformed the public 30, 573 times.” Over thirty thousand times, that’s several times a day.
On the other hand, Trump’s mendacity works as an effective strategy to advance his party’s policy of consolidating power while befogging the critical judgment of his followers. While many Trumpists don’t realize they are lying, 78% of the Republican elite, like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the 147 Republican lawmakers who voted not to certify the election of President Biden, seem to be engaging in flagrantly conscious mendacity.
Clearly, the Republican Party leadership is still following the policy of Project for America’s playbook to include lying in their political repertoire, with its most chilling manifestation in what has come to be known as “The Big Lie” that Biden’s election was based on voting fraud and that Trump is therefore still president.
Big Lies: How they work
In “The Shape of Big Lies”, computer scientist and decision intelligence innovator Nadine Malcolm provides two historical examples: Salem Witch mania arising from the Putnam/ Porter family feud that led to 25 deaths, and Hitler’s promulgation of anti-Semitism to consolidate his power, that led to the death of 6 million Jews.
In the Salem case, an ongoing dispute between two Massachusetts families was resolved when the Putnams convinced the whole town that the Porters were witches who corrupted young girls. They lied that their rivals were engaged in witchcraft in order to gain power in the community. In this chart, the green megaphone designates what they told the public, and the red megaphone shows their actual policy:
Malcolm cites Adolph Hitler’s definition of a “Big Lie” from Mein Kampf:
“…in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses … more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”
In Malcolm’s definition, a Big Lie has two components: “a bloody, often lethal, below-the-surface agenda driven by selfish power, greed, and revenge, not acknowledged nor spoken” and “A complex situation, where there’s a ‘fog’ of disinformation.”
The purpose of Trump’s Big Lie is to accrue power by undermining the validity of the 2020 elections; since his Republican Party has the same goal, it benefits from his being its spokesman.
Here are some of the tactics Trump and the Republican party employ in developing their Big Lie:
- After he lost, Trump demanded that Republican Governors and legislators in swing states lie about their election results and vote to overturn the certification of Biden’s victory.
- He encouraged the harassment (including outright death threats) of state Electoral Officials who refused to lie about their vote count and he has seen to it that many of them have been replaced by people who will (illegally) select Republican Electors to lie about any Democrats may win.
- He used Social Media to encourage members of far-right militias, white supremacy groups, and conspiracy believers to come to Washington on January 6 to “take back the vote” on behalf of the Big Lie. with hints that violence would be acceptable; he and his fellow Republicans spoke at a rally inciting them to attack the Capitol where the election Certification process was taking place.
- When Vice President Mike Pence refused to subvert the Senate’s Confirmation of the Electoral College’s count for Biden by lying about it, Trump stood by while insurrectionists erected a gallows and swept through the Capitol building yelling “Hang Mike Pence!”
I live in Michigan. where Trump is supporting Republican candidates, “most notably those with connections to murky QAnon associations.” However, “Trump is less concerned about whether these candidates support QAnon than he is about whether they support the Big Lie.
Exponential lying – mendacity by algorithm
Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush used print media, talk radio, and TV news to lie about the Gulf of Tonkin, the Watergate Break In, and Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. Trump manipulates the much vaster reach and more compelling psychology of Social Media to spread vast swathes of misinformation to huge, susceptible audiences.
Social Media uses computer-generated mathematical algorithms to profit from selling advertisements. In computer science, an algorithm is a formula containing directions to perform a specific task. You can gather data on who responds to what kind of message, make it into an especially attention-grabbing (amazing! horrific!) piece of “clickbait,” then spread it far and wide to people you have algorithmically designated as prone to that particular kind of message.
In “Down the Rabbit Hole: How Social Media Spreads misinformation,” Eric Reed explains how this works:
“Two main algorithms govern the flow of information on social media platforms. The first is the connections algorithm, known on Facebook as ‘people you may know.’ This defines who connects to whom, and therefore who will see each other’s posts. The second is the feed algorithm. This selects what users see and in what order. Together these two algorithms define what a given user sees on the network.”
Thus Social Media constructs computer algorithms from what you like and nudges you onto similar sites; the more you click, the more advertisers Social Media can drive to you:
“Based on reader actions, networks will reinforce the same material over and over again, driving users toward similar content the longer they browse regardless of whether that content contains misinformation, bad data, or fake news. This can create a feedback loop of false information that grows exponentially.”
Reed cites MIT Professor Sinan Aral on the emotional grab that is so useful to Social Media:
“‘ Misinformation also tends to drive high engagement, which helps further its spread. When users online see false news, Aral’s team found, they react with surprise, shock, disgust, and anger. These emotions drive far more interactions than the joy and trust with which people tend to meet the truth. It is, in Aral’s words, “the salacious, blood-boiling, and surprising stuff that is more novel and shocking, and more likely to be retweeted.’”
That is how Social Media duped hundreds of Covid sufferers to imbibe horse-worming medicine, why so many Trump supporters believe that Democrats are pedophilic cannibals who have intercourse with demons, and why the “Big Lie” that Joe Biden lost the 2020 election brought out so many violent “patriot” insurrectionists On January 6.
EARTH ONE, Do you hear me?
“On Earth Two,” announces MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, true believers are waiting on the plaza in Dallas where John F. Kennedy was assassinated, confident that he will be resurrected (along with his son) to usher in President Trump’s continuing presidency. Earth Two accepts any means – including unethical, anti-democratic, and criminal ones – to consolidate political power within the Republican Party, two-thirds of whom accept the Big Lie that Trump is still President. As a result, American democracy is teetering on extinction.
That is why the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has identified the United States as a “backsliding democracy,” with the Big Lie as the precipitating factor: a “historic turning point came in 2020-21 after former President Donald Trump refused to accept his election loss to now-President Joe Biden.”
Nevertheless, there are plenty of us still alive and kicking here on “Earth One,” where we are resisting, organizing, and protesting with all of our might and main. While Planet Two folks inhabit a world based on conspiratorial fantasies (Rachel Maddow jokes that they insert flea collars in their underwear to prevent covid) we take facts as real and organize our lives around what is true.
Let us hope that the truth will deliver us.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Trump – screenshot from Washington Post’s fact-checker video, July 2020