Politics

The Lies Were Always the Point

The GOP has abandoned truth. Trump is ancillary to that choice.

Republicans at CPAC.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Brandon Bell/Getty Images.

If Adam Serwer is correct and the cruelty was the point for Trump’s Republican Party from 2016 to 2020, then post-2020, it is possible that the lie has become the point. Incubating, amplifying, and polishing lies is now the full-time occupation of much of the GOP. Faced with the choice between governing and lying, they have decided to be purveyors of fiction.

Back when Donald Trump was the main one telling lies and his boosters were scrambling all around him to make it so, there was a certain comic quality to it all: What was the point in distorting weather maps or crowd sizes just to flatter a weirdo narcissist? Experts in authoritarianism were warning that this type of manipulation was how strongmen cling to power, sure, but it seemed easy enough to push it away and assume that once he was no longer president, the persistent flattery and adjusting of reality for his benefit would stop. But it’s now clear that the falsehood itself is the endgame. As historian Timothy Snyder cautioned after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, “When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions.” That’s why debates about whether Trumpism can exist post-Trump or why the GOP has refused to abandon Trump miss the point. The point is that the GOP has abandoned truth. Trump himself is ancillary to that move.

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The temptation has always been to try to sort the Trump lies into the hilarious ones and the pernicious ones, but that, too, misses the point. If the lying itself is the objective, the difference between the clueless whopper and the sly distortion is immaterial; in fact, the clueless whopper can be more potent because it offers up greater spectacle and affords more opportunity for performing loyalty. As recently as the second impeachment, the clueless whopper—about peaceful protesters and false flag antifa activists at the capitol—lived largely in the fever swamps. A few months later, it is being parroted by Trump and members of the Senate. The Big Lie, however absurd it might be, can overtake reality so fast the only trick anyone need master is the patience to ride it out. That means the only strategy needed for liars is to repeat the lie. Trump, who had little mastery of most skills, was always a wizard at this move.

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For years, Trump used the phrase “many people are saying” to essentially mean “someday people will be saying.” He did so understanding that if you say such things enough times, someone somewhere will parrot it as a fundamental truth, and then your initial statement will be true(ish—many people will be saying the untrue thing). “Many people are saying [this lie]” was always code for “if we get people to say [this lie], it will seem true.” Trump’s admission of that principle at CPAC on Sunday gave away the game. He confessed, about polling numbers, that “if it’s bad, I say it’s fake. If it’s good, I say, that’s the most accurate poll perhaps ever.” The lie thus goes from a fiction in the lizard brain of a dangerously delusional man to headline news to gospel for people who have been trained to invert whatever they see from the news. In which case why wouldn’t Rudy Giuliani advise Trump on election night 2020 that he should simply lie and claim victory? That had been the game all along.

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Responding to the lies has been an epistemological sinkhole for institutions charged with truth maintenance and fact management for years now. The media is in an intramural meltdown about how to handle people who lie on cable news. Huge social media companies are still doing less-than-spectacularly at policing dangerous fictions. The courts are attempting to separate the liars from their lies, by sanctioning the liars. But when simply spreading the lie is the point, that proves trickier than you might imagine. At a hearing before a federal court in Detroit on Monday, in which a judge probed how it could be the case that Trump’s election lawyers filed hundreds of pages of unverified speculation and gobsmacking errors in a case seeking to decertify Joe Biden’s victory in Michigan, the problem was laid bare: A Zoom screen full of attorneys bound by sworn obligations of candor, civility, and truth joyfully contended that people were saying false things. Lawyers representing Trump’s campaign, including Sidney Powell and Lin Wood were called out by U.S. District Court Judge Linda Parker for bolstering their pleadings with false, unsupported, and speculative claims by random conspiracy theorists who believed lies about flipped votes, the U.S. Postal Service, and illegal ballots that they saw on the news. Wood and another attorney, Emily Newman, had the good sense to blame all the other attorneys. But in the main, the lawyers’ defense was that if many people believed these lies, counsel had no independent obligation to ascertain whether the lies were true. Some of these attorneys went so far as to insist that the only way to test the lies would have been at a full and costly trial. Others insisted that opposing counsel and the judge herself had a duty to examine each of the lies before calling them lies, despite the fact that they never had any basis in truth.

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Parker was visibly horrified by the failure of any lawyers to do anything to verify demonstrably false and—as she called them—“fantastical” claims and layers upon layers of hearsay. But one of the lawyers insisted that attorneys have First Amendment rights to repeat lies; while others advanced the test-every-falsehood claim. The fact that a different judge in another Michigan case had already dismissed the lies as lies was not material, either, they insisted. Every judge must start anew from the proposition that the sky is green and prove otherwise. Oddly, when Parker actually attempted to test each individual lie at the hearing, counsel then claimed that going through each lie individually was irrelevant, since it was the aggregated hundreds of pages of lies that gave the lawsuit its original heft. “Volume,” chided Parker at one point, “certainly doesn’t equate with legitimacy.”

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But no, because zero times 900 is not zero, Team Kraken contended—instead it equals 900 krakens, which is truth. That of course is the tell—what counsel was arguing was that so long as lots and lots of people believe lies, and are willing to swear to them, there must be merit to them, and the courts, the media, and the government must honor them. That was Josh Hawley’s defense for voting to set aside the 2020 election certification. It is the lawyerly version of “many people are saying [lie],” and the repetition of the lies by counsel serves only to amplify the falsehood yet further. Powell, in a closing statement, defended all the lies, then compared her heroic representation of these lies to the action of lawyers in Brown v. Board of Education. “It is the duty of lawyers of the highest tradition of the practice of law to raise difficult and even unpopular issues,” she intoned. “The fact that there may have been adverse precedent against us does not change that fact. Were that true, there would not have been a decision called Brown v. Board of Education. We have practiced law with the highest standards. We would file the same complaints again.” Wood, under judicial obligation not to post video or screenshots of the proceedings, then posted Powell’s closing on Telegram. On advice of his lawyers, he took it down, but this reveals the game—what they are presenting is not legal argument; it is showmanship.

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The 2020 election was not stolen; that is a lie. Michigan was not stolen for Biden; that is also a lie. Voting machines didn’t flip thousands of votes, lie. Critical race theory isn’t being taught to kindergarten children; that is a lie too. The critical race theory not being taught to kindergartners also doesn’t hold that white people are evil; that is a lie. Tucker Carlson isn’t being surveilled by the NSA, lie. Telling lies so that other people will lie in order to justify your lying is a tactic. It’s not a mistake, and it is not mere “trolling” either. Telling lies so that other people will spread the lie is propaganda, an act of violence, and a way to establish that all institutions that rely on truth cannot be trusted.

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Within the confines of her Zoom screen and her judicial authority and with unimaginable patience, Parker did a masterful job of squelching lies and modeling what a search for truth actually demands. But as both Powell and Wood demonstrated, neither Parker’s courtroom, nor her Zoom hearing, and not even the threat of substantial sanctions and disbarment, holds any power over them. Because no institution of facticity can contain them. In Tim Snyder’s “post-truth” America, if one can speak, one can lie, and if one can lie, one can persuade. For those who counsel us to ignore the liars, realize that you are not the intended targets. Those who are the intended targets reward and remunerate the liars by providing what they need—doubt. “This case was driven by doubts,” lectured Don Campbell, an attorney representing the kraken lawyers on Monday, fomenting yet more doubt. “The fact is that folks doubted this election. It happens.” But doubt doesn’t just “happen.” It is conjured and fed and watered and spread. That, as it ever was, is the point.

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