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Bayard '24: Republicans have been indifferent to the truth long before Trump

Among many Republicans, there is, and has been for years, a sense that if you’re insistent enough, the truth can be whatever you say it is

“How do you know a politician is lying?” asks one folksy joke. “His lips are moving,” goes the punchline, playing off the conventional wisdom that all we can trust politicians to do is be untrustworthy. It’s not a baseless belief; politicians, from both major parties, do lie quite a bit. They lie to avoid personal embarrassment. Former Democratic President Bill Clinton did, in fact, “have sexual relations with that woman,” despite his explicit claim otherwise; amidst Clinton’s impeachment for lying under oath about that relationship, former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was also having an affair. They lie about the technical details of their policies. Former Democratic President Barack Obama infamously, repeatedly and misleadingly promised that under Obamacare, “If you like your doctor, you'll be able to keep your doctor; if you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan”; around the same time Republican former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin falsely suggested that Obamacare would set up “death panels” to judge who was deserving of medical care. They lie about entire foreign policy operations. The Iran-Contra Affair revealed that the Republican Reagan administration had covered up illegal arms sales to Iran and the illegal funneling of those funds to the Nicaraguan Contras, a right-wing rebel group; similarly, when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, he showed how the Democratic Johnson administration had lied both to Congress and to the American people about the war in Vietnam. These condemnable lies varied dramatically in their severity and the parties to which their perpetrators belonged. But all these cases do have one thing in common: Once the truth was apparent, every single one of these lies became untenable to maintain, and the politicians involved acknowledged the reality before them, even if not categorically. 

Clinton performed some staggering verbal gymnastics to claim that receiving oral sex didn’t qualify as “sexual relations,” but did not deny that the event itself occurred. Once it was clear that Obamacare didn’t allow every American to keep their doctor, Obama instead claimed (falsely) that “what we said was you can keep (your health insurance plan) if it hasn’t changed since the law passed.” Reagan, after all the details of the Iran-Contra scandal had fully come to light, gave a speech where he acknowledged that a “few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” All of these responses were cagey and evasive, yes, but they never asked you not to deny indisputable truth, or reject common sense.. The same can’t be said about the type of falsehoods characteristic of former President Donald Trump. 

Jan. 6’s shameful insurrection at the Capitol might have been the most remarkable demonstration of this. After months of bluster about the election, Trump had nothing to show for his myriad baseless claims about election fraud. At this point a typical political lie would have unraveled and the responsible politician would have clumsily attempted to save face. Instead, Trump took a different strategy and doubled down on the lie, inciting the insurrection. He was able to do this because, as many have discussed, the insurrection’s participants live in a parallel world indifferent to proven facts. Commentary along those lines is absolutely correct, but it ignores something crucial: That sort of parallel world isn’t entirely new, even if the events of Jan. 6 were undoubtedly its most dramatic manifestation thus far. Since long before Trump’s candidacy the American right has harbored a streak of disregard for empirical truth that extends far beyond expected politically-expedient distortions. Among many Republicans, there is, and has been for years, a sense that if you’re insistent enough, the truth can be whatever you say it is.

The GOP’s disdain for empiricism extends beyond just the conservative news media, social media misinformation and grassroots conspiracies like QAnon that have fostered it. It is a very real part of the Republican Party even at the highest levels. And it has been since long before Trump baselessly alleged fraud in the 2020 election and Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz led pandering efforts to object to the results on his behalf. Back in 2018, Rudy Giuliani, before becoming Trump’s election nonsense point man, claimed (and then tried to walk back) that “truth isn’t truth.” In another example, former Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway infamously coined the oxymoron “alternative facts” back in 2017 to justify falsehoods about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. In addition, the settled science of climate change and COVID-19 is still a contentious issue for some Republicans. In the New York Times, Paul Krugman traced the GOP’s antagonistic relationship with the truth back to ’90s conspiracies about the Clintons. The Clinton-era Republican attack on truth that I find most chilling, however, is Newt Gingrich’s decision upon becoming Speaker of the House in 1995 to defund the Office of Technology Assessment, which was tasked with preparing unbiased scientific reports for Congress. I can’t help but recall Stephen Colbert’s famous (and satirical) line at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” You could even argue that the modern Republican disregard for truth was embryonically present all the way back in the ’50s with Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s widespread and baseless accusations of communist sympathy.

Perhaps the most eloquent formulation of this dismissive attitude towards an understanding of truth based in proven facts comes from the now-halcyon-seeming days of George W. Bush’s presidency, when a senior aide, widely thought to be Karl Rove, scoffed at what he termed “the reality-based community” by boasting to journalist Ron Suskind that “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” That aide’s claim implies something more than just the condemnable but common, quotidian willingness to lie to avoid embarrassment, succeed electorally or achieve political goals. That aide was challenging the nature of truth itself. In his epistemology, his philosophy of knowledge, truth is not something based on shared facts and reasoning, but something willed into existence by the forceful assertions of some purported arbiter of truth. 

In the era of Trump, that arbiter is no longer the wider GOP ecosystem or the “empire” referenced by the Bush aide, where power was at least somewhat diffuse, but the one and only Donald J. Trump. The truth, for many, is what Trump says it is, not what comes from any sort of rigorous empiricism. If Trump tells you the election was stolen from him, then that’s true. If Trump tells you that former Vice President Mike Pence could overturn the election but is too much of a coward to, then that’s true. And if Trump tells you that “you’ll never take back our country with weakness … you have to show strength and you have to be strong,” then that’s true, and thus maybe it makes sense to storm the Capitol building to stop the certification of the election results. In the words of Rep. Lamar Smith, getting information directly from Trump “might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”

Not only has Trump recentered the perverse epistemology of that Bush aide around himself, he seems comfortable wielding it even more aggressively. To paraphrase the musings of New York Times columnist Michelle Golberg on the podcast The Argument, once the Bush administration invaded Iraq and didn’t find the weapons of mass destruction initially used to justify the invasion, there was no ‘na-na-na-I-can’t-hear-you’ moment when the administration continued to insist that there was evidence of WMDs. (At least not in the traditional sense of WMDs — Bush did claim he was right about there being WMDs by somewhat redefining WMDs as “banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons,” a weaselly excuse absolutely typical of the denouement of a traditional political lie.) If Trump was in the same situation, however, it’s not hard to imagine that asserting that he found bona fide nuclear weapons is exactly what he would do.

Not only might Trump conceivably choose to do such a thing, but many would probably accept his truthless claim. Another New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, wrote in December 2020 that much like cults, the ultimate failure of Trump's narratives to clearly materialize doesn't ruin the myths for his supporters. This stands in sharp contrast to the more traditional political lies with which I began this column —  at some point the curtain was pulled back on all of those lies and the perpetrators had to begrudgingly come clean, at least to an extent. Trump, on the other hand, can just elaborate upon and develop the lie. If Trump didn’t win his promised landslide, that’s only because it was “stolen by emboldened radical left Democrats,” not because his supposed immense base of support, allegedly ignored by the media and pollsters, simply was smaller than the number of Biden voters. Believing his claim might sound ludicrous, but it’s the natural conclusion of a Trump-centric epistemology. And widespread acceptance of such a worldview is not all that surprising given that his supporters had been primed to think similarly by decades of Republican elites acting like the truth could be whatever they said it was.

So yes, we need to bring those that subscribe to such a belief system back into the “reality-based community.” But to undo that priming, it wouldn’t be enough to start before Trump began spewing lies about a rigged election in 2020, because by then some already believed that Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory was stolen. It wouldn’t be enough to start before Trump declared his candidacy for president, because by then some already believed that Obama was born in Kenya and therefore an illegitimate president. It wouldn’t even be enough to start before birtherism, because by then some already believed that climate change was a hoax. Republican senator from Nebraska and prominent Trump critic Ben Sasse said in 2017 that “we have a risk of getting to a place where we don’t have shared public facts. A republic will not work if we don't have shared facts.” We are at that place without shared public facts, and, thanks to many Republicans less responsible than Sasse (Sasse himself hesitantly acknowledges human contributions to climate change and congratulated Joe Biden as President-elect on Nov. 8), we’ve been there for a while.

And, sure enough, that lack of shared facts has prevented this republic from working properly since long before the tragic and fatal insurrection at the Capitol. This summer, science denialism surrounding mask-wearing (mixed with a strange and very American strain of libertarian individualism) led to countless additional COVID-19 cases and countless unnecessary deaths as a consequence. It is also unsurprising that there have been no serious actions taken to address climate change when in 2019 only 49 percent of U.S. adults thought that human activity contributed “a great deal” to climate change (although a further 30 percent thought it contributed “some”). Addressing these problems can only be delayed for so long. 

Before progress can be made on any of these issues, all Americans, or at least many of those that still hold to it, need to give up their Trump-centric epistemology, rejoin the “reality-based community” and appreciate that these issues aren’t fictitious. I don’t pretend to know the best way to make that happen. Maybe news outlets should heed research that suggests that repeating false claims, even if just to debunk them, can make them seem more credible. Perhaps recent defamation lawsuits from two voting tech companies against two of Trump’s lawyers, Fox News and three Fox News hosts over false claims about electoral fraud will force conservative officials and news media to be more truthful with their audiences. Maybe, as many have commented, what we really need is for Republican politicians to be honest with their constituents, although I have little hope for the country if that’s all we’re relying on. None of those solutions sound particularly promising to me. Nonetheless, a solution is desperately needed, and the “reality-based community” has a responsibility to try to find it.


Augustus Bayard

Augustus Bayard is the senior editor of opinions for The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board.

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