How will playing nice with lying pols end U.S. scourge of mendacity?

How will playing nice with lying pols end U.S. scourge of mendacity? February 15, 2021
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Donald Trump caricature with Pinnochio shadow. (YouTube)

The Enemy Isn’t Republicans. It’s Liars.

This headline over a Jan. 24 article in the e-zine Slate frames the current red-blue chasm in America exactly right, to my mind.

The yawning cultural-political divide is not the result of a policy conflict between Republicans and Democrats, or conservatives and liberals. It’s the result of shameless mendacity (by Republicans, incidentally) in all its awful, destructive forms, including lying, deceitfulness, dissembling, disingenuity and hypocrisy, to name but a few.

For example, each member of the crazed mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was not driven by a private wild hair. Then-President Trump specifically directed them to attack the Capitol. The president of the United States had, since even before losing Joe Biden Nov. 3 in the 2020 presidential election, had been strongly signaling for weeks that the election was “fraudulent” and “rigged,” and if he lost, that would be the only possible reason.

The essential point here is that every objective guardrail to ensure the election’s fairness and integrity had been easily cleared, and even the newly-former president’s own attorney general, Bill Barr, said the vote was fair and its outcome valid, along with election officials in every state, including many controlled by Republicans. The Congress itself was formally voting to certify the election’s results when insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, scatterng terrified lawmakers, who steadfastly returned later in the evening, after the dust settled and the murderous insurrectionists were expelled, to conclude that certification — decreeing that the vote tallies were final and official.

So, it’s fair to say that the insurrection at the Capitol was not the result of policy differences among citizens and their representatives, or even divergent opinions about the validity of the vote. The vote was irrefutably free of any broad, outcome-corrupting “irregularities” (the favorite term of opposition representatives and senators); the problem was the “Big Lie” promulgated without evidence by Trump that the election was “stolen” from the people due to “widespread fraud.” It wasn’t. The bigger problem was that tens of millions of Trump followers believed this nonsense.

And thousands of those true believers ended up choosing to attack the citadel of American democracy, an act that resulted in a mayhem of physical destruction and the wholly avoidable deaths of five people. And even after that, Senate Republicans refused to hold Trump accountable, voting on specious grounds to acquit on Friday. (To see the slippery way disinformation is peddled by our leaders, check out this sludge of dissembling by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky in the video below.)

Therefore, lying, not political differences, is the second virulent disease now infecting Americans (after Covid-19 and its “mutants”). Both are deadly and destabilizing. The coronavirus infects and kills randomly when not mitigated, but the decision by Trump and his administration to fraudulently downplay the virus from the beginning for political purposes and not warn Americans of its true dangers meant far more Americans died than would have if they had been properly warned and prepared. Total mortality from coronavirus infection by mid-February is projected to soon top 500,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). These are the wages of purposeful, dishonorable dishonestly. Lies kill.

Although I agree with the dawning realization among many pundits and opinion leaders that bald-faced lying by elected officials is perhaps the most dangerous problem for the U.S. democracy at the moment, I disagree with the common solutions being put forward. In his Slate piece, William Saletan warns,

“If we don’t get control of this—if we don’t reestablish an ethic of respect for facts—nothing else will be solved. We can’t extinguish the virus if tens of millions of Americans insist it’s a hoax and refuse to be vaccinated or wear masks. We can’t restore public faith in election results and put down insurrectionism if half the population refuses to believe anything the media report. Repairing the consensus that facts must be respected won’t settle our debates on spending, education, or criminal justice. But without that consensus, the crisis we’re in will get much worse.”

Saletan suggests that the path to political peace is to marginalize GOP liars with truth, not that that seems to be working very well at the moment.

“To break [the GOP liars’] grip on the right half of the country, we need a fact-based alliance that crosses party lines. That means looking for common ground everywhere. … In this fight, we need everyone who’s willing to play by the rules of deliberative democracy.”

Good luck with that kumbaya strategy. Another hopeful pundit, Gleb Tsipursky, writing in Skeptic magazine (available only by subscription), asks, “How Do You Get People to Care About Truth in Politics?” Tsipursky proposes, I believe quixotically, that explaining to conservative Republicans the dangers of their behavior will transform them.

“While it is necessary to highlight political deceptions, it is not sufficient for people who do not have an intuitive aversion to lies,” he writes. “Instead, we need to demonstrate clearly why such lies are harmful to the long-term interests of our country and its political institutions. We need to show people why they should care—deeply and viscerally—about truth in politics, for the sake of their own political and personal goals.”

Not likely, I’d guess, considering that even after the seditious assault on the Capitol — as elected representatives and senators were personally violated by the harm lies cause — six Republicans in the Senate and 121 in the House supported objections to certifying Arizona’s electoral outcome, while seven Republicans in the Senate and 138 House backed an objection to certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral outcome. They did this knowing full well that the election was not fraudulent, that their objections would go nowhere and that the lies were now causing aggression and bloodshed.

Even more unconscionably, their objections added oxygen to the lies about election fraud the outgoing president and his right-wing, nationalist, white supremacist and evangelical supporters were cynically spreading far and wide. They know what they do, and that is the point. This is not a difference of opinion; it’s a shameless power grab by a president and party that lost an election.

I don’t believe we can solve this with selfless acts of unity or improved messaging on the evils of mendacity. We need a new federal mechanismlike the judiciary (or the judiciary itself) — to identify and hold accountable politicians who repeatedly and systematically lie to the American people about critical public facts, and new laws to codify violations (while protecting necessary free speech) and to prescribe serious penalties for transgressors, like Donald Trump and his henchmen.

What the Trump administration has afflicted the nation with is not what the Founding Fathers envisioned for “free speech.” In my view, thinking we can solve this by being more inclusive with liars or better explaining the dangers of falsehoods would be like trying to rehabilitate kleptomaniacs by telling them, nicely, that retail shops really, really don’t appreciate theft. And that it erodes their profits.

Donald Trump and compulsive liars like him have long shown that they simply don’t care what anyone else thinks. It’s all about winning; screw the collateral damage. New laws are needed, like what we have for, say, hit-and-run drivers, and yelling “Fire!” in crowded theaters.

Thanks, Mitch McConnell, for stating the long obvious — the Capitol insurrection was 100 percent Donald Trump’s fault — after five innocent people lay dead and 140 others were injured, some so seriously that their effects will torture them to the grave.

P.S. If you’re wondering why this nonreligious blog post is decrying political disinformation and not religious dogma, note that unverifiable falsehoods are the lifeblood of both.

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