Here’s an idea: a separate U.S. legal system — or a new division of our existing one — dedicated to making politics honest by prosecuting lying pols.
No good legal mechanism exists for that now, which is why there is so much gnashing of teeth and tearing of breasts among Democratic pundits and politicians at the moment, because there seems to be nothing that can be done to stop the rampaging mendacity.
To wit, consider this long-familiar ritual in American life: A witness in a court trial raises a right hand in a time-honored oath of truthfulness.
As I watched a young woman take this common oath recently in a television documentary about a murder case, I had a kind of epiphany (the No. 3 definition in Merriam-Webster, not the No. 1, godly, one).
The oath’s familiarity, I suddenly sensed, was not simply an unremarkable byproduct of bland routine but a function of its critical importance in American society. It reflects the necessity of truth-telling in perpetuating our democratic republic’s robust good health and vitality. Especially when the chips are down, all Americans are expected to tell the truth.
It’s critical. That’s why all U.S. court witnesses are legally sworn to be truthful, under pain of perjury.
This understanding matters greatly, because while allegiance to truth-telling, sadly, is not in vogue in U.S. society at the moment, bald-faced lying certainly is, particularly among Trump-backing Republican elected officials and their tens of millions of slavish minions, along with right-wing media apologists. Even Democrats are not above dissembling.
For instance, in consuming national news on a recent morning on cable TV and in print media, I noticed that the vast majority of news accounts involved untruths — stories about the dire consequences of misinformation, disinformation and wild inventions.
There was a story about former President Donald Trump still (unfathomably) characterizing as “rigged” and “fraudulent” the 2020 presidential election in which Joe Biden trounced him, and other stories about virtually all Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate silently refusing to call BS on this bogus claim (as usual). There was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying he was in full support of raising the nation’s debt ceiling but simultaneously encouraging every Republican to vote against it (so that GOP candidates could claim in their 2022 and 2024 re-election campaigns that it was extravagant and wasteful Democrats who did it, not the GOP). And Fox News host Tucker Carlson continues to blithely insist that government mandates for citizens to get demonstrably safe and effective vaccines or even just mask-up during a fearful coronavirus surge are Hitler-like in their draconian, authoritarian overreach.
Of course, it’s all nonsense or self-serving mendacity as pols dishonestly suck-up to voters with their eyes on 2022, or in Carlson’s case (and Fox’s) to ensure ever more notoriety, celebrity, disruptive cultural power and a giant payday.
It’s dishonorable, and, worse, all the serial liars seem virtually immune from accountability. While criminal liars who scam people out of their life savings, for example (e.g. Bernie Madoff), often end up in prison, America’s vaunted free-speech ideals in the political realm ensure that politicians can pretty much say and do a staggering amount of very sketchy things — like nearly a year after the 2020 vote continuing to claim it was fraudulent (it was provably not) — without any worry of legal, moral or ethical accountability.
Indeed, the lie universally propagated and endlessly promoted by the defeated now-former president directly resulted in thousands of MAGA rioters, at his personal incitement, storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. One Capitol Police officer died as a result of the violent insurrection, four more committed suicide in the days after, and more than 140 law enforcement officers from several jurisdictions were injured. Another Capitol Police officer, Brian Sicknick, died the day after the attack from two “thromboembolic strokes” believed caused by
Sicknick being pepper-sprayed during the riot, Newsweek reported.
Ashli Babbitt, one of the insurrectionists and a fervent Trump supporter, was shot dead by law enforcement as she tried to jump through a window and gain access to a restricted area containing congressional members, fact-checker Snopes.com reported.
Those are the wages of lies spread by elected officials and then embraced by a mob — but not prosecuted.
Certainly, hundreds of rioters are now being vigorously prosecuted but not the originators of the “Big Lie” that the election was supposedly fraudulent and purportedly “stole” Trump’s “clear” victory. Do not the First Liars deserve to be held accountable for this mayhem and murder as much if not more than the rioters, who believed they were just following their dear leader’s marching orders?
In fact, the end game of this unconscionable ruse was for the insurrectionists, by violent intimidation, to halt the certification of the election and Biden’s win by the House of Representatives — and potentially allow the results of the election to be fraudulently reversed in a criminal political maneuver, a coup.
If that’s not a crime against the United States and its people, what is? Is it not worse than a purse-snatching, pyramid scheme or simple assault?
Well, in practice it’s not, because the laws of the U.S. broadly accommodate such behavior by not having established a specific set of laws to mitigate it.
We want our political candidates to be able to speak freely, to speak truth to power without infringement, right? Well, not always. What about politicians who speak dangerous mistruths to the masses — many, many of whom appear abysmally incapable of sifting truth from fiction. And then they attack our democracy, thinking they are defending truth, justice and the “American Way.”
Dishonesty, the toxic fuel of criminality in every society, is mitigated by rules of law and judicial institutions (courts, jails, prosecutors, et al.), and the most essential element in the entire system of jurisprudence in America as elsewhere is truth — factual, verifiable truth.
If truth were treated as leniently and casually by the judicial system as it is in, say, politics, rule of law and the system that enforces it would collapse under the crushing weight of unaccountability — as the U.S. political system is now in danger of collapsing under the weight of weaponized mendacity (i.e., lying).
For instance, imagine if perjury were not a crime but a constitutionally protected form of free speech that could not be readily prosecuted? You think that’s an fringe fantasy?
Consider that Donald Trump during his tenure in the White House offered money to the president of Ukraine in exchange for announcing an investigation into his main political rival Joe Biden’s son (who once was on the board of a Ukrainian company), and then lied about it even though it was caught on tape. That he tried to overturn the 2020 election results with the “Big Lie” that supposedly he actually won. Or that, according to a Salon piece, he “engag[ed] in democide against the American people by actively sabotaging and undermining pandemic relief efforts” for political gain. He’s ordered allies to lie to Congress about all of it.
The problem, according to Salon, is that “the Republican Party and its followers and propagandists are doing everything in their power to sabotage any efforts to investigate the public and private crimes of the Trump regime.” Unfortunately, the laws and institutions in place that might combat this sort of official malfeasance and criminality are tediously arcane and unworkable. Which is why the former president has handily survived two impeachments and various criminal charges already, mostly by slow-walking the legal process and outlasting opponents’ timelines.
So the question is: What can be done to give government officials and private citizens the means to hold elected officials — the president, in particular, accountable for their often dangerous dishonesties and bad faith in representing their constituents and, more importantly, in protecting the nation’s political health and well-being?
I’ve long wondered whether we should have a separate but parallel legal system with the authority to police — and punish — official, demonstrable lying to the American people that puts individuals and the country at unnecessary risk. Just as criminal courts hold lawbreakers accountable for their destructive dishonesties, a “truth court,” so to speak, could do the same to treacherous political grifters like Donald Trump.
House Democrats recently introduced a bill proposing reformed laws and rules to hold presidents more accountable for their actions, including enhancing the full authority — and speed — of Congress in obtaining evidence-gathering subpoenas. Titled the Protecting Our Democracy Act, this bill would, among many other reform features, block presidents from avoiding justice by endlessly gaming and delaying it.
Why can’t we also have a legal mechanism — a Protecting Truth Act? — requiring that elected officials be honest with their constituents and all other Americans? We’ve seen the catastrophic results of not having such. It would ideally be nonpartisan and staffed by professionals, much like the current legal system and inspectors general in various federal agencies, sworn to uphold the law and ethical norms, not political calculations.
We can’t have a viable system when one political party can simply shirk its sacred duty to the nation by publicly misrepresenting provable truth, just to protect its lying leader’s narcissistic ambitions and thereby enhance members’ re-election prospects. Such shameful treasons nearly sank our republic in January.
Raise your right hand if you agree.
And for god’s sake don’t say, “The American people are smart enough to know the truth when they hear it.”
In fact, nearly half of them have proven that’s utter nonsense. Four words and a number still embraced by tens of millions of Americans: “The 2020 election was stolen.”