Politicians lie. They exaggerate, prevaricate, dissemble, distort, caricature, slander, whitewash, and juggle selectively chosen statistics. We know that.
Among politicians in this respect, Donald J. Trump has been an outlier or, one might say, an out-liar. It isn’t only the number: more than 30,000 in four years, according to the Washington Post. It is the brazenness, the casualness, the unembarrassed repetition in the face of contrary evidence. He lies as freely as he insults, often at the same time. From the moment I first watched him perform in a Republican presidential primary, this willingness mesmerized me. Was lying a kind of sport for him, the more spectacularly played the better?
Finally I began to suspect that lying as such meant nothing to him—because truth meant nothing to him. He was post-modernism ad absurdum, not from the academic left but the political right. Truth and falsehood, like his personal relationships, were purely, as everyone said, “transactional.” Whatever served his purposes was true, whatever did not was false. All the better if he could latch onto, or imagine, or create, some external source, no matter how dubious, as confirmation: Sean Hannity, Fox & Friends, or, in his favorite formulation, whatever “a lot of people are saying.”
When politicians lie, we do our best to catch them out, to reinstate the truth, to replace them in office with someone who tells the truth or lies a little less. All this goes on under the umbrella of free speech. Up to a point.
In Bill Clinton’s case, that point was reached with lying under oath about sexual encounters with a White House employee. He was impeached but not convicted. That point was surely reached when Trump embarked on a full-bore, systematic, concerted campaign of lies to overturn the election of Joe Biden to the presidency. That campaign culminated in the riotous invasion of the Capitol to disrupt Congress’s formal counting of electoral votes on January 6.
But what if it had not? It is absolutely astonishing how many people in positions of political, cultural, economic, and moral leadership refused to take seriously what Trump was doing until it turned into violence. For more than two months, from his White House office, Trump was attempting to reverse an election and seize power. He was embarked on doing exactly what he accused his opponents of doing: stealing an election and exercising a coup.
He was doing this with the active aid of accomplices like Rudy Giuliani and a team of hired lawyers, and with the less visible support of family, staff, and fundraisers. Day after day, tweet after tweet, a toxic miasma of lies seeped out of the Oval Office into the courts and the media. Republican leaders who knew very well what was going on refused to clear the air. They offered sanctimonious alibis. “President Trump is 100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options,” Mitch McConnell solemnly declared. Others did the same, carefully choosing their words like potential witnesses tiptoeing around a murder victim while trying to look the other way. Some did much worse, gleefully endorsing absurd theories of election fraud or signing onto shameless legal maneuvers.
Two things have been said to mitigate such acts of aiding and abetting the Big Lie, and they both reveal the numbing power of the previous 30,000 lies. Some of those mealymouthed pieties about the president’s right to assure the integrity of the election, in the face of stark evidence that he was attempting to do exactly the opposite, stemmed from the advice of unbiased sources like Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner: the poor man just needed a little time to cool down. And some of the hypocritical endorsements for endless investigations of fraud claims cynically assumed that these claims were nothing but politics—Trumpian politics—as usual. Both reactions reveal how far we’ve sunk. Playing games with doubts about the trustworthiness of our presidential election had now become acceptable therapy for the pathological narcissism of a mentally distraught president.