Truth decay: Liars without conscience

by Tom Sullivan

Where we sit today is at the end of a very long, cultural slide. President Donald Trump is hardly patient zero in the epidemic of lies and bad faith leading to the House impeachment hearings that resume Tuesday. But he is a carrier.

Trump “spreads corruption, keen to make other leaders as complicit as he is in order to gain leverage over them,” writes Garry Kasparov, Russian expatriate and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “These are the practices of Putin … and it’s a sad day when these same habits are preferred by the president of the US.”

Jennifer Rubin takes her former Republican allies to task for trafficking in lies about Trump and the Ukraine affair. They deny the truth before their eyes in the testimony of multiple witnesses, some of them Trump’s own hires:

House Republicans have become so invested in crackpot theories, bogus procedural complains and constitutional illiteracy that they will never recognize the president’s wrongdoing. They are as incapable of upholding their oath, which requires impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors or bribery, as he is. Both Trump and his House enablers are unfit to serve since personal and political considerations obliterate their ability to detect the truth and thereby to uphold their public obligations. It would be refreshing if House Republicans simply admitted Trump violated his oath but that they are unwilling to abide by theirs and remove him. The candor would be preferable to the non-stop lying.

Rubin considers it highly unlikely “more than a few (if that many)” would publicly admit Trump and the right-wing echo chamber have fed their cult a diet of lies “for nearly three years.”

Missing from both analyses (as I have written for years) is how long the right-wing echo chamber marinated people’s brains in lies before they completely pickled:

Case in point. I once worked in an office where a guy recorded Rush Limbaugh every afternoon. Using a small FM transmitter, he rebroadcast the show the next morning to fellow dittoheads in the building so they would be primed for Limbaugh’s live broadcast at noon.

That story written in 2009 was about where I worked in the mid-1990s. (Remember “Rush Rooms“?) While working the 2006 campaign, I caught two minutes of prime-time screed by some unrecognized pundit and knew CNN had handed a propagandist a national platform. His name turned out to be Glenn Beck.

Trump may be sui generis, but conservative “truth decay” spread for three decades awaiting his arrival. I wrote this post after a Republican presidential candidate debate in October 2015:

Truth is no longer an American value

by Tom Sullivan

As a kid, I watched Superman on TV in black and white fighting his never-ending battle for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” All three have since fallen out of fashion. Carly the Fabulist’s tales of Planned Parenthood reminded us just how far we have fallen. Her “willingness to unrepentantly and repeatedly” look into the camera and lie to our faces recalls Dick Cheney’s talent for that, Digby reminded this week at Salon.

Digby references a post (in part about Mitt Romney) by Rick Perlstein that I want to revisit. While his books might bear pictures of presidents to please the marketers, Perlstein writes, he is much more interested in how “both the rank-and-file voters and the governing elites of a major American political party chose as their standardbearer a pathological liar. What does that reveal about them?”

Indeed. Direct-mail maven Richard Viguerie is one of his Perlstein’s touchstones for seeing into the conservative mind. Perlstein’s insights also come in part from examining the snake-oil ads in conservative publications such as Human Events and Townhall, as well as the more plebian Newsmax. My viewport is the conservative pass-it-on spams that land in my in-box. I collect them. I lost count somewhere around 200.

Perlstein contrasts the ubiquitous “get rich quick” appeals in these publications to one he noticed in the liberal The American Prospect for donations to help starving children in the Third World. I contrast them with the lack of appeals found in pass-it-on spam. They are lies, smears, distortions, propaganda — passed along dutifully by the parents who warned us about communist propaganda as kids:

Pass-it-on spams don’t ask people to write their congressman or senator. They don’t ask people to get involved in or contribute to a political campaign. Or even to make a simple phone call. No. Once you’ve had your daily dose of in-box outrage, conservative reader, all these propaganda pieces ask is that you “pass it on” to everyone you know. So now that you’re good and angry — and if you’re a Real American™ — you’ll share it with all your friends so they’ll get and stay angry too.

That really is the point of Carly Fiorina’s Planned Parenthood lie. It’s not even a particularly original one, as Perlstein observed of Viguerie’s efforts at Huffington Post a decade ago:

With a couple of hours’ research I was able to find a mailer from an organization that was then one of his direct-mail clients that said “babies are being harvested and sold on the black market by Planned Parenthood.”

Perlstein continued that thread of thought at The Baffler in 2012 (emphasis mine):

The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place—and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.

This has made the RNC “less the party of Goldwater, and more the party of Watergate,” as Perlstein wrote. But the long march of lies in service to ideology has over time also served to “dissolve external reality” among extremists, as Larry Massett once said of New Agers. People marvel at how Donald Trump supporters can take his pitches for anything other than a mountebank’s. Yet comforting lies are the junk food the extremist faithful have been conditioned over decades to prefer, like kids and sugary cereals. Truth? Truth is like eating your vegetables. As Larry Haake, the general registrar in Chesterfield County, Virginia, said of a deceptive Americans for Prosperity election mailer, “Most of their information is wrong. They know it’s wrong and they don’t care.” If truth used to be an American value, it is no longer.

It reveals “a structure of thought,” as Perlstein once put it that Stephen Colbert’s faux-conservative parodied with “truthiness,” that “quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.” For the Fiorinas, the Trumps and their followers reality is now as bendable as Dali’s clocks. It bends according to the tribal affiliations of the person making the truth claims. “True facts” support their underlying ideology. These they open wide for. Garden-variety facts are suspect, and they clamp their mouths shut like toddlers to strained spinach.

Truthiness is not funny anymore.


American conservatism has not evolved but devolved. From Barry Goldwater’s 1960 “The Conscience of a Conservative” to former White House counsel John Dean’s 2006 “Conservatives Without Conscience” written during the Bush-Cheney administration (originally conceived as a mid-1990s collaboration with Goldwater), the march to authoritarianism has been helped along by the right’s alliance with religious conservatives and by the shock of the September 11 attacks. Dean worried during the Bush administration that right-wing authoritarians and authoritarian followers exhibited “proto-fascist behavior” of the kind that gave rise to Hitler and Mussolini.

Thirteen years later we have a future Guinness world-record-holding liar sitting in the Oval Office facing impeachment for attempted extortion and bribery of a foreign government. The country’s attorney general speechifies on the glories of having a supreme leader. A cadre of supporters in Trump’s party, emboldened perhaps by the lack of accountability for war crimes under Bush II, now lie with abandon if not in supplication. Truth decay is endemic. The conservative effort to dissolve external reality and to construct an alternate one has taken decades. We can no longer say Trump and his unfaithful know lying is wrong and just don’t care. Lying is now more than a political tactic. It is cultural.

Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.

One thought on “Truth decay: Liars without conscience

  1. The Republican argument for continuing to support Trump seems to be that sure Trump is a corrupt, lying, bribe taking, criminal, but so was Democrat “Boss” Tweed so “get over it” you sorry hypocrites.

    As long as Republicans continue to support Trump and close their eyes to his many crimes and violations of our Constitution, then they deserve no respect. Nor should they expect to receive any. Booing them at every venue should be the order of the day.

    Because Republicans are so corrupt they’ve made themselves the “enemy of the people.”

    This was fun:

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